In the early 1970s a book written by Dr. Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull became a much reprinted international bestseller, The Peter Principle, its subtitle ‘Why things always go wrong’. The principle itself: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
Have things changed for the better in the forty plus years since this intonation on human inefficiency was first issued? Sadly, it appears not much with the historically styled organization, although technology has certainly provided a healthy self-directed option.
Let’s consider some background and context.
As precursor, the ‘turbulent sixties’ saw free expression and more liberated mind-sets promoted on the streets in concert with avant-guard explorations via film and other arts. Thus, there was an encouragement to experiment, adding a natural cause to why people might be looking for more tunnels of opportunity in their work. Naturally, some of these new agers would become enmeshed in the real world of organizational structures, moving at some point into territories for which their sets of skills were not suited. Earning a living with large institutions continued to be seen by many as the means to afford a lifestyle wherein one’s spirits looked at life on a grander, or at least more open, scale.
The Peter Principle was released as the dust was settling on this adjusted paradigm. But its focus was set, attempting to explain why organizations rarely seemed to function at maximum potential. It was based on studying hierarchies. In these structures, the performance of each member fit into the overall framework, reporting to someone above in the design, and existing in a peer group of the same level.
The central thesis was that employees tend to do competent, meaningful work which continually earns them promotion to a higher level in the hierarchy, finally attaining a position that cannot be fulfilled competently (at least, reaching the end of advancement). The employee, in theory, would stay at this position indefinitely. This person may continue to do work, allowing for a cheerful work attitude; but nothing would be contributed to organization goals. The real contributions would come from those still at their levels of competence – which, naturally, would vary from person to person.
To those perplexed at the lack of leadership at the top, or along the way there, there was an explanation. The employer, or similar decision-maker, could apply a pseudo-promotion, known as ‘percussive sublimation’, i.e. moving an undeserving employee to a higher post.
Justifications for the percussive sublimation could be:
- camouflaging the ill-success of the promotional policy as previously applied
- serving to boost morale with the ‘carrot-on-a-stick’
- maintaining the safe operation of the hierarchy, keeping the person in check
This strategy could certainly help explain the accumulation of ‘deadwood’ in an organization.
It was one of the options for bosses to help the hierarchical boat from being rocked by incompetent sore spots, permitting them to seemingly evade the ‘Peter Principle’.
A close variation of the ‘p. s.’ approach was the ‘lateral arabesque’. In this scenario, the employee was given a new, longer title, likely moved into an office in a more remote part of the building. Sometimes this could happen where a whole department was transferred, leaving the employee without supervision or real work.
Another offshoot was with the ‘Peter’s Invert’ employee, one for whom the process was more important than the service being provided, an epitome of automated efficiency. By obeying rules, this person was deemed competent; the level of incompetence could arise eventually due to promotions.
Then, you had the ‘paternal in-step’, based on the longstanding issue of paternal favouritism. The recruit may or may not initially have been competent, but was deemed to be in place to wear the shoes of the job, not necessarily to fill them. To the extent the shoes became filled, opportunity existed to advance and attain the level of incompetence.
A basic consequence of these efforts of behaviour was the potential for good followers to be promoted to the point of becoming bad leaders. Indeed, hierarchies would find it preferable to have current rules followed rather than forming new ones.
An obvious outcome of many reaching their level of incompetence would be medical symptoms of this ‘final placement syndrome’. Overwrought nerves coupled with strains of responsibility were being brought on by feeling unable to ever do enough work. This could cause non-medical responses, such as fixation with the arrangement of, or size of, desks, or constantly weighing the pros and cons of a decision, or speaking in codes.
Now into the second decade of the new millennium, do we still see evidence of The Peter Principle in action? When one considers the inconsistency, and worse, of leadership in many types of organizations, from political to financial to consumer-based, it seems hard to argue much has changed – at least with larger hierarchies, when witnessing the impacts of decisions on maintaining market confidence and sustaining employment levels, not to mention erratic consumer relations.
As noted, there is a major category of societal change providing a true tangential exception. The explosive use of personally controlled technology, especially benefitting on-line related commerce, has allowed many to forego employee/employer constraints in favour of personal entrepreneurship supported by networking. The evolution of the latter dovetails directly with internet and social media evolution. One can be one’s own hierarchy.
So, as long as the choice is to take charge of one’s own ship in forging a wage and building resources for one’s future, it may be possible to bypass some of the career defining hoops recognized when exploring The Peter Principle.