The Peter Principle Explains Why So Much Goes Wrong

Have you ever felt like the entire world was completely incompetent at their jobs? Hate to break it to you, but this might actually be the case. That's according to the somewhat satirical Peter Principle, which states that in a hierarchy (like a government or a corporation), every employee tends to rise to the level of his or her incompetence. The principle's author, the educational scholar Dr. Laurence J. Peter, restated it in another way: Rather than the cream rising to the top, "the cream rises until it sours."

Peter, Peter, Paycheck Eater

It makes sense: If you're good at your job, you'll be promoted. If you're not good at your job, you won't. People are rarely demoted, regardless of their job performance. This means that an employee will continue to be promoted until they reach a position for which they're unfit. Because they do poorly in that position, they aren't promoted to a higher one, and they're stuck being incompetent at their job.

This principle may sound tongue-in-cheek, but it has sinister implications in the real world. From transit delays and internet outages to oil spills and rocket explosions, how many of the world's errors come down to people rising to the level of their incompetence?

How Do You Avoid It?

This sounds inevitable — like it's just the natural process of the corporate world. But whether it is or not, there are ways to navigate the delicate scenario of having an incompetent employee as your boss. As summarized in the Harvard Business Review, management experts Eric Neilsen and Jan Gypen wrote that employees who suspect their manager isn't quite up to task should ask themselves six questions:

  1. Is my boss interested in my welfare or does he see me as a competitor who needs to be neutralized?
  2. Can I correctly work out what my boss wants or am I stuck second-guessing from what he's actually saying?
  3. Will my boss reward — or punish — me if I make improvement suggestions?
  4. Am I capable of doing my job?
  5. Do I want to emulate this boss, or should I distance myself from his poor example?
  6. Should our relationship be friendly or strictly professional?

Recognizing where things could improve (and when leaving a job is necessary) is one useful part of these questions, but Neilsen and Gypen suggest taking some of them to your boss directly. Likewise, Harvard Business Review professor John Gabarro and a young associate professor, John Kotter, suggest adjusting your behavior to make your relationship with your boss easier. "They start with an assumption of good will and argue that subordinates have a responsibility to help the boss help them. That starts with taking into account the boss's goals, strengths, weaknesses, and organizational pressures. And it means falling in with the boss's preferred style of working – Does he or she like to get information through memos or formal meetings? Does your boss thrive on conflict or try to minimize it?" Put yourself in your boss's shoes, and realize that they might not so much be incompetent as they are so good at what they do that the higher-ups are willing to ignore their shortcomings.

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Paranoid that you might be affected by the Peter Principle? Us too. Learn to maximize your strengths so that no one cares about your weaknesses in "Making Yourself Indispensable: The Power of Personal Accountability" by Mark Samuel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer January 7, 2019

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