In 1960, when Professor Laurence J. Peter first exposed the famous principle that bears his name, he probably would not have imagined how popular it would become over time, to the point of becoming a classic of the business world and human resources.

Along with a great sense of humour, but also really witty, The Peter Principle shows us some contradictions of the human beings and the business sector which are really important to keep in mind.

In this post we will get to know more about The Peter Principle, but also a funny thing that was created due to this, more than 30 years later which is known as The Dilbert Principle

What is the Peter Principle?

The Peter Principle, also known as The Peter principle of Incompetence, claims that people who do their job well are promoted to positions of greater responsibility, and so on, until they reach a position in which they are incompetent, so they remain stuck in that position.

The Principle of Peter was formulated in 1969, in a work of the same name, written in collaboration with the journalist Raymond Hull, and it exposes two deductions:

  • Over time, every job tends to be filled by an employee who is unable to perform his or her duties.
  • The work is done by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Although these seem funny conclusions, and indeed Peter himself formulates them with a great sense of humour, the truth is that this is actually real. When we talk about the hierarchical organization of the companies, it is not surprising that some positions of responsibility end up being filled by people who could be tremendously competent for other positions they occupied previously, but because they have been promoted, they might not be right for these new positions.

In his work, Peter presents a number of examples to illustrate his theory.

For example, a devoted mechanic who is promoted to the position of manager. From his new position, he gets in the way of the work of his subordinates; he is also unable to remain still and he is continually doing things that he is not meant to do, this way, he is not making it easier for these employees to work. In the end, neither he nor his employees can carry out their jobs so they end up totally frustrated.

Or maybe a teacher, who is very good at her job but then she gets promoted to supervisor of primary school. By doing this, she stops working with children and goes on to pass this task to other teachers. She does not use those teaching techniques anymore, so these techniques that once were useful now become useless, which causes problems among teachers.

In addition, Professor Peter extends the effects of his Principle not only to the business world, but also to other types of organizations, such as Public Administrations, educational institutions such as the University or even the Army.

In order to reduce the effects of the Peter Principle, some companies opt for solutions such as getting managers back to their previous positions or rewarding the most productive workers with a pay rise rather than a promotion. Another option is to train these people in order for them to stop being incompetent in that new position; In order to achieve this, it is very important to be aware of one’s own inability to do that job (So, this way, getting to know the Peter Principle may be very helpful).

However, the Peter Principle must also be understood within this context. In 1960, when it was formulated, it was more common for people to spend a lot of years working in the same company, going from the lower positions to greater responsibility, so the Peter Principle was more common back then. Nowadays, people tend to change jobs more often in their lives, this way it is less common to reach a position where you don’t feel qualified for that job. In addition, competence and training are often greater, so it is perhaps more difficult now to find incompetent managers than in 1960. Nevertheless, some cases are found from time to time (I am pretty sure you know some).

What is the Dilbert Principle?

We also need to mention the Dilbert Principle, which comes from the Peter Principle.

“Dilbert”, created by Scott Adams, is a pretty famous comic strip (I am pretty sure you have read it at some point in your life). In a series of cartoons published throughout the 1990s, he coined the term. The concept was so successful that in 1996 the book “The Dilbert Principle” was created, which became very successful and it ended up selling over a million copies.

As we said earlier, the Dilbert Principle is just a variation of the Peter Principle; and it emphasises that incompetent employees are intentionally promoted to prevent them from causing harm (a lot of people will not be keen on this). But even though it sounds like a joke, the Dilbert Principle is well based. According to the author, promotions would be given to the employees because the high-ranking positions have very little relevance in the production of the company, and most of the productive work would be done by people who have low positions within the company. Therefore, promoting less productive people to higher positions would prevent them from getting in the way of workers who do offer a good performance and these workers are the ones who keep the company going forward.

As you can imagine, and in spite of its success, the Dilbert Principle has many critics who think that this principle is only valuable for amusement. However, there are also some managers who think that this principle is much more present in companies than most people think.

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