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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 the levels of their respective incompetence. The Peter Principle is 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.

BREAKING DOWN 'Peter Principle'

The Peter Principle was laid out by Canadian educational scholar, 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.

Expanding on the Peter Principle

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 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.

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."

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