What Is the Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence. In other words, a front-office secretary who is quite good at her job may thus be promoted to executive assistant to the CEO for which she is not trained or prepared for - meaning that she would be more productive for the company (and likely herself) if she had not been promoted.

The Peter Principle is therefore based on the logical idea that competent employees will continue to be promoted, but at some point will be promoted into positions for which they are incompetent, and they will then remain in those positions because of the fact that they do not demonstrate any further competence that would get them recognized for additional promotion. According to the Peter Principle, every position in a given hierarchy will eventually be filled by employees who are incompetent to fulfill the job duties of their respective positions.

Most people will not turn down a promotion, especially if it comes with greater pay and prestige - even if they know they are unqualified for the position.

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What's the Peter Principle?

The Basics of the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was laid out by Canadian educational scholar and sociologist, Dr. Laurence J. Peter, in his 1968 book titled "The Peter Principle." Dr. Peter also stated in his book that an employee's inability to fulfill the requirements of a given position that he is promoted to may not be the result of general incompetence on the part of the employee as much as it is due to the fact that the position simply requires different skills than those the employee actually possesses. For example, an employee who is very good at following rules or company policies may be promoted into the position of creating rules or policies, despite the fact that being a good rule follower does not mean that an individual is well-suited to be a good rule creator.

Dr. Peter summed up the Peter Principle with a twist on the old adage that "the cream rises to the top" by stating that "the cream rises until it sours." In other words, excellent employee performance is inevitably promoted to the point where the employee's performance is no longer excellent, or even satisfactory. According to the Peter Principle, competence is rewarded with the promotion because competence, in the form of employee output, is noticeable and therefore usually recognized. However, once an employee reaches a position in which they are incompetent, they are no longer evaluated based on their output but instead are evaluated on input factors, such as arriving at work on time and having a good attitude. Dr. Peter further argued that employees tend to remain in positions for which they are incompetent because mere incompetence is rarely sufficient to cause the employee to be fired from the position. Ordinarily, only extreme incompetence causes dismissal.

  • The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organizational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.
  • According to the Peter Principle, every position in a given hierarchy will eventually be filled by employees who are incompetent to fulfill the job duties of their respective positions.
  • A possible solution to the problem posed by the Peter Principle is for companies to provide adequate skill training for employees receiving a promotion, and to ensure the training is appropriate for the position to which they have been promoted.


Overcoming the Peter Principle

A possible solution to the problem posed by the Peter Principle is for companies to provide adequate skill training for employees receiving a promotion, and to ensure the training is appropriate for the position to which they have been promoted. However, Dr. Peter pessimistically predicted that even good employee training is ultimately unable to overcome the general tendency of organizations to promote employees to positions of incompetence, which he refers to as positions of "final placement." Promoting people at random has been another proposal, but one which does not always sit well with employees.

Evidence for the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle sounds intuitive once the idea is understood, and models can be built that predict the phenomenon. Still, it is difficult to get real-world evidence for its widespread occurrence. In 2018, economists Alan Benson, Danielle Li, and Kelly Shue analyzed sales workers' performance and promotion practices at 214 American businesses to test the Peter principle. They found that companies did indeed tend to promote employees to management positions based on their performance in their previous position, rather than based on managerial potential. Consistent with the Peter principle, the researchers found that high performing sales employees were likelier to be promoted and that they were likelier to perform poorly as managers, leading to considerable costs to the businesses.