Home     Photos     Hiking     Writings     Contact     Copyright

Reconsidering the Peter Principle

By Nartreb delAlcazar

Within organizations of a certain heft, such as governments and businesses, there exists a nearly universal perception that "the bosses" are possessed of a large measure of incompetence. This view is so widely held, and so strongly felt, that certain thinkers have felt compelled to advance theories to explain such a glaring deficiency of our organizational systems. Would not an organization governed by the competent have an overwhelming advantage over organizations ruled by the inept? Should not organizations led by the capable therefore overwhelm and extinguish organizations captained by the feeble-minded? And yet organizations led by the incompetent not only continue to exist, they seem to predominate. If we are to explain the sorry state of organizational affairs in the world as we see it today, therefore, there must be powerful social forces at work, which conspire to prevent the persistence, and perhaps even the creation, of organizations dominated by leaders who understand their job.

What then is the nature of these maleficent forces? The best-known explanation for the growth and persistence of incompetence at the top levels of organizations is the so-called Peter Principle. It may be stated succinctly as follows: Everyone rises to his level of incompetence. In slightly longer form, the theory runs thus: A worker who, having been hired into some entry-level role, does his job very well, will be promoted. If he fulfills his new function with skill, he will be promoted again.This process is reiterated until the worker has risen into a position whose responsibilities he cannot properly satisfy, where he stagnates for the remainder of his career, much to the annoyance of everyone around, and especially below, him.

According to the Peter Principle, the accumulation of incompetence at the top is the result of many gradual upward drifts of individuals, who, though they are not incompetent to begin with, eventually find themselves elevated beyond their stature. Interestingly, the Peter Principle predicts that if those doing the promoting could only restrain themselves ever so slightly, our organizations would be administered by dynamic over-achievers, expert in their assigned roles.

As an explanation for organizational incompetence, the Peter Principle is unsatisfactory for several reasons, among which are these:

In many organizations a sort of caste system can be observed, in which managers, easily distinguished by their clothing, speech, and mannerisms, are repeatedly promoted despite patent idiocy.

Such observations doubtless influenced Scott Adams to formulate the Dilbert Principle[1]. In Adams words, the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to where they can do the least damage: management.The essence of it is this: existing management seeks out and selects the most moronic recruits it can find, and inducts them into its own circle. As Adams has it, "We systematically identify and promote the people who have the least skills."

There is more to the theory, for example the postulate that a fondness for meetings correlates negatively with intelligence, and that the idiots selected for management are thus happier in their new role than a competent worker would be, but the focus is primarily on the promoters, not the promoted.

The Dilbert Principle differs from the Peter Principle in its assessment of those existing managers who dole out promotions. According to the Peter Principle, managers, though incompetent themselves, nevertheless seek to reward the most productive workers by promoting them. They have the best interest of the organization at heart, but they get slightly carried away and promote workers too far and/or too fast. In contrast, Adams frankly states that existing management is so petty and incompetent that it does not consider the welfare of the organization. Managers promote (or hire from outside) morons like themselves; the removal of these boobs from the shop floor or other places where they would interfere with productive work is mostly, in Adams' view, an unintended consequence. Adams gives the following example of the rationale for promoting a moron: "Well, he can't write code, he can't design a network, and he doesn't have any sales skills. But he has very good hair..."

Despite their differences of focus, both of these theories go some way toward explaining the perception that most organizations are top-heavy with incompetence. They do so by exploring the actions and motivations of those who make the decision to promote the incompetent into positions of power.

In this essay I propose to introduce a new Principle to explain workplace incompetence. But first I would like to remind the reader that incompetence is not limited to upper management, nor to management tout court. Examples of incompetent professionals abound: computer programmers who have scarcely completed a weeks training in HTML, videographers whose products would be sufficient for a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and many other patently inept individuals can be found as easily as managers who attempt to motivate employees with the annual award of a small plaque.

I would also like to remind the reader that incompetence is not limited to larger organizations, nor to organizations of any sort. Incompetence is pervasive throughout the sphere of professional life, even if the practitioner is engaged in a solitary profession. What woman has never received a perfectly horrid haircut from a hairdresser with ten years experience? Who has never received horrible advice from an astrologer with decades in the field? Who has never had their car "repaired" four times in a month, for the same defect, by the same "professional" mechanic? Any theory which seeks to explain organizational incompetence must take into account the prevalence of individual incompetence.

Adams recognizes the prevalence of a specific form of individual incompetence. "Everyone is an idiot... The only difference among us is that we're idiots about different things at different times. No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot." Adams, for example, admits to being unable to change the battery in his pager. His incompetence at pager maintenance, however, presumably has no bearing on his competence as a professional cartoonist, or whether Adams can diagnose a faulty router in a computer network. In this essay I argue that this same topic-specific incompetence, present in all humans, lies at the heart of both professional incompetence and organizational incompetence.

What is the difference between topic-specific individual incompetence as described by Adams and the sort of professional incompetence exemplified by the hairdresser mentioned above? Only that our hairdresser has chosen to devote his life to one of the areas in which he is clearly incompetent.

To explain this absurd, yet surprisingly common, state of affairs, we must examine the forces which serve to direct an individual toward a particular profession. Unlike the workers within the rigidly hierarchical organizations envisioned in the Peter or Dilbert Principles, a young person choosing a profession is only loosely bound by the dictates of authority figures such as parents, guidance counselors, and so forth. The actions and wishes of higher-ups, whether benevolent (as in the Peter Principle) or benighted (as in the Dilbert principle), are largely irrelevant. It is therefore clear that if we wish to determine why there are so many incompetents in each profession, we must examine the motivations of the person entering the profession.

Let me be clear that I am using Adams' definition of "incompetent". I do not suppose that the majority of entrants to any profession [with a few professions excepted, soit dit en passant ] are all-purpose morons. When I describe a person as incompetent, I mean only that he is incompetent specifically at his chosen task or profession. In other words, within the confines of his chosen area of expertise, he does not meet the expectations a reasonable man would have as to the quality of his services. Very likely, the same man who is useless as a mathematician would make an excellent ornithologist, and yet he has chosen to be a mathematician.

But then, if the choice of profession is essentially a free one, and if virtually everyone can be expected to have a natural suitability to at least one field of endeavor, how do we explain the undeniable fact that so many people choose professions to which they are manifestly unsuited?

I hereby propose the Nartreb Principle: Each profession most attracts the people least suited to it. Stated from the converse perspective, People gravitate toward professions that allow their particular incompetence to show. Though this theory may seem paradoxical, a bit of reflection will reveal its merits.

Whatever your current profession, try to recall your feelings when you were first faced with a choice of career, or perhaps when you first chose among fields of study in college. Perhaps you chose a path that seemed to promise financial rewards. Perhaps you simply chose something that "sounded interesting." But ask yourself (and ask all your friends), how many people choose a career because they know they'll be good at it? Very few.

In fact, something like the opposite occurs. People tend to be interested in things they find mysterious, deep, rich in avenues for exploration. Things that seem easy have no such allure. And so people tend to pick a career they barely comprehend, and may never master. Many mathematicians would be superbly qualified as accountants, yet they commonly reject such a career as unfulfilling and repetitive. On the contrary, "professional" accountants tend to be like the one who once confessed to me: "I thought it was fascinating that debits equal credits." This was a totally new concept to him at the time, descending like a revelation and fixing his career path forever. He chose his career not because of any numerical aptitude, but because he was enthralled by the mysteries of double-entry book-keeping. He chose his career, in short, without the least assurance he would be competent at it. Rather the opposite. He found the most basic tenet of the profession almost bewildering. He chose his career because it was especially challenging for him.

Challenge, it appears, may be the most important factor in career decisions. Indulge me in a bit of reminiscence about the days of the "dot-com economy":

Before the crash of the NASDAQ, many companies in the software industry were faced with a vexing problem: how to convince their employees, most of whom had (at least on paper) suddenly become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, to continue to work sixty or eighty hours a week and thus keep the company profitable? To answer this question, a great number of surveys were carried out to determine which perquisites were most valued (free pizza? Ping-pong table in the hallway?), and what qualities software engineers most sought in a job. Consistently at the top of the list was: challenge. (I suspect that similar surveys among the general public would have ranked money as the number one attraction. But the engineers sampled knew that --at that time-- they could request as much money as they wanted. Money in itself wouldnt be sufficient reason to switch jobs. I think the general public would have ranked challenge as number two or three.) These surveys uncovered an important component of human nature. Given freedom to choose our job or occupation, we gravitate towards the occupation that offers sufficient challenge to interest us.

By definition, whatever we are inexpert at, we find challenging. And therefore, People gravitate toward professions that allow their particular incompetence to show. Or in other words, Each profession most attracts the people least suited to it.

This principle (which I immodestly call the Nartreb Principle), unlike the Peter or Dilbert principles, can explain the would-be lawyer or stockbroker who fails the exam six times in a row, but persists nonetheless. It can explain all the examples of incompetence cited above. This principle also explains how Dilbert's pointy-haired boss ("PHB") came to be placed above Dilbert. Regardless of whether the Peter or Dilbert principle better describes the thinking of PHB's superiors, Dilbert (the office worker) was doomed from the start, because the pool of candidates for PHB's job consisted largely of people exactly like PHB: incompetent at managing.

Does my theory doom American organizations to perpetual incompetence? More urgently, does this incompetence spell a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis the rest of the world? To the first question, the answer is yes, probably. To the second, the answer is no. Remember, to survive in the woods, one need not be able to out-run a bear. One only has to out-run one's hiking buddy. And there is every reason to think that our foreign hiking buddies are stumbling every bit as badly as we are: the Nartreb Principle is universal. Within the sphere of American business, the bear metaphor also explains why incompetent organizations are able to persist in the first place: there is no shortage of flat-footed hiking buddies.

One final note, with some important implications for whether the Nartreb Principle can possibly be correct: I am not a professional theorist on social or organizational issues. I am not even a professional writer.

[1] Originally published in the New York Times, May 22, 1995. Subsequently buttressed with an eponymous book, HarperCollins 1996, ISBN 0-88730-787-6

Back to my writings page