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Recognizing the Peter Principle


Tim Bryce

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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 competency.

So what are the earmarks of the Peter Principle? Actually, three indicators come to mind:

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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 doing.

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 consider:

  1. 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.


  2. 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?


  3. 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 e-mail.

Keep the faith.

Copyright 2008 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant with M. 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

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