Peter principle

The Peter Principle is a theory originated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter which states that employees within a hierarchical organization advance to their highest level of competence, are then promoted to a level where they are incompetent, and then stay in that position.

This follows from the use of promotion as a reward for success. As long as a person is competent in his current position, he will be promoted to the next higher one. By iteration, the only way a person can stop being promoted is to reach a level where he is no longer able to do well, and thus does not appear eligible for promotion.

The theory was set out in a humorous style in the book The Peter Principle, first published in 1969. Peter describes the theme of his book as hierarchiology. The central principle is stated in the book as follows:

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

Although written in a lighthearted manner, the book contains many real-world examples and thought-provoking explanations of human behaviour. Similar observations on incompetence can be found in the Dilbert cartoon series (see The Dilbert Principle).

The employee's eventual incompetence is not necessarily a result of the higher-ranking position being "more difficult" it may be simply that the position is different from the position in which the employee previously excelled, and thus requires different skills which the employee may not possess. An example used by Peter involves a factory worker whose excellence at his work results in him being promoted into a management position, in which the skills that got him promoted in the first place are no longer of any use.

One way that organizations attempt to avoid this effect is to refrain from promoting a person until that person already shows the skills or habits necessary to succeed at the next higher position. Thus, a person is not promoted to manage others if he/she does not already show leadership, for instance. Another possibility is to attempt to change the focus on promotion as a reward and instead increase compensation for staying in a particular position and causing management positions to not necessarily have a higher compensation. This is difficult to do as a single company however because of the possibility that management might leave if they feel they are being undercompensated.

Historical precedents

Relatives and corollaries to the Peter principle predate the naming of the theory itself. In Kalila wa Dimna, a Sasanid Persian collection of fables, one of the characters states that "The baseborn weakling is always sincere and useful until he reaches an office he is unworthy of."

See also


  • The Peter Principle: why things always go wrong by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York 1969, 179 pages
  • The Peter Principle by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, Pan Books 1970 ISBN 0-330-02519-8

de:Peter-Prinzip es:Principio de Peter fr:Le principe de Peter da:Peter-princippet


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