The Peter Principle
by Tony Copple

People rise in the organization to their level of incompetence. So runs the Peter Principle.

If this is generally true, our world is run by incompetents. The only competents are still being wrongly promoted - by incompetents. A characteristic of poor management is only to promote people of less intelligence and capability than you. In some professions you cannot be fired for incompetence.

It's amazing that any progress happens at all.

The answer is that perfection is seldom needed. Jobs are done by people with just enough ability not to get fired. But the jobs are done. The sad thing is that the happiness quotient in such a set-up is very low.

If you are in a position of management or leadership, the more leading you do, the more criticism - veiled or naked - you can expect. This is not incompetance (except sometimes by your ciritics). It is merely a reflection of the fact that the limelight makes you more visible. The behaviour of a follower goes generally unnoticed, but the way a leader ties his tie is the subject of some interest and may be considered worth comment by idle minds.

The Peter Principle applies within a given field. One can rise to a level of incompetence as a politician, and then, after losing an election, rise to a similar position as a businessman. The career game can be thought of as a huge number of ladders, with people scrambling up them, falling off, and then those with initiative finding others to climb. Success is the ability to keep trying ladders. Walt Disney went bankrupt seven times before he was saved by Mickey Mouse.

Are you incompetent in your current field of activity? Is your best good enough? Even if you care about this, do the people around you care? If you are not receiving encouraging feedback from others, does this mean you are not competent for the task?

Not necessarily. In late 1999 I went to see two of my favourite entertainers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, for the fourth time since 1975. I consider them supreme in the world of folk / pop music. I sat next to a couple who said they had dined with Kate and her husband a few days before, and had been personal friends for years. "In that case," said I, "you must have seen them in concert often." "No," said they, "this is the first time." How galling for the sisters that their friends had never shown any wish to see their show (which was wonderful as always). Yet it happens all the time. Spouses of famous writers don't show any interest in their spouses' books. Fathers find it hard to encourage their children's achievements (the excellent movie "October Sky" tells such a story). Are you failing to stroke a famous and talented friend who deperately needs your approval more than that of all the strangers in the world?

Would you be better off contemplating an Ineptitude poster and just enjoy doing the job badly?

Here's my theory of why a prophet "hath no honour in his own country." It came to me through telling jokes to large audiences of semi-strangers and then telling the same jokes to a small family group. The large goups laughed heartily, while the family gave grudging acknowledgement of the humour, which usually had to be explained to some of them.

The reason is that in the large group there will always be some who will appreciate the joke. Their laughter will trigger the whole group to know the point at least where they should laugh. In the same way, when a large group is presented with a good idea, some at least will understand and appreciate it. In a small group, there is far less chance that one of the members will tune in to the new idea. If that group is one's family, any appreciation of the validity of a new idea or concept must compete (in the mind of a hearer) with the notion that it's hard to accept that someone in one's own family could be really clever or talented, since that implies that we should also be clever or talented, and our inferiority complexes reject such a notion. I asked my mother in law whether she would accept my wife's credibility when she recommended seeing a particular documentary videotape about a subject on which my wife is an acknowledged expert (outside the family), and she answered "not always." The same recommendation from a broadcast chat show host might have been acted on by many audience members, regardless of his / her expertise in that field. People are strange.

The bottom line is that in the matter of persuading others of the importance of a new idea or product, talking to a large group of strangers will yield more fruit than talking to a family group, not because the family is conspiring not to respond, but because the chance of stiking a chord in a small group is less than in a large group.

In some rare companies, the people who do the hiring are bright enough to recognize talent, and have even been known to place talented people in positions of authority higher than they are themselves. A few months later you read that the new executive has got rid of the person who brought him in. It's a good ploy to eliminate any possible threats to authority from smarter people than they are.

Many really smart people, aware of this sort of thing, avoid promotion to management, and accept a happier life at a lower salary. Few really smart people are prepared to go into politics for similar reasons.

It's time the Peter Principle spawned a whole new management theory that avoids these pitfalls. Come to think of it, the best modern management practices such as those promoted by Tom Peters come close to achieving this, but in the average management team people don't have time to have breakfast, let alone read management books.

Running on

Read the famous book The Peter Principle, By Lawrence J Peter.

"Hard work often pays off after time
but laziness always pays off now."