In 1941, a man named Laurence Peter became a teacher. He noticed almost immediately that his supervisors were ignorant bufons (ok, he may have phrased it more diplomatically).
“When I was a boy, I was taught that the men upstairs knew what they were doing,” he later wrote. Yet, in the school where he worked, it seemed they did not. Peters started pondering closer on this phenomenon and found numerous examples of top positions in various fields, filled by needless dum-dums who weren’t doing their jobs well. This has then become a theory known as ”The Peter Principle.”
Peter noticed that employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.
The Peter Principle concept was explained in the 1969 book under the same title by Peter and Raymond Hull. (Hull wrote the text, based on Peter’s research.) In the book, Peter argues that promoting incompetent people is the norm, not the exception. “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties,” he writes. “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” This is obviously a bad way to promote efficiency.
Peter and Hull intended the book to be satire, but it became popular as it was seen to make a serious point about the shortcomings of how people are promoted within hierarchical organisations. The Peter Principle has since been the subject of much commentary and research.
You’ve most likely experienced that among your colleagues or yourself. I certainly have. Many of my friends and colleagues who once have been brilliant programmers by heart, over the years, have been promoted to managers, senior managers…
Initially, many of them liked working alone, or maybe pair programming. If a person was performing well, the natural path in a typical corporation has been a promotion to a team leader. Most people accept, of course, because the promotion comes with a hefty raise and more perks. Unfortunately, the skills required to be a team leader are different than the skills required to be a good coder. Managing people means dealing with office drama, and timesheets. And that means less time for coding and more time at meetings.
Despite not liking the ‘managerial’ aspects, most such people eventually get promoted to senior managers. Now they are responsible for the whole department. Once you’re promoted to your level of incompetence, you probably won’t get fired and replaced with someone more competent. Instead, others will work around you. Why aren’t you fired? Perhaps because you probably know too much about your boss’ business to be booted out too casually. Or because people have sympathy for you because you’re working so many hours. Or because the people who are supposed to judge you have reached their own level of incompetence, and damned if they’re able to realize how unproductive you are. So you now have reached the ominously termed station called “Final Placement.”
And so my colleagues found themselves in a situation where, while not being really a people person, now, they have to deal with people and paperwork all day long. They reached their maximum level of incompetence. They can’t move up because they’re doing a mediocre job. And they can’t move down without taking a pay cut.
The irony is, once you reach a level of incompetence after being promoted, you’re unlikely to be fired. Instead, people will work around you. Various factors, such as knowledge about your boss’ business or sympathy due to long hours, may protect you. Incompetence alone is rarely enough to get fired; it takes extreme incompetence or super-competence to risk termination. Ironically, super-competence threatens others and can also lead to being fired, as the hierarchy must be safeguarded.
Dumb and Dumber: Revisited
In 2009, a trio of Italian scientists conducted an experiment by creating a model organisation. The organization consisted of 160 employees across six hierarchical levels, resembling a pyramid structure. Each employee was randomly assigned an age and competency level. The model assumed retirement at age 60 and termination if competency dropped below 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Vacancies were filled by promoting employees from the level below, with new competency levels randomly assigned after each promotion based on The Peter Principle.
The study revealed that using promotions as rewards may not be an effective business strategy. Promoting the most competent employees resulted in a 10% decrease in average efficiency, while promoting the least competent employees surprisingly led to a 12% increase in efficiency. Even random promotions yielded a 1% improvement in average efficiency compared to promoting the top performers.
As a recognition of their work, the Italians were awarded the Ig Nobel Management Prize (satiric prize, the name of the award is a pun on the Nobel Prize, which it parodies, and on the word ignoble (“not noble”).).
Tanti auguri Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda and Cesare Garofalo. May you enjoy years of being productive before reaching your own level of incompetence.