The Peter Principle: What it is and How You Can Avoid It

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Have you ever looked at your boss and wondered “Who promoted you?” or “How have you not been fired by now?” If you have, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone — many of us have to deal with a boss that seems in over his or her head.

While it may boggle your mind that your employer actually promoted your boss in the first place, it may not be your company’s fault — your unsuspecting employer probably had no idea that your boss would be the Peter Principle personified.

Who is this Peter and what does he have to do with your seemingly inept boss, you ask?

Well, Dr. Laurence J. Peter is a former professor who published a book based around his theory that “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” and that “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Or, basically: We do a job well, we’re promoted. We do that job well, we’re promoted again. This happens in succession until we eventually rise to a position that we can no longer do well — we’ve reached our level of incompetence. There, we either stagnate, revert back to a lower position or are fired.

One of the most popular examples from Dr. Peter’s book was that of a salesperson being promoted to the role of sales manager, and then hitting a career plateau. The example argues that this is because the skills needed for each position are vastly different.

For purpose of example, let’s take a look at a sales manager many of us are familiar with: Michael Scott from “The Office.” (For more on our recent obsession with Mr. Scott, check out our other posts here and here.)

As the regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Michael seems to be a couple sandwiches short of a picnic, a few credits shy of an MBA, or whatever other idiom you wish to use to describe his lack of interpersonal and professional skills. That’s not to say that Michael Scott is stupid, or unfit for the paper business.

According to “The Office” history, prior to being promoted to manager, Michael was actually an excellent salesman, hence his promotion.

Yet if we take a look at Michael’s incompetence through the lens of Dr. Peter’s example – it makes sense that Michael might make a good salesman but a lousy sales manager:

  • As a salesman, Michael’s primary responsibilities may have included establishing new relationships with customers, introducing them with his product and convincing them to purchase it. His job may have required a lot of travel and face-time with customers, as well as the rewarding excitement of making a sale.
  • After being promoted to management, Michael became responsible for things like the department budget, the sales efforts of his team, making department hiring decisions, etc. Instead of meeting clients and making sales he spends his time dealing with administrative and human resources issues.

This example basically illustrates how the traditional hierarchy in most companies isn’t necessarily set in place to be a strategic, linear career path for most workers.

Although the idea makes logical sense, the Peter Principle shouldn’t be seen as an inevitable cloud of doom lingering on your professional horizon. Now that you know about the Peter Principle, there are ways to avoid it.

Here’s how to make sure you’re not the next Michael Scott:

1. Don’t just accept a promotion because it’s a promotion. Look at the job duties of your current role, and compare them with what you’d be doing in your next role. Are the job functions the same, with just more responsibility? Or would you be moving into a job where you wouldn’t be using your core talents? If the job doesn’t exemplify what attracted you to your current industry, don’t take it.

2. Should you want to move up, look outside your company.If you’re ready to move up, but the role “above” your current one is not a job you want, or one you think you’d be good at — start looking at other companies. Smaller firms will probably have a more limited number of job functions (think assistant, associate and manager levels), but larger companies may have positions you can move to (i.e. senior associate) that will provide a pay and status increase, without taking on management responsibilities.

3. Find other options. You got into your career because it fit your personality and strong suits. If the next step in your professional career doesn’t interest you, it’s time to re-evaluate your situation. Who says you can’t switch careers, or take a few classes to broaden your horizon?

4. Ask for help. If you do find yourself in a position where you’re “in over your head,” or one that’s not in line with your last role, talk to your HR department about it. Tell them that you’ve had to use new skills in your new position, and ask if there is any training available to help you make a better transition into your new role.

What do you think about the Peter Principle? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

One Comment
  1. I really liked this article. In corporations there is such a push to advance that they ultimately do their employees and company a dis-service. This is the primary motivational tactic used and when individuals are not interested in promoting, but are interested in continuing to grow in their current job, they are not provided the same opportunities within their job. You are also looked at as less commited to the organization if you are simply not interested in promoting. And finally, in organizations that stack rank their employees, over time it is natural for managers to rank the indiviuals who want to promote at the highest level as this places them in a position that helps justify their promotion, which I completely understand, but can also impact pay increases within a position. I love my job and am considered a high performer but am not sure I can hold out on the promotion pressure much longer without either doing it or ultimately looking worse because I don’t.

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