Peter’s Principle

peter-principleThe Peter Principle is a proposition that states that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success and merit will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” (Wikipedia)

There are a couple of illustrations that describe this; common practices in many businesses today (especially smaller businesses). For the purposes of this illustration we will create John Smith (John Doe is over used). Generally, as mentioned above, someone is promoted to a level at which they struggle or fail. There are a few reasons for this in my mind.

Example 1)  John Smith has many years of experience in the business, and based on years of service has a promotion “due” to him.

Example 2) John Smith overreaches his level of expertise and lacks the ability to identify and close the business / knowledge gaps.

Example 3) The rate at which the individual promotes is not proportioned to the management ability to prepare the individual (lack of resources).

To deal with this, we must either take the time to train the person and exert the efforts to reroute the course (see my post on course correction), or realign the organization which may mean removal or demotion but right sizes the situation. In some cases a business “creates” a position for the individual to keep them but realize they are not satisfactory in the current role. This can lead to further problems as the root cause was not really dealt with and can stagnate an organization creating a log jam. I also believePeters level that a person whom demonstrates incompetence in a position can be a result of poor management preparation of an individual. Let me propose to you, John Smith, who in this scenario is a floor associate. In the floor associate role John Smith is an expert stock running, and shelf stocker. One day through a turn of events he is suddenly promoted to CEO. Sounds ridiculous right? His inabilities to understand the business are based on limited exposure to the expectations and duties of a CEO or a similar progression of preparedness. Management that would allow this is at fault, as well as the individual to see their level of organizational “tribal” or trained knowledge. Now if John were to be promoted to shift supervisor, then assistant manager, store manager, area director to CEO – may seem more plausible. In small businesses with limited checks and balances the “deserved” promotion can result in painful setbacks for the organization.

Now that being said, I caution you (the reader) from over-thinking the analogies. If you are questioning successes and failure you have had – also think about what you are missing. If you can identify the knowledge gaps, you are doing what I call stretching. Stretching is the ability for someone to bridge the gaps of knowledge and grow from it. Take a cloth and pull it, stretching the material; compare that to someone learning. We must take a new shape when we grow.

The Peter’s Principle is not something that we must accept; there can be a cure. With identification of our gaps and with proper support the difficulties each of us face, the challenges, can be overcome and reshape the cloth.


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