The puzzling ‘Peter's principle’ at workplace


Wambua served as a cashier in a Kenyan parastatal for the past 20 years. He worked his way up from a junior cashier to deputy cashier and finally to a full cashier. Wambua enjoyed working in the parastatal and eagerly applied for a position as the chief treasurer. He hoped that his years of faithful service at the organisation would make up for his lack of management experience.

So, he became overjoyed when he received word that his promotion got approved and he would become a member of management.

However, as Wambua entered his new role and as time progressed, his colleagues who previously supported him became some of his most ardent detractors. Puzzled, the staff wondered how someone could do so well as a cashier but fail to manage effectively as the chief treasurer.

Many of us can relate to Wambua’s situation. Either we know people in our offices who seem to have been promoted too far above their capacity or even on a personal level feel that even we fall out of place and believe we are better suited for a different role.

In 1969, Lawrence Peter and Raymond Hull coined the phrase ‘Peter’s Principle’ to mean throughout one’s career, an employee continuously gets promoted through an organisation’s hierarchy until they reach their level of incompetence.

The authors argued that hierarchies represent archaic unhelpful structures within companies.

Incompetence originates from a variety of sources unique to the individual. Some leaders score low on their personality levels of conscientiousness causing them to become laissez-faire leaders who push off decisions and fail to act.

Others, like US President Donald Trump, who previously led a global real estate branding empire, got promoted beyond his level of incompetence and his narcissistic paranoid tendencies are sinking his presidency.

Still, others may lack the industry-specific competencies of their higher roles.

But why would employees seek advancement beyond their competency only to fail in a more senior position? Researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning sadly note in their studies that people prove painfully unaware of their own career deficiencies. Many employees suffer a dual burden of not possessing the right skills for advancement coupled with a lack of self-awareness that causes them to make suboptimal self-harming choices that also hurts their respective organisation.

What can be done to reduce the effects of the Peter’s Principle? Each job should be looked at individually with its own set of unique competencies and requirements.

Positions must be opened for application from people inside and outside the company.

Just because an employee succeeded in a different position previously does not necessarily correlate to success in a new dissimilar post in the future.

Hold rigorous rubrics of success during an interview and do not settle on a substandard second best when an ideal candidate cannot be found.

Re-advertise until a suitable candidate accepts the position.

Also, set clear performance targets in regard to soft skills so as to discover when the Peter’s Principle has occurred in your organisation so you can move incompetent staff to a more suitable position or terminate them altogether. Do not let the ‘Trump-effect’ take hold in your firm.