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The Peter Principle

Why Things Always Go Wrong

By Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull
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  • Contains 6 key ideas
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The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

The Peter Principle (1969) explains why you feel like you’re surrounded by incompetence at work – you are! This wry book reveals promotions for what they really are: a progression to our final level of incompetence. These blinks help us understand how corporate hierarchies really function, as well as offering advice on how to deal with our own incompetence.

Key idea 1 of 6

Incompetence is inescapable.

Ever wondered why those at the top of your workplace’s hierarchy seem so incompetent? Well, it’s because they are! But why? Let the Peter Principle explain.

The Peter Principle states that every member of a hierarchy will eventually rise to their level of incompetence, or final placement. This position is the furthest you can be promoted with the skills that you possess. In other words, employees continue to receive promotions as long as they’re competent in their current position.

To illustrate this further, let’s imagine an outstanding elementary school teacher. He receives promotion after promotion until he has lots of responsibility for the students. But eventually, he’ll receive a promotion for which his skills don’t quite qualify him.

Suppose he lands a position on the school board as a coach for new teachers. If he’s unable to engage adults as well as he engages small children, then he’s reached his level of incompetence. In this final placement, his performance won’t merit further promotion.

As individuals, our skills and competencies vary. You might be a genius software developer, and be very proud of that fact. But this doesn’t make you the best fit for a consultancy; perhaps you might simply be unable to cope with the constant pressure of that business.

Some of us are able to rise all the way to the top of a hierarchy without reaching our level of incompetence, so we switch to other hierarchies and find it there. This is called compulsive incompetence. Just look at Socrates: A great teacher; not such a great defense lawyer.

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