Book Review: The Peter Principle By Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

A funny and revealing book on how organizations make incompetence their ultimate goal.

The Peter Principle states that eventually everyone ends up in a job which they hate and at which they are no good.  Even more sobering, this is where they are destined to remain.

This is a bleak topic for a business classic.  Best sellers in the genre usually become so by being positive, inspiring and uplifting.  The Peter Principle is none of these. It is, however, smart, informative and very often hilarious.

Named after one of the authors, Laurence J. Peters, the Peter Principle examines the fallacy of “rewarding” people who are exceptional at their existing jobs by promoting them into jobs for which they are completely unsuited.  A person who writes a winning proposal for a project is then made head of the project although a good writer and marvelous ideas person may not necessarily have any management or leadership skills.  A great kindergarten teacher is made regional teacher trainer, even though working with adults is completely different from working with little kids.

And if people do succeed in their new positions, we continue to reward them with promotions until we find something for them at which they cannot succeed.

This is the trap of the Peter Principle. It is only when you reach a place which is entirely wrong for you that you become stuck. Being put back where you excelled looks like a demotion and since you are underperforming in this new job there is no chance for further promotions.

The authors admit that the main reason for writing and publishing this book was to prevent someone else from writing it (and calling the phenomena something else).  It is just as well that they did. Since it was published the term has become a business standard, the topic of articles, research and loads and loads of giggles.

It is the laughter that takes the edge off situations the reader will find uncomfortably familiar.  The authors’ love of wordplay is apparent on every page. They have given their chapters titles like “The Pathology of Success” and “Creative Incompetence”.  Naturally these are sectioned off under headers like  “A Clot for Every Slot” and “A Tongue in Both Cheeks”.

The trends described are supported with “real life examples” resulting in a book chock full of cautionary tales in which “names have been changed to protect the guilty.”

With as much enjoyment as James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming must have had when naming Mary Trueblood and Miss Moneypenny, the authors give us E. Minion, General Goodwin and Roly Koster.  The names are directly related to the character’s job or misfortune. Mr. Beeker is a beloved science teacher M. Tinker is a conscientious mechanic and Miss Ditto, is incapable of doing anything but parroting what she has been taught. In accordance with the Peter Principle it is only the far-below-average Miss Ditto who fails to come to any grief.

In the true but far better than normal tradition of the business book, the authors coin a number of terms to explain their observed phenomena. A person with rigor cartis displays an abnormal obsession with charts and a company undergoes hierachal exfoliation when it gets rid of both super incompetent and super competent employees as a way of preserving status quo.  A handy glossary at the back of the book offers a collection of these terms.

Why this book should be on your shelf

With the unfortunate exception of a few politically incorrect observations that may grate on the nerves of some 21st century readers, The Peter Principle remains as relevant and as enjoyable as it has been in the 43 years since it was first published.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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