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The Peter Principle Has Got to Go

The Peter Principle, coined by Laurence J. Peter, illustrates how individuals within organizations often rise to levels of incompetence. This phenomenon can hinder efficiency and productivity, leading to a detrimental impact on team dynamics and overall performance. It commonly occurs due to flawed promotion or hiring practices, such as elevating technical experts without leadership skills or promoting based solely on seniority. To prevent this, companies should establish rigorous promotion and hiring processes, clearly define job roles, and assess candidates' competencies objectively. If the Peter Principle is already causing issues, options include providing professional development, transitioning individuals to more suitable roles, or parting ways if necessary. Addressing and preventing the Peter Principle ensures that organizations thrive with the right people in the right positions, fostering growth and success.

Published on

May 22, 2024

Written by

Rob Taylor

Be in business long enough and you are sure to hear (or perhaps make) a joke about the “Peter Principle.” This is the principle observed by Laurence J. Peter that people in an organization tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence.” Any time you think to yourself or say to others in disbelief, “How in the world did he/she end up in that position?!” you are probably viewing the Peter Principle in action. 

When you observe the Peter Principle on your team or in your business (and, yes, it can occur at every level of the organization, right up to the very top), you may roll your eyes and commiserate with your peers over a mid-morning cup of coffee. But the truth is, the Peter Principle is no joke. 

At its core, the Peter Principle means you do not have the right person in that seat in your company or on your team. You’ve got someone who is not able to deliver efficiently and reliably against your goals and objectives. That situation becomes increasingly detrimental the longer the person stays in that seat. Errors, delays, and difficulties compound over time. The person’s incompetence affects the motivation and productivity of those around them – always toward the negative. 


The Rise to Incompetence

People rise to the level of their incompetence through a variety of avenues. Topping the list are when companies promote or hire:


  • A technical expert to fill a management position, even though the person has no leadership skills. 
  • The next senior person in line, regardless of their capabilities. 
  • A person based on their connections to others within the company. 
  • Someone – anyone – out of desperation to fill the position.
  • A person in the absence of a proven and established hiring/promotion process. 
  • Someone without fully understanding the role and responsibilities of the position. 
  • A person to a position they have not sought and do not want. 


Please note that in all these cases, the person who has “risen to the level of their incompetence” is not – to use somewhat vulgar parlance – an idiot or a slacker. These are, most often, solid and skilled workers who could be great contributors in a position that fits their experience and abilities. It is not their fault that, for instance, they lack leadership skills. It is not their fault they were selected to fill a position that nobody had thought through carefully. They have, essentially, been set up for failure by poor promotion/hiring decisions.  


Preventing the Peter Principle

Ideally, you want to prevent the Peter Principle from manifesting in your company, department, or team. And you can! It isn’t even that difficult. 


First, establish a process for internal promotions and external hires. The process should include setting appropriate criteria for candidates, thorough vetting, and structured interviews. It should also go beyond that to encompass professional development and succession planning. For example, if you want to promote a technical expert to a management position, part of the process should be equipping the person with leadership skills through applicable training, coaching, and mentoring


Second, define the position that you want to fill. You will never end up with the right person in the right seat if you have not taken the time and effort to identify the responsibilities and expectations of the position in detail. Consider carefully the criteria, qualifications, and characteristics that the right person will have in order to succeed in the position. Ideally, do this without having someone already in mind, since that could bias your opinion and cause you to overlook key attributes that are necessary for long-term success. 


Third, understand the person whom you are considering for the role. What are the person’s competencies, experience, skills, and knowledge? What is their growth potential? How well do they fit the definition of the position you have crafted? Nobody will be a perfect fit; that is reality. So look at the places where there are deficiencies: can these be rectified with training or coaching? Are they “make or break” matters or just “nice to have” items? If the person is being considered for an internal promotion, you may want to ask yourself, “If this person were applying as an external candidate, would I hire them?” That question can help you view the person more objectively. 


What If the Peter Principle Is Already Causing Problems?

You may be in a situation where you have someone in your company or on your team who is at the level of his or her incompetence. What then? Ultimately, there are three options: 


1. Provide professional development support to equip the person to succeed in their current role. This is a great choice if you believe you can remediate any gaps in the person’s knowledge or skills. It allows them to become an even more valuable employee, achieve success in their position, and drive results for the business. 

2.Move the person to a role within the company that is a better fit. Sometimes, knowledge or skill gaps cannot be filled. That does not mean the person does not have great value to offer your company if he or she were shifted to the right seat. If you have the opportunity to move them to an open position or to create a position that is a great fit for them, do it. Everyone will benefit. 

3. Let the person go. It happens: sometimes it is not possible to fill skill gaps and there are no open positions to move the person to. Sometimes the person refuses to consider growth or change. Regardless, there may come the time when you have to part ways. If that is indicated, do it promptly. Don’t wait. Get the process rolling to find the right person for that seat. 


You want to be a principled organization … but the Peter Principle is not one you want to adhere to! Take the time to address any Peter Principle situations you currently have and take the necessary steps to prevent the Peter Principle from recurring in the future. By doing so, you will experience the tremendous energy and growth that comes from having the right people in the right seats across your entire organization!

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