The peter principle the journey from competence to incompetence, was written by Laurence J. Peter  who analysed hundreds of cases of occupational incompetence which led him to formulate Principle.

The book is extremely humorous, a satirical model, it was first published in 1969. What is surprising is that many of us continue to experience the impact of occupational incompetence resulting from ridiculous promotion decisions.

For those who experience the Peter Principle occupational incompetence at work it is no laughing matter.

Having worked in an organisation where incompetence permeated through many levels the impact on people and performance was devastating.

The theory is simple:

The Cream Rises Until it Sours

The Peter Principle from competence to incompetence?

The Process

The Peter Principle From Competence to IncompetenceWhen employees perform well in a position, they are eventually promoted with more responsibilities and challenges. If they perform well in that position, they proceed up the ladder to the next one.

This process consistent with the peter principle repeats over and over until people assume a position that presents challenges beyond their competence and that’s where they stay. They are rarely demoted since the rules make it very difficult to demote someone, even if that person would fit in much better and would be much happier in a lower level job.

  • When an employee reaches his level of incompetence he has the promotion quotient of zero

Variations of the process that aids the journey to incompetence

Being kicked upstairs…. Or moving an employee from one unproductive position to another to camouflage the failure of the individual and the fatally flawed thinking that promoted him/her to a level of incompetence

Lateral arabesque, (sideways move) giving an incompetent employee a longer title with less responsibility. This way the employee still feels important but is kept away from the coal face.

Mathematics: Incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence!

Inversion – being promoted for sticking to the process despite the output of that process producing an inefficient service. This usually happens when a supervisor at his level of incompetence rates an employee in terms of supporting institutional values. The supervisor is blind to output because he evaluated input.

Compliance does not equal competence

Exfoliation: Where super competence is more unacceptable than incompetence, so we simply slough it away, discard it. WHY? Probably because super competence exposes weakness in the hierarchy.

  • Nothing fails like Success!

Who should we promote to increase the efficiency in our organisation?

Often the answer is based on the assumption that an employee who is competent at a given level will be competent also at a higher level of the hierarchy, it seems a good idea to promote the best employee from a lower level who often perform poorly as managers.

Promotion decisions often place more weight on current performance than can be justified.

Many organisations prioritise current job performance at the expense of other observable characteristics and competencies that better predict performance aligned to the current and future requirements of the new role.

The assumption that the role requires a higher level of competence, when in reality, it requires different competencies places people in positions where incompetence becomes immediately apparent.

Generic Competencies Fail to Consider Context

A reliance on generic competency statements that describe one best way  fail to take context into account.

Competency based approaches can also fail to account for future technical skills requirements. Often the rapid pace of change makes certainty about future skills just too hard to anticipate. So, we focus on what endures rather than what is likely to be displaced.

An Exception

Gately found that employers can avoid the Peter Principle if employees are judged on technical merit and accomplishment, and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive employees, while the less technically proficient and verbally expressive wait their turn.

The Peter Principle is Thriving

Over the past 12 months I have witnessed the most bizarre criteria to support promotion decisions that lead me to believe incompetence, lack of common sense and failure to hold those accountable for fatally flawed decisions is quite common.

These decisions have been based upon:

  • Length of service without any consideration to contribution

    • The power of a patron who himself has reached his level of occupational incompetence

      • Potentially the worst of all is a sentence uttered to me by a manager in response to questions about the consistent incompetence of an individual. “she was judged worthy of promotion based on appearance. It was one step too far”!

      Fine feathers don’t make fine birds!

      A Little Extra Reading: Applying competency based approaches to performance management