The Peter Principle at 40

My boss Peter is a moron. In fact, according to the Peter Principle (PP), all bosses are incompetent. The PP, now in its 40th anniversary edition, was a best seller when it was first published. A satiric treatise on workplace incompetence, it touched a nerve with readers because it was so funny. And so true. According to the PP, in a workplace hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. Workers are promoted so long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent, where they garner the ubiquitous comment: “My manager is a moron”.


How to combat the Peter Principle in your organization? Don’t Promote People

When people do their jobs well, Dr. Peter argued, society can't leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals—promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail—start using a bag of tricks to mask their incompetence. They distract us from their crummy work with giant desks, replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, cheat to create the illusion of progress. Rather than promoting people who a do a good job to be a bad manager of others, let them get on with what they are good at.


Don’t Let Bad Managers Hire People

Hiring others to disguise one’s incompetence simple multiplies incompetence. Stop the madness. Do not trust managers to staffing, intervene. Make your managers earn the right to hire by first proving they can manage projects and people. Hiring more minions to mask a manager’s mishaps will always misfire.


Praise Do-It-Yourselfers

Everyone loves someone who can fix stuff. Celebrate people who fix stuff, sell stuff, build stuff, run stuff – but don’t promote them. Give them incentives to reward good work. Make an example out of good performance. Perhaps the late Ray Kroc is the right role model here. One of his first steps in building the McDonald's empire was to run his own outlet—he cooked, cleaned bathrooms, picked up the trash. The focus on doing ordinary things well was, he believed, key to McDonald's success.


Recognize Competence

If an employee seems to be performing superhuman feats, the perception is probably wrong. Look for actual competence. Consider how Captain Sullenberger explained his astounding emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York's Hudson River last year. "I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do," he said. As Dr. Peter might have observed, there were no pretenders, blowhards, or shared delusions that day, just the deftly coordinated actions of people who had not reached their level of incompetence.

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