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141 NOVEMBER 2010
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Peter Principles

Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter (September 16, 1919 – January 12, 1990) was an educator and “hierarchiologist", best known to the general public for the formulation of the Peter Principle. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and began his career as a teacher in 1941. He received the degree of Doctor of Education from Washington State University in 1963.

In 1964, Peter moved to California, where he became an Associate Professor of Education, Director of the Evelyn Frieden Centre for Prescriptive Teaching, and Coordinator of Programs for Emotionally Disturbed Children at the University of Southern California.

He became widely famous in 1969, on the publication of The Peter Principle, in which he states: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence ... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties ... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence." The Peter Principle became one of the most profound principles of management from the University of Southern California. It is a heavily quoted principle at the Marshall School of Business.

Another notable quotation of his is that the “noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it." (See below for more “Peterisms")

From 1985 to his death in 1990, Dr. Peter attended and was involved in management of the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Humboldt County, California. He proposed an award for the race, titled “The Golden Dinosaur Award" which has been handed out every year since to the first sculptural machine to utterly break down immediately after the start.

The Peter Principle
The Peter Principle is the principle that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence".

It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the “salutary science of hierarchiology", “inadvertently founded" by Peter. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. This principle can be modelled and has theoretical validity.[1] Peter's Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties" and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".

The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. This is “The Generalized Peter Principle". It was observed by Dr. William R. Corcoran in his work on corrective action programs at nuclear power plants. He observed it applied to hardware, e.g., vacuum cleaners as aspirators, and administrative devices such as the “Safety Evaluations" used for managing change. There is much temptation to use what has worked before, even when it may exceed its effective scope. Dr. Peter observed this about humans.

In an organizational structure, the Peter Principle's practical application allows assessment of the potential of an employee for a promotion based on performance in the current job; i.e., members of a hierarchical organization eventually are promoted to their highest level of competence, after which further promotion raises them to incompetence. That level is the employee's “level of incompetence" where the employee has no chance of further promotion, thus reaching their career's ceiling in an organization.

The employee's incompetence is not necessarily exposed as a result of the higher-ranking position being more difficult “simply, that job is different from the job in which the employee previously excelled, and thus requires different work skills, which the employee may not possess. For example, a factory worker's excellence in their job can earn them promotion to manager, at which point the skills that earned them their promotion no longer apply to their job.

Thus, “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".

One way that organizations can avoid this effect is by having a policy that requires termination of employment should they fail to attain a promotion after a certain amount of time. Even in instances where an employee can handle their current job but fail to do any better, they can still cause harm within the company, by way of preventing those beneath them with higher potential of moving up, as well as lowering morale once such employees become aware of this fact. The United States Military for instance requires that certain ranks be held for no longer than a set amount of time, a lack of compliance of which could render grounds for dismissal.

Another method is to refrain from promoting a worker until they show the skills and work habits needed to succeed at the next higher job. Thus, a worker is not promoted to managing others if they do not already display management abilities.

The first corollary is that employees who are dedicated to their current jobs should not be promoted for their efforts (like The Dilbert Principle), for which they might, instead, receive a pay increase.

The second corollary is that employees might be promoted only after being sufficiently trained to the new position. This places the burden of discovering individuals with poor managerial capabilities before (as opposed to after) they are promoted.

Peter pointed out that a class, or caste (social stratification) system is more efficient at avoiding incompetence. Lower-level competent workers will not be promoted above their level of competence as the higher jobs are reserved for members of a higher class. “The prospect of starting near the top of the pyramid will attract to the hierarchy a group of brilliant [higher class] employees who would never have come there at all if they had been forced to start at the bottom". Thus the hierarchies “are more efficient than those of a classless or egalitarian society".

In a similar vein, some real-life organizations recognize that technical people may be very valuable for their skills but poor managers, and so provide parallel career paths allowing a good technical person to acquire pay and status reserved for management in most organizations.

Pluchino et al. used an agent-based modelling approach to simulate the promotion of employees and tested alternative strategies. Although counter-intuitive, they found that the best way to improve efficiency in an enterprise is to promote people randomly, or to shortlist the best and the worst performer in a given group, from which the person to be promoted is then selected randomly. This work has won the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize in management science.

Another technique for overcoming the effects of the Peter Principle can be found in the use of Contractors (for example in the IT industry). IT contractors are selected for their relevant experience, supported by recent references, and are usually taken on for short periods (up to 6 months at a time, with renewals if competent). If incompetence is detected, they can be easily laid off (e.g. by simply not renewing their contract).

The contractor is not a part of the hierarchy, is not usually eligible for promotion, and is well remunerated and thus content with the contracted position.

Along with the Peter Principle, Dr. Peter also coined “hierarchiology" as the social science concerned with the basic principles of hierarchically organized systems in the human society.

Having formulated the Principle, I discovered that I had inadvertently founded a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies. The term hierarchy was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning includes any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of rank, grade or class. Hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration. – Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.

Impact on popular culture
Although humorous, Peter's book contains many real-world examples and thought-provoking explanations of human behavior. For example, he pointed out that Adolf Hitler was a consummate and superb politician due especially to his charisma and oratorical skills but reached his “level of incompetence" as commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht because of the rigidity of his decision making (not allowing retreats when necessary according to the tactical situation). Similar observations on incompetence can be found in the Dilbert cartoon series (such as The Dilbert Principle), the movie Office Space, and the television shows The Office and 30 Rock. In particular, the Dilbert Principle seems to be an extension to the Peter Principle. According to the Peter Principle, the subject has been competent at some job in his past. The Dilbert Principle attempts to explain how a person who has never been competent at anything at any point in time can still be promoted into management. Of course, both the Peter Principle and the Dilbert Principle may be operating in the same organization at the same time.

Earlier version
The same experience was described as early as 1767 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his comedy Minna von Barnhelm as follows: “To become something more than a sergeant! I do not think of that. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly a worse general.” In the German original, this personal statement is followed by the generalization “Die Erfahrung hat man” (People made this experience) omitted in the translation quoted.

A collection of Peterisms

“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?”

“Speak when you are angry – and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret.”

“There are two kinds of failures: those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought.”

“If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”

"A man doesn't know what he knows until he knows what he doesn't know.”

“Expert: a man who makes three correct guesses consecutively.”

“Psychiatry enables us to correct our faults by confessing our parents' shortcomings.”

“When in doubt or danger, run in circles, scream and shout.”

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable”

"Equal opportunity means everyone will have a fair chance at being incompetent.”

“Against logic there is no armor like ignorance.”

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

“Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.”

“There are two kinds of egotists: Those who admit it, and the rest of us.”

“Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.”

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”

“Heredity is what sets the parents of a teenager wondering about each other.”

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

“A pessimist is a man who looks both ways when he crosses the street.”

“If two wrongs don't make a right, try three.”

“The man who says he is willing to meet you halfway is usually a poor judge of distance.”

“The only problems money can solve are money problems”

“A censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to.”

“As a matter of fact, is an expression that precedes many an expression that isn't”

“It is wise to remember that you are one of those who can be fooled some of the time.”

“Committees have become so important nowadays that subcommittees have to be appointed to do the work.”

“A man convinced against his will is not convinced.”

This feature: Compiled from Wikipedia ( and (

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