Peter’s Principle: When a Professional Upgrade Brings Incompetence

Peter’s principle reminds us that not all people (no matter how skilled they may seem) are suitable for promotion. Sometimes, elevating someone from office means taking the organization to the most absolute incompetence.


Peter’s principle tells us that, often, the fact that a worker deserves a promotion does not mean that he is prepared for that promotion or that promotion is the most beneficial option for him or for the company. According to this theory, many promotions are actually a setback; Sometimes, the worker has to assume challenges, without having enough resources to assume them successfully and / or without a good dose of anxiety.

This principle already has almost sixty years and, nevertheless, it is still current. It was in the late 60’s when doctors Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, pedagogues at the University of Washington, wrote a humorous book called The Peter Principle.

Probably, even they could not guess what impact their work would have. It was a very controversial, acid and critical work about those blunders that they themselves saw in any company, educational center or work scenario. There where certain promotions were an error.

However, the message that doctors Peter and Hull wanted to leave was more serious than his tone announced when it was broadcast. We can not forget what it means, for example, to place an untrained person in a position of power. Something like this implies, first of all, putting the functioning of the system in check.

Thus, when this happens, it is not uncommon for an organization to deteriorate, discomfort, unhappiness, low productivity and the contagion of that incompetence to other scenarios, which may also be affected by bad decisions.

“Over time, each position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties. Do not be fooled by apparent exceptions.”

-Laurence J. Peter-

Peter’s principle, what does it consist of?

Peter’s principle is summed up in one basic idea: in the hierarchical structure of every organization, workers will be promoted to a position for which they are not prepared. Likewise, the rest of their careers will stay in that ladder. In turn, this implies another aspect no less relevant: that managers are also not able to respond successfully to the responsibilities they have assumed.

As we can suppose, this theory has as many detractors as defenders. Thus, studies, like the one carried out by Harvard Business School, point out to us that Peter’s principle does not exist in “all” companies or in as many scenarios as we can think. Now, what does allow us is to put measures to reduce the frequency or the transcendence with which it occurs.

The challenge of holding positions of responsibility

There are highly effective employees in their work. Therefore, it is very possible that, at a given time, it is decided to promote them. Give them a position in which the company can serve more and better their capacity and disposition. Now, as the slogan goes: every responsibility has its responsibility. Therefore, it is often not important how effective we are, how competent we are in a series of specific tasks and services. In this way, promotion can be a reward, but not an intelligent measure.

Ascending in many cases also extends the deck of necessary competences: communication, leadership, conflict resolution, decision-making capacity, personnel management, creative vision, risk anticipation…

Not all are suitable for this ladder, not all people, no matter how competent they are in an area, can assume a position of more responsibility.

In this way, Peter’s principle often causes highly stressed leaders who are aware of their incompetence. Others, however, assume the position with total tranquility. They do not care at all about the impact of their bad decisions.

What can be done to avoid Peter’s principle?

The principle of Peter was established in our labor market several decades ago. The corporate world, as we know, is based on high competition between companies and employees. This often means that you end up not the one who has more skills, but the one who seems more aggressive, directive and even charismatic.

According to the authors of this theory, the most striking thing is that these characters are rarely dismissed. They are those rotten apples that are perpetuated in organizations infecting the rest and that generate a negative work environment and low productivity. For this, it is necessary that every manager, officer or employee should take these aspects into account.

What kinds of promotions promote Peter’s principle?

Before delving into these strategies to avoid Peter’s principle, let’s understand why it happens.

There are employees who rise for reasons of seniority, because “touch”. Others do it out of loyalty to the company. They are always accessible, devoted, and helpful employees.

In many countries promotions linked to management also arise. We talk about those relatives, friends or people related to the address.

It is also common to offer promotions to charismatic people. Extroverted (and even psychopathic) profiles that, due to their undeniable charisma, offer a sense of undeniable leadership. However, in the long term these promotions are also dangerous.

Measures to avoid Peter’s Principle

Effective executives and entrepreneurs know how to avoid Peter’s principle. They do it through three strategies:

  • Promote better. You have to avoid automatic promotions. Likewise, valuations must be valued more adequately.
  • Train better. It is necessary to train the person who ascends constantly. It is essential to recycle, on a regular basis, in all those competencies, appropriate leadership and leadership skills for each position.
  • Reverse promotion. In this case, every organization must implement adequate supervision measures, so that any person holding a certain position, is lowered in functions when it proves ineffective.

In conclusion. As we can guess, Peter’s principle is too frequent. Chronifying incompetence in any organization means not only reducing efficiency or productivity.

Above all, it implies “legalizing” inequality, making those who are truly competent invisible, and creating negative working climates that eventually lead to casualties, stress and unhappiness.

Let’s think about it.