Recognizing the Peter Principle
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"A man has got to know his limitations."
- Dirty Harry
The Peter Principle was introduced back in 1969 by Dr.
Laurence J. Peter in his book of the same name. In a nutshell, the principle
contends that in a hierarchical organization a person will rise to the level of
their competency, and trouble arises if the person rises above it. Along with
Parkinson's Law, it is one of the most well known principles in the world of
management. Unfortunately, young people are unfamiliar with the concept which is
perhaps why we are seeing more people lately rising above their level of
So what are the earmarks of the Peter Principle? Actually,
three indicators come to mind:
- Project estimates and schedules are routinely missed. The person doesn't
just miss assignments every now and then, but consistently misses them. This
is indicative of the person's ability to see projects through to successful
completion or manage by objectives. If he cannot, he either lacks the proper
skills and training to perform the work, or simply doesn't care about being
late or over budget.
- The duties and responsibilities as defined in a job description are not
being met. Again, this may be indicative of the lack of proper knowledge,
skills and experience, or an attitude problem.
- The person lacks the respect and confidence of the people working around
him, not only his subordinates, but his superior and lateral relationships as
well. Although this is difficult to quantify, it basically tells us, "Where
there is smoke, there is fire." In other words, the person either has bad
social skills, or his peers already know what he is capable and incapable of
Aside from dealing with someone who is in over his head, the
real challenge is to hire the right person for the right job, which is not quite
as easy as it may sound. Human resource departments may have a battery of tests
to verify a person's skills and general knowledge, but successful experience and
attitudes are much harder to substantiate. Again, there are three areas to
- Ability to meet project estimates and schedules. This is difficult to
demonstrate and management inevitably has to rely on the person's word for
their performance. Then again, if the person had been using a Project
Management system at his last job, he may have access to documentation which
reflects his performance.
- Understands the job he is applying for. This is where a lot of people get
into trouble as they do not really grasp the significance of the job they are
applying for, but like the title. Regretfully, people too often chase titles
as opposed to jobs. To test his knowledge, ask the person to articulate the
job description and how he would satisfy the requirements for it. Further, has
he performed a comparable job like this before?
- Respect of the people he worked with. Again, this is difficult to
substantiate as people are more reluctant to give references these days in
fear of possible litigation for giving a bad reference. Nonetheless,
references should be scrutinized as closely as possible.
The one question that is commonly overlooked is, "Why do you want this
job?" The answers might surprise you, e.g.; "I need a job", "I'm
looking to advance myself and need a challenge," "I'm the right person for the
job", etc. The one I particularly like is, "I want to make a
difference," which indicates to me the person's confidence and ambition.
Hiring people without doing a thorough examination of the
person's background is courting the Peter Principle.
Allowing people to stay in a position where they are in over
their head is just plain irresponsible on management's part. It is a disservice
not only to the company, but to the employee as well. When a person has risen
above their level of competency, it will become obvious to others and may affect
morale. Standard and routine performance appraisals should help overcome this
problem, but if they are infrequently performed or done in an inconsistent
manner, the Peter Principle will inevitably kick in. Management should either
work with the person to get him back on track, or terminate his employment.
I guess what troubles me here is that people apply for jobs
they knowingly are not qualified for, and remarkably, every now and then they
slip through the cracks and get the job. In this event, management gets what
they pay for.
If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth,
please do not hesitate to send me an
Keep the faith.
Copyright © 2008 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant with
Bryce & Associates of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of
experience in the field. He is available for lecturing, training and consulting
on an international basis. He can be reached at
Comments and questions are welcome.
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-08-02 16:29:56 in Employee Articles