Why things go wrong at work – ‘The Peter Principle’ might be the answer!

As a child I learned that work is primary to earn rewards and working harder a means to rise up the ladder. I learned to work for the sake of work and not for thy benefits. That held up well while I was studying, the only reward being the score and my pocket money.

As I grew older and joined the workforce, it became harder to ignore the reality. Money did not necessarily follow hard work. An average employee worked 8 hours a day and work did not require exceptional skills or talent. Very often a Tom, Dick or Harry were promoted with salary raise inversely proportional to their capabilities. Working harder merely increased frustation but not the benefits.

A few years later, I stumbled upon ‘The Peter Principle’ and it really shoved in some wisdom. A renowned psychologist Dr. Laurence Peter came up with a theory to explain organisational hierarchy and why things go wrong at work. He called this theory – “The Peter Principle” . Published in 1969, his work still seems relevant to this date.

If you ever had an idiot boss or a miserable job, you might find this interesting.

Peter points out one reason so many employees are incompetent is that the skills required to get a job often have nothing to do with the job itself. This, he says is relevant in every job and every industry. Consider Presidency for example, the skills required to run and win a political campaign are quite different from what it takes to do the actual job. (Trump lives this example). Similarly, there is nothing about being a great surgeon that prepares a doctor to run a hospital.

So by this means, a lot of people who shine bright in interviews might lack skills to perform the job. The scale to compare such employees with the skilled ones might be therefore unfair.

Speaking about promotions, Peter has a simple take – Everyone in an organization keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. At that point they stop being promoted. So given enough time and enough promotion levels, every position in a firm will be occupied by someone who can’t do the job.”

The truth is, employees in a hierarchy do not really object to incompetence. They merely gossip about it. Question is, how can an employee move up the ladder when blocked by someone who has reached his level of incompetence? The answer – he can’t. Neither by his efforts nor by the help of a patron. This is because demotion is a rare phenomenon. The only way to rise up the ladder is to move into a promotion channel that is not blocked. In reality, this is often visible when people change departments or leave companies.

If you are a super competent employee surrounded by idiots, Peter also explains your likely fate. In most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence. Ordinary incompetence, as seen, is no cause for dismissal: it is simply a bar to promotion. Super-competence often leads to dismissal, because it disrupts the hierarchy, and thereby violates the first commandment of hierarchal life: the hierarchy must be preserved.

If everyone eventually gets promoted to reach his or her level of incompetency, do you not wonder who really is turning the wheels at work? Well, we rarely find such a system where every employee has reached his level of incompetence. Work is accomplished by those, who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. In most instances, something is being done to delay their progress, so the hierarchy can still exist.

To this date, several human resource studies (also havard articles) acknowledge the reality of Peter Principle. They provide detailed guidance to Organizations for overcoming the pitfalls. Although, it is surprising to see why the phenemenon is still unknown to most people. Like they say, how can we solve a problem until we see there is one?

So, do you recognize this at your workplace?