What is the Peter Principle?

By | June 19, 2017

This was a phrase coined in 1969 by Dr. Laurence Peters – an educator who wrote a 100+ page satire called The Peter Principle (affiliate link) replete with fake data and everything. Apparently, it was a NY Times best seller for 1 year, and is still in print almost 50 years later. Enduring idea.

Simple argument, seemingly very true. This is scary, but kind of true.

People get promoted to their highest level of incompetence.

Logic might look like this. A promoted to job B, then promoted to job C. The skills, experiences, aptitudes to succeed at C are WAY different from A. Also, this “bro” may not be talented, eager, or adaptable enough to be good at all these things during the course of a career. So, he sits at job C, incompetent, perhaps a bit afraid, and certainly not adding value.

Sales example. Matt is sales wunderkind. A bit of  lone wolf, not organized, but does (says) whatever is necessary to close the sale. Has been accused of over-promising to new clients, but makes great sales numbers. Gets promoted a few times. Now he is a the national sales director over all products, regions, and customers. Could be good, could be very bad.

And you may ask yourself.  Well…How did I get here?  – Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

We have all seen “Matts” in positions they should not be in.  Folks who have strayed (been promoted) away from their greatest strengths and passions.

So what? 

  1. Good to know this phrase – Most of your clients and partners will easily recognize it. Read / know your management literature, concepts, and history. Act beyond your years.
  2. Have a chuckle – eventually, you will run into incompetent people who have clearly been promoted too far. Way beyond their capability, ambition, and sometimes, self-awareness. We are not in the business of fixing people. Just have a good laugh (privately) and move on.
  3. Don’t be Peter – we all want a fast-track career and fast promotion. That said, be as good as you say you are. Perform at the next level, then push for the promotion. Be, Do, Say – in that order. Be so good they cannot ignore you.  Do the right things.  Then, and only then, Say.
  4. Manage your career – Easier said than done, but critical to discover, own, carve, define your own path. It is a gig-economy, so we definitely need to be flexible, open-minded, and adventurous. A career web, not a career ladder. Life is an S-curve, not a line.

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4 thoughts on “What is the Peter Principle?

  1. BK

    How do you recognize if you’re Peter though or better yet, prevent yourself from becoming Peter? On the other hand, what if you feel like Peter but it’s just a healthy dose of the impostor syndrome?

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Those are all very deep questions. Certainly, don’t have the answers to those. A little bit of fear – imposter syndrome – is probably healthy and keeps us “on our toes.”

      In the original book, apparently, the author suggests that “Peter” starts judging his/her performance not on outputs, but on inputs. Coming to the office earlier, brown-nosing, doing the tactical hygiene which is all defense.

      As Tony Robbins says, it’s all about growth and generosity. Not growing, not giving = probably Peter.


  2. Gary Dumais

    In my experience as a business psychologist, the Peter Principle (as you describe) applies most to people who are “static” – that is, they do not evolve with the new responsibilities that accompany promotions. In the work word, much as in life in general, we can never become complacent and stop growing – there’s always a new challenge.

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