The Peter Principle: Why Things Often Go Wrong

Have you ever felt that everyone around you seems to be incompetent at their work? It’s possible that this perception holds some truth.

Despite living in an era of continuous progress, we still encounter situations where things constantly go wrong. We come face-to-face with incompetence in various forms: long queues, unnecessary paperwork, delayed flights, and unreliable Wi-Fi connections. In 1969, Canadian teacher Lawrence J. Peter provided an explanation for why our ambitions and achievements often fail to address the problem of incompetence; instead, they seem to exacerbate it.

With the advent of the industrial revolution came the establishment of factories, which brought about hierarchies and career ladders. Our ambitions found a new outlet through the pursuit of promotion. Imagine yourself as a young, ambitious individual who secures their first job. You put in your best efforts, perform well, and eventually get promoted. Gradually, you ascend higher and higher on the career ladder.

However, this system is not flawless. Promotions are typically based on how well you performed in your previous role, but this doesn’t guarantee success in a new position. Eventually, you may reach a position where you are not competent, known as your “level of incompetence.” You can’t be promoted further, but you also can’t be demoted. This is known as the Peter Principle.

Over time, every position within an organization becomes occupied by an incompetent person. This phenomenon affects various sectors, including schools, hospitals, factories, banks, and even the police. Does anything get done at all? It’s simply the case that the work is carried out by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence. However, hierarchies cannot be eliminated, as they form the fundamental structure of our society.

Peter proposed a solution to this problem: feigned incompetence. You need to pretend that you have already reached your level of incompetence. This may sound absurd, but it is the only way to avoid getting stuck in a position where you lack understanding—by pretending not to understand your current position.

While the Peter Principle may initially appear to be a joke, it has tangible consequences in the real world. It often serves as the underlying cause of flight delays, internet interruptions, and even oil spills. If we continue in the same manner, how many more mistakes will occur? If humanity continues on this path, we risk collectively reaching our level of incompetence.

Summary: The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle sheds light on the challenges that arise from our hierarchical systems and serves as a reminder that competence should be a primary consideration in career progression. Only by addressing this issue can we strive to create more efficient and effective organizations and institutions.