Joe’s Journal: On the Other Peter’s Principle

“Why should people who, for 10 or 15 years, have been competent suddenly become incompetent? The reason in practically all cases I have seen, is that people continue in their new assignment to do what made them successful in the old assignment and what earned them the promotion. Then they turn incompetent, not because they have become incompetent, but because they are doing the wrong things. What the new assignment requires is not superior knowledge or superior talent. It requires concentration on the things that the new assignment requires, the things that are crucial to the new challenge, the new job, the new task.”

—Peter F. Drucker

The book The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, first published in 1969, argues that in hierarchal organizations employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. The book has garnered considerable influence over the years.

On its face, the book may seem an answer to Peter Drucker’s question, “Why should people who, for 10 or 15 years, have been competent suddenly become incompetent?” But to the extent that this phenomenon does occur, it often reflects incompetence on the part of executives who make promotion decisions and not the incompetence on the part of the employees who are promoted.

Barring illness, other traumatic changes altering a person’s ability to perform or laziness in keeping up with one’s field, a person who demonstrates competence for a long period of time should not suddenly lose that competence upon promotion assuming the promotion decision is made correctly.

When a person is promoted, he or she should be fully and clearly informed what reflects contribution in the new position. And there should be periodic feedback to make sure the newly promoted person is proceeding according to the requirements of the new job. If not, then a change should be made, possibly one that allows the employee a right-of-return to his or her previous position.

This situation may occur as a person moves from a staff position to an executive position. The individual may simply not be able to cope with the complexity of decision-making that often calls not only for different skills but also for courage in the face of uncertainty.

In short, “the Peter Principle” is not one of Peter Drucker’s principles.

—Joe Maciariello