Catch 22: The Peter Principle in Practice

The Peter Principle: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

The Peter Principle was first published in 1969 by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. Apparently, it has really caught on since then.

The classic example of the Peter Principle can be found in the field of education; take, for example, the competent teacher whose lack of administrative skills become painfully evident after she or he is promoted to principal. If the promotion causes significant disruption in the workplace, then the principal is either promoted to district manager, or remains in a state of incompetent stagnation until retirement. Simply put, given any hierarchy, all employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

The Peter Principle does not discriminate against race, age, sex, or political party (OK, maybe by political affiliation). Look to any hierarchical organization in which you belong to witness the Peter Principle in practice. Gaze down the organizational ladder and you will see competent employees in search of a promotion, or incompetent employees likely to receive a promotion. Gaze upwards on the organizational ladder and you will find incompetent employees in search of a golden handshake, or competent ones about to be downsized. Gaze in the mirror to determine your own competence level, but do not be fooled by what you see.

If you cannot evaluate your own competence level, then you may have already reached your level of incompetence within that particular hierarchical structure. However, if you can determine your competence level, then there still may be hope for you – unless, of course, you are incompetent at judging competence.

It’s a Catch 22. If you can see incompetence within the hierarchy, then you may not have reached your level of incompetence. If, on the other hand, you cannot see incompetence, then you are likely already there. In other words, you are either in on the joke of Dr. StrangeJob, or you are a part of the joke of Dr. StrangeJob. If you are in on the joke, then tag along for the ride. If you are a part of the joke, then you probably stopped reading and are likely beyond redemption.

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