The Peter principle and why it inadvertently leads to incompetence

Neil Turner
8 min readNov 23, 2023

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence. In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Laurance Peter, Canadian author and educator

I want to tell you a cautionary tale. It’s a story which has played out countless times in countless organisations. An organisation, let’s call it Fools R Us, finds itself with the need to fill an important role. Perhaps a new role has been created following growth, or after a reshuffle. Perhaps a team or department leader has handed in their notice. With important shoes to fill the recruitment wheels are set in motion.

Like many organisations Fools R Us strongly believes in promoting from within, so an initial short list is drawn up of potential internal candidates. The logic goes that internal promotions help with continuity and provide an all-important carrot for high potential employees. Besides, recruiting a good external candidate could take considerable time and expense. Better to fish from the current employee pond than out on the open water.

The hiring manager reviews the shortlist of potential internal candidates. It’s not a great list to be honest and in truth if everyone on the list had applied as an external candidate they probably would have been rejected because they all lack the sort of experience and competencies that the role requires. Still, the hiring manager figures that if someone is good at their current role, they should be able to step up and make a success of this one as well.

After much deliberation the hiring manager asks the best candidate from a decidedly average bunch if they would be prepared to take on the role. They don’t see the need to follow the usual interview and assessment process because this person is a known quantity. Well, their performance in their current role is at least a known quantity.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that a poor choice has been made for this key role in the organisation. As the weeks turn to months the new appointment continues to struggle to get to grips with their new role, one that is very different from their previous one. They are like a fish out of water, floundering outside of the well-known waters they used to swim in.

As things continue to turn from bad to worse the new appointment curses being put in this situation, of being asked to take on a role they are ill prepared for. They were doing well in their previous role, were seen as a safe pair of hands. Now they are simply seen as out of their depth, incompetent even.

Does this story sound familiar? Perhaps you have seen it, or versions of it at your current organisation, or at previous organisations. Perhaps you have even experienced it yourself. This cautionary tale is an example of the Peter principle in action.

The Peter principle

The Peter principle was outlined by Laurance Peter (hence the name). It states that:

“People in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

The Peter Principle, Laurance Peter

Laurance Peter, author of the Peter Principle

Laurance Peter outlined this principle in 1969 (check out this interview with Laurance Peter from the BBC archives if you want to find out more about how he originally came up with it). Over 50 years later I think that it’s still as true as ever, especially in newer industries such as the tech industry, where potential is so often valued over wisdom and experience. If the future really does belong to nerds, geeks, makers, dreamers and knowmads, it’s likely that quite a few of them will be incompetent because they have been promoted into roles they are ill-equipped and ill-suited to take on.

How to combat the Peter principle

There will always be incompetent people in the world, a cursory glance at the world of politics will continue to confirm that. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to be surround by them. Here are some ways that you can combat the Peter principle within your own organisation.

Have a robust recruitment process in place

Just because someone is good at their current job, it doesn’t mean that they will be good at a higher-level role within the organisation. The sheer number of once great sports men and women who failed to make the grade as coaches and managers are shining examples of this.

It’s therefore important to assess a candidate’s ability to perform in the higher-level role, not just their current one. Afterall, past success is no guarantee of future success. It also goes without saying that it’s very important to have a robust recruitment process in place, regardless of whether it’s an internal candidate, or an external candidate being considered. An external candidate certainly wouldn’t be hired without an interview process, the same should be true of internal candidates as well.

It’s important to have a robust recruitment process in place for both internal and external candidates

Avoid convenient internal promotions

As any hiring manager will tell you, recruiting from outside of a company can often be a long, painful and expensive process. It can therefore be tempting to take the quicker, easier, and usually cheaper route of promoting an internal candidate. Whilst this might make sense in the short-term, if that candidate doesn’t yet have the necessary skills, competencies and experience for the new role then it’s certainly not going to make sense in the long-term. An internal candidate shouldn’t be promoted because it’s the convenient thing to do, they should be promoted because it’s the right thing to do in the long run.

Interim appointments should be a last resort

An interim appointment, someone to hold the fort until a more qualified person can take charge is the very definition of the Peter principle. Someone who is invariably not yet ready to take on the role (otherwise they wouldn’t be appointed on an interim basis) and therefore is not yet competent in the role has none the less been asked to take charge.

Whilst interim appointments are sometimes a necessary evil, it goes without saying that it’s always preferable to have someone who is competent in place over an interim appointment, and certainly to minimise the amount of time an interim appointment is left holding the fort. For example, having someone in place for 6 months or more on an interim basis should be setting off alarm bells within an organisation.

Strike a balance between internal promotions and external recruitment

An organisation that always promotes internally can become very insular and homogenous. On the other hand, an organisation that instinctively looks to hire from outside when an important position becomes available can suffer from a lack of continuity, not to mention disgruntled employees who see little opportunity for progression within their own organisation.

It’s therefore important to strike a balance between internal promotions and external recruitment. External hires can bring fresh ideas, fresh thinking and established know-how into an organisation, whereas internal promotions can help with continuity and provide all important opportunities for progression.

Support non-managerial progression

Many organisations enact the Peter principle because the only way for an individual to progress is by becoming a manager. In fact, I once worked for a software company that was unwittingly haemorrhaging senior engineers because the only progression open to them was becoming a team or project manager, a prospect that truly horrified some of the engineers! It might not surprise you that many people don’t aspire to become a manager, and equally many people are ill-suited to becoming a manager.

It’s therefore important that a progression framework within an organisation supports non-managerial progression, not just managerial progression. By providing different pathways individuals are not forced into a management or leadership role they are ill equipped and ill-suited to take on, simply to progress.

It’s important to provide non-managerial progression opportunities, such as an individual contributor progression pathway

Upskill before a progression, not just following one

As illustrated by our earlier tale, when someone is thrown in at the deep-end they rarely if ever have the time, or capacity to upskill their competencies. They are too busy simply staying afloat to focus on their own learning and development.

It’s obviously important for someone to upskill their competencies in a new role. The most effective time to start doing this is not once they’ve started to get the hang of the role, but before they’ve even started. By identifying potential talent within an organisation and by having a clear progression framework in place internal candidates can start to build the competencies they will require prior to a progression, not just once they’ve progressed.

It’s important to provide training and development prior to a progression, not just after one

Recognise your own incompetency

No-one is truly competent in a new role, even if they’ve carried out a similar role in a different organisation. To some degree we are all incompetent, at least to begin in.

If you’ve taken on a new role, or are thinking about your own progression then it’s important to recognise your own incompetency and to think about how you can address it. For example, perhaps you can find a mentor, or coach to work with. Perhaps you can reach out to more experienced colleagues who can share their wisdom and experience. Perhaps you can proactively undertake some personal development training. Being conscious of your own incompetency can help you to identify learning and development areas for you to work on.

Conclusion

There will always be incompetent people in the world. By acknowledging the Peter Principle and by actively putting measures in place to combat it within in your own organisation you can hopefully ensure that you’re at least not surrounded by them.

See also

Image credits

Jester image by Bernd from Pixabay
Laurance Peter from BBC archive
Job interview photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
Training group photo by Mapbox on Unsplash

Originally published at https://www.uxforthemasses.com on November 23, 2023.

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Neil Turner

Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.