What is the Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle is a rule that states that Employees tend to move up until they don’t do well.

  • Until they reach their level of incompetence.

 

Its name comes from the person who observed this phenomenon: Laurence J. Peter.

  • He published a book about this Topic in 1969 called “The Peter Principle“.

 

It is an important concept to keep in mind when managing people.

  • Or, when being promoted.

Peter Principle in Management

As you move up the hierarchy, the skills needed to successfully perform your tasks change.

  • The closer you are to the top, the less technical knowledge you need.

Skills and Hierarchical position.

 

People reach their “level of incompetence (as Laurence J. Peter says) when they don’t possess the Skills necessary to succeed in their New Hierarchical position.

 

Let’s see our first example:

Peter Principle example

 

I’ll use a curios example: A violin player in an Orchestra.

  • Since I play violin since I was a kid, I find this example to be very interesting.

 

In case you don’t know, there are 2 types of violins in an orchestra:

  • 2nd and 1st violins.

 

Generally (of course, there are exceptions) the “best players” are first violins.

  • In professional orchestras, they all are extremely good players so, there is no big difference.

 

They are the ones that are closer to the public.

And, the better the violinist, the closer he usually is to the Conductor.

  • They have to lead those behind them.

 

 

Finally, you have the first violin: The CEO of the violins (the one inside the yellow circle).

  • And, if the piece requieres it, the soloist.
    • The Soloist is, without a doubt, the best player, a “virtuoso”.

 

In orchestras, the Peter Principle usually works as follows:

One day, a better violinist is missing and the Conductor tries a new one.

  • If you do well, he will keep you in a good place in the future.

 

But, if you don’t follow the music, if you mislead the other violinists, etc…

  • You’ll go back where you initially were.

 

It is difficult for a Conductor to test all the violinists and place them with a “decision matrix”.

  • Therefore, they usually test the musicians.

 

And, trust me: If you are not good enough violinist or, don’t practice enough…

  • You don’t want to be the first violin (or the soloist, of course).
    • It would be a “nightmare”.

That is why the Peter Principle is also so important:

  • Because, if you don’t fit into a hierarchical position, you’ll end up feeling miserable.

 

The Performance of the Company will decrease and, if you are a humble person, you’ll realize that you are the problem.

  • However, few professionals accept this.

 

How can Companies or Individuals overcome the Peter Principle?

Overcoming the Peter Principle

List the skills necessary to be successful in a higher job position.

  • Think about what is expected and what responsibilities it entails.

 

Elaborate a training plan to master these Skills.

  • Either for yourself or for an employee you will promote.

 

Seek advice from professionals who have held that position in the past.

  • Before starting in your new position.

 

Ask your superiors and employees for constructive and detailed feedback.

  • Continuous feedback on what you need to improve.

 

If you find out that you’ll never be able to do the Job properly, accept it.

  • And request a reassignment.

Now that you know what the Peter Principle is and how you can overcome it …

 

… It is time to see some examples:

Peter Principle examples

We have chosen 3 examples that best summarize the problems that can be caused by the Peter Principle, based on our professional experience.

  • We’ll give you advice on how you should handle these situations.

 

Let’s begin:

The Good Competent Boss - Peter Principle example

 

Let’s imagine that you have a new Boss.

  • He’s just been promoted to that position.

 

He is an intelligent and kind man whom everyone respects.

 

As he is aware of the Peter Principle he has prepared himself for that position:

  • He has spoken to the last person to hold that position.
  • He has designed a training plan for himself.
  • He has prepared monthly meetings for receiving feedback.

 

After several months of struggle, he finally does even better than the previous Manager.

The Arrogant Incompetent Boss - Peter Principle example

 

In this situation, we’ll also imagine that you have a new Boss.

  • He is an arrogant person who never listens to others.

 

He has never heard about the Peter Principle.

  • As soon as he has been promoted he starts being even more arrogant.

 

What happened to this new Boss?

  • Since nobody likes him, as soon as he commits a mistake his employees “celebrate” it.
    • If your employees don’t want you to be successful… You will never be successful.

 

Let’s summarize it:

  • He doesn’t have the Skills necessary to succeed in that Job position.
  • He hasn’t prepared himself for the new position.
  • Nobody wants to help him.

 

His performance will be much worse than it would have been if he had been more humble.

Promoting an Employee - Peter Principle example

 

Now, let’s imagine that you are the CEO of a company.

  • And, you have to promote an employee to be a Manager.

 

You know the perfect employee.

  • He is a hard working person that has always given very good results when leading projects.

 

However, you doubt whether his performance will be as good as it is right now.

 

Since you are a good CEO, you decide to list the Skills that you needed when you were in that position.

  • Your “first hand” experience is priceless.

 

Then , you develop a training process with feedback and monthly meetings to track progress.

 

When he starts at that Job position, you realize that, he was indeed missing some Skills you considered.

  • However, after 3 months of training, meetings, and hard work, he starts improving.

 

Finally, he becomes a very competent Manager proving that the Peter Principle can be overcome.

Summarizing

The Peter Principle is a rule that states that Employees tend to move up until they don’t do well.

  • Its name comes from the person who observed this phenomenon: Laurence J. Peter.

 

As you move up the hierarchy, the skills needed to successfully perform your tasks change.

  • The closer you are to the top, the less technical knowledge you need.

 

Tips on how to overcome the Peter Principle:

  • List the skills necessary to be successful in a higher job position.
  • Elaborate a training plan to master these Skills.
  • Seek advice from professionals who have held that position in the past.
  • Ask your superiors and employees for constructive and detailed feedback.
  • If you find out that you’ll never be able to do the Job properly, accept it.

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