Beware the Peter Principle

Don’t act without careful consideration when identifying employees for promotion. If you carry out your homework diligently, you should be able to avoid tears and recrimination, says Peter Hughes.

Beware the Peter Principle
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“They’ve sent the wrong ones for the third time!” I told my wife in frustration, as she tore the wrappings off the parcel that had just arrived with the courier.

“How about this for a shocking job?” asked Trevor, pointing out a poor-quality panel-beating repair on his bakkie, “What’s more, the headlight doesn’t work!”

“I was promised delivery of fertiliser today,” ranted Jacob as he put down his phone, “And I’m now told it will be here only next week!”

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We experience frustration with incompetence like this almost every day, and it doesn’t only happen here. Way back in the 1960s, Canadian lecturer Laurence Peter and writer Raymond Hull were puzzling over why there was so much inefficiency around them.

The outcome of their discussion was a little book with a serious message, The Peter Principle, where they set out their conclusion. It has become a classic and is essential reading for every thinking manager.

Its basic tenet goes like this: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.”

In other words, people who are competent get promoted. If they are a success, they get promoted again and again, and inevitably they reach a position that they cannot handle. They have arrived at their “level of incompetence”.

We’ve all seen this happen to individuals time and again in our working lives, haven’t we? And it’s tragic; tragic for the person concerned and tragic for the business.

Managers often misjudge the capacity of employees and their potential to move up the ranks. I have yet to meet a manager who hasn’t made the mistake of placing someone in a position with which he or she was incompatible. I’ve done it and consider it one of management’s greatest challenges and most damaging mistakes.

On the other hand, we also sometimes underestimate the capacity of people to grow and develop in a job. Once again, I plead guilty. At great expense, I once undertook a search outside the company for a senior manager. While this was being processed, I filled the gap with a junior manager in the department, in an ‘acting capacity’.

In the few months it took to find a suitable incumbent outside the company, our stand-in did such a brilliant job that we ended up putting her into the position, and she made a great success of it. To our shame, we hadn’t seen her potential.

First step
When a situation comes your way and you have to fill a gap in the organisation, don’t make the mistakes that I did. The crucial first step is to fully understand what skills and characteristics the job requires. Don’t shoot from the hip; identify the few critical elements you believe are necessary and test the list on your colleagues.

With your present employees, you’ll have a good idea of the level of their technical skill, so don’t concern yourself about these. It’s the ‘soft skills’ that matter most.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel; there are number of websites to assist you. One of the most useful I have found is It will help you identify all the essential soft skills, and prompt you and your colleagues with the questions you should be asking yourselves about the candidate concerned.

Once you’ve worked through this process, make use of one or more of the powerful psychometric tests that are available. Some are quick and low-cost, such as the Myers-
Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC Personality Test; others such as the Enneagram are more costly, but provide much deeper insights into the make-up of the person concerned.

Seek the advice of a professional consultant. Apart from the insights these will give you into the characteristics of the person under consideration, they will be useful to the applicant on a personal level.

Remember that every potential applicant also has to make the important decision of whether he or she is suited to the job concerned.

Do your homework, and avoid some of the costly mistakes I’ve made!

Peter Hughes is a business and management consultant.