The Peter Principle: Why Incompetent People Get Promoted

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 bosses that seem in over their heads.

The fact is, while your inept boss may drive you nuts, it may not even be his or her fault -- or even the fault of your company for promoting your boss in the first place. Your unsuspecting employer had no idea that your boss would become a full-blown case of the Peter Principle in action.

So who is Peter and what did he do to make your boss so frustrating, you ask?

Well, Dr. Laurence J. Peter is a former professor who published a satirical 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 -- or our level of incompetence. There, we either stagnate, revert back to a lower position, or are fired.

While 'The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong,' was originally meant to provide a sort of absurd-yet-true comic relief to the overworked, the practicality and pertinence of the Peter Principle was not lost on the working world, and the theory has since become a hotly debated human resources phenomenon.

Below three experts argue their side of the Peter Principle.

"It's true!"

-- Ric Morgan, professional speaker and author of 'The Keys: The Textbook to a Successful Life'

"I live in a city where one of the department heads (and the highest-paid civic employee in the city) is the most incompetent person you'd ever want to meet. Ever since he [took the job] it has been one disaster after another. He'll hire someone to do a job for the city, and when they too prove to be incompetent, he hires someone else to cover his tracks saying that the last company wasn't a good fit. This incompetence has cost the city millions of dollars, and yet he has the council members, the mayor and city manager bamboozled, so they don't fire him."

As a business consultant, "the minute I find the people who are living examples of the Peter Principle is the minute I find the problems in the company.

"This problem is so diverse and prevalent I have even seen examples of the founder of the company being a leading example of the Peter Principle. I know that sounds crazy, but they had two things going for them: an idea that was just too good to fail, and the ability to hire very competent people to make it all work.

"I have even, as crazy as this sounds, found people who are running or trying to start one-man shops. In this day and age of entrepreneurship, everyone believes they can start a business and make it succeed because they 'have the best idea that will make them overnight millionaires.' Wrong! It's hard to look into someone's eyes and tell them they are too incompetent to do what they have set out to do, even if they have been doing something similar in another place, where they had actually reached the level of incompetence espoused by Dr. Laurence.

"A lot people believe the Peter Principle applies to just business, but there are an awful lot of people out there who live it in all areas of their life. They are incompetent at life itself. We have all met people like this and we always wonder how they even exist."

"It's false!"

-- Leigh Steere, co-owner, Managing People Better, LLC

"I personally do not believe in the Peter Principle. The field of neurolinguistic programming says that any behavior/skill can be learned. In other words, if a person does not already know how to do something, he/she can be taught.

"Sometimes, however, we have internal barriers to learning and achievement that keep us from growing intellectually and professionally. Limiting beliefs, such as 'I'm not smart enough' or 'I'm not good at math,' can keep people from attempting more complex challenges. This is not an issue of incompetence. It is an issue of limiting beliefs -- or an 'emotional intelligence' gap. Stagnation, reverting to a lower position or being fired can result from a variety of 'emotional intelligence' gaps.

"For example, some people have not adequately learned to read body language cues. They may press their point, even though it is clear listeners are becoming angry or defensive. They may bark orders at colleagues, unaware that listeners are bristling. They don't adjust their communication to preserve rapport. One might argue that this is a form of incompetence. However, the Peter Principle seems to suggest that each person has a level of competence that he/she cannot move beyond.

"I strongly disagree with this presupposition. Even the most bull-in-a-china-shop communicator can learn techniques for building rapport, resolving conflict gracefully, etc. The issue is: Is a person able to acknowledge their deficits and seek help. In some cases, employees are in such denial that they do remain stuck or they get fired ... until they finally 'get' the message.

"There is an older book, 'Battling the Inner Dummy,' that offers an interesting concept -- 'controlled trauma to induce transformation' and offers this illustration: 'Boot camp ... can be thought of as an example of controlled trauma that is designed to foster traits like loyalty and obedience.'

"Sometimes, an employer can stage a controlled trauma to help an employee move beyond a stuck place or overcome denial. For example, let's say a star salesperson is running roughshod over co-workers by communicating curtly, expecting them to stay until midnight to finish tasks that could wait until the next day, etc. An employer could pull the person aside and say, 'We appreciate your sales talent and all the business you have brought to our company. However, we are receiving numerous complaints from your colleagues about your communication style. We value you and want you to continue here. But this bullying communication style cannot continue. We will pay for a coach to work with you on this if you would like to stay with our company. Otherwise, you will need to find employment elsewhere.' If the salesperson accepts the coaching, he/she has an opportunity to move to a new level in his/her career. In contrast, the Peter Principle suggests this salesperson would hit a career ceiling."

"It depends!"

-- Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, author of 'Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction'

"I have been a corporate trainer for 30 years. I don't believe you can really measure the truth of the Peter Principle without analyzing the training the person has had for the position they have moved into, especially if it's a promotion.

"With each promotion the person has to give up some of the things they have done before and take on new tasks, responsibilities and perspectives (including work values). What they did before will not ensure their success in the present. However, if the person doesn't get good mentoring, training and a manager who can support the shift, they are not given the tools to succeed. They could be competent if given the chance."

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There is little you can do about working for an incompetent boss. Go work somewhere else or start your own business

November 24 2015 at 9:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lianie Jean

Nice article! A smart boss shouldn't fire quickly because it is more of a liability sometimes. Yes! The incompetent is at the expense of the boss. Yet, a smart boss should exploit the strength of the incompetent employee and capitalize on that. The hierarchy of authority should be clearly understood. That is, the boss has a level of authority and the the employee also has a level of expertise that can be an asset for the company. A highly competent boss should make hiring decision based on the needs of assessment of its company and appreciate efforts. Surprisingly, the authoritative boss may be smart enough NOT to hire an incompetent at the first place.

November 10 2015 at 7:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lianie Jean's comment
Lianie Jean

In other words, the boss must have recognized a specialty that can be exploited for greater benefit of it's company! ```from project manager to prospective````managing partner````

November 10 2015 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

None of the articles on the AOL Jobs page are loading!

November 10 2015 at 11:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm definitely intuitive/perception type. But I lack this so called bounded rationality of consciousness and lack of progressive intellectual growth you speak of. Maybe in your world of predictable patterns, behaviors and numbers your system quantifiably describes the moot point that represents conformative societal behavior. Take samples from the few chaos variables that represent the 1% of staunch anti-conformists. You''ll see vastly different spectrums of data. People who continuously seek to meet the expectations of others of limited vision tend to never set expectations individually for themselves, locking them forever in someone else's dream. Intellectual growth is limited only by the diligence and courage of the seeker. But if they continually are met with sub-par then sub-par becomes the standard negating the necessity of such endeavors to create singular individuals that compete as alpha wolves in society. Just a further example of crushing class dissemination. The Burgees and the proliferate. Options and disparity. Overlords and minions :)

October 20 2015 at 6:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's true. I had a boss who was incompetency itself. He raised someone else onto their level of incompetency by giving them his old job and teaching them the way "he did it". When it proved too much for her, and she had proven in a few short months that she could not learn or adapt, they gave her a lateral position that buried her, but was a lot easier for her to handle. He returned to his lower incompetent level then pawned it off again (it was an operations job, and he hated it thoroughly and it showed) to another unsuspecting person who had it for a year or two before handing it back. It just seemed to go on and on. It only came to somewhat of a halt when he finally retired.

October 12 2015 at 1:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I disagree with Leigh Steere on several counts. First, every individual does not have an unlimited capacity to improve, expand, learn and get better at their job. You can make a good living selling that all-positive-all-the-time message to people who want to believe it but it's just not so. Second, even if it were so, employees don't get promoted to spend the company's time learning their new job and working (possibly beyond their abilities) to grow into their responsibilities.They get promoted to do the job of the person they replace or to hit the ground running on a newly created position. And it's the rare company that will devote money and mentoring time to bring the promoted employee to the next level. Third, as the Peter principle originally stated, a worker who performs flawlessly at one job is all too often assumed to have the abilities to perform in the next higher box on the organizational chart. Where American business so often shoots itself in the foot is that it acts on the misconception that if someone does a job well he/she will be able to manage a bunch of people who do that job but management requires a whole different set of skills and aptitudes especially exceptional people skills. Finally, the corporate culture is rarely imbued with the altruistic "Let's help John/Joan who seems to be struggling" attitude. John or Joan don't want to let anybody see that they struggling and admit to their short-comings and the person who made the decision to make the promotion or hire doesn't want to admit to their mistake. So everybody buys into the blunder for as long as they can.

September 30 2015 at 3:29 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cindy and bob


August 09 2015 at 11:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why on earth don't employers do something about the Peter Principal? People get promoted, cause problems which result in high staff turnover / high stress related sick leave etc costing the company loads of money and yet the powers that be do nothing about it! I've never understood why the bull isn't taken by the horns and the problem sorted out once and for all - if it was my company I'd want to stop it happening before the company lost so much money it went bust. Apart from anything an employer has a duty of care towards it's employees and if there's one of them causing so many problems for these employees the employer needs to take action - otherwise they are as bad as the bad apple itself!

June 16 2012 at 9:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There's only one thing missing from this article, which is the caveat to the Peter Principle for government employees: Once a government employee is promoted to their level of incompetence, they are promoted twice more after that . . .

December 20 2010 at 1:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It all sounds like Paul is being robbed to pay "Peter", which is another reason why corporate America and the American government are failing, or at a minimum, falling behind.

December 04 2010 at 10:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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