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Peter Principle

Peter Principle: A ‘Bad Boss’ Early Warning System?

How can you spot a boss who may turn out to be bad? Can the ‘Peter Principle’ be used as a bad boss early warning system? We think so. Here we discuss some of Laurence Peter’s excellent insights, based on his famous ‘Peter Principle’ – that people tend to be promoted until they reach a job which they can’t really manage.

We explore the subtle techniques poor managers sometimes adopt to substitute other activities for the work they should be doing. Spotting these techniques is perhaps the first step in dealing with poor management.

Difficulties at work can arise from a wide range of factors, but what if the problem is specifically poor management? Sometimes poor managers disguise their lack of ability with agression, defensiveness, aloofness, negativity or an authoritarian approach. Such managers can seen as difficult to get on with. Professor Bob Sutton refers to the dangers such managers can pose to organizations in his excellent book The No Asshole Rule. Poor as this management approach may be, at least it has the benefit of being relatively easy to spot! We’ve addressed ways to deal with this type of management in articles such as: Manage Your Boss and The Value of a Good Manager.

peter principleFar too often though, poor management comes in a more affable guise. How many of us have nice, easy-going but essentially ineffective managers?

A basic tenet of the Happy Manager is that we endorse a humanist approach to management. Look after your colleagues and they will look after your customers and your organization. However it’s still important that managers are effective. There is no point being nice if organizational objectives are not being met and jobs are risk.

It may be too easy to promote people because of their personality or their ability to ‘get along’ – with others or with systems. The problem is that all too often, these people are just no good at what they’re promoted to do: they can’t manage. They may be ignorant of their behaviour and of its impact on the organization and its people. Worse, they may be aware of it and actively disguise it!

In the late 1960’s, Laurence Peter and co-writer Raymond Hull powerfully captured this dilemma in their book “The Peter Principle”. Their central argument became known as ‘The Peter Principle’. In essence, this principle is summed up by their own words:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

Although perhaps a little dated, their book still contains some useful insights. One implication of the Peter Principle should be of particular interest to all stakeholders in an organization. If eventually all employees reach a level of incompetence, who then is being effective and productive? Again, the clue comes in the authors’ own words:

“work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

This is a sobering thought then. Both for those people in any organization ‘accomplishing’ work, and for any responsible senior manager.

Peter Principle: 4 Early Warnings

What can be done about this? Especially if the incompetence is at a managerial level? The authors indicated that one of the most important aspects of the Peter Principle is the idea of unconscious incompetence. But understanding this type of managerial incompetence is only the first step. Once this is done, effective managers should then try to identify and deal with the sometimes subtle techniques adopted by poor managers to disguise their incompetence.

Unconscious Incompetence

One particular issue Peter describes relates to people who never realise they’ve reached their level of incompetence. How can that happen? How do you identify such people and what can you do about it?

“Many an employee never realizes that he has reached his level of incompetence. He keeps perpetually busy, never loses his expectation of further promotion, and so remains happy and healthy.”

Fundamentally, such a manager practices the activity of substitution. They’re inclined to replace the real work they are supposed to be doing with other activities or duties which they probably carry out to perfection. But they are not necessarily the correct activities for effective performance at their level. This is wasteful enough in any worker but has potentially catastrophic consequences if managers are unconsiously incompetent. The Peter Principle relates to several substitution approaches but here we focus on three in particular: perpetual preparation; side issue specialization; and image replacing substance. Whether deliberate or inadvertant, it is still critical to identify these activities and take action to deal with them.

Perpetual Preparation

Managers who mask their incompetence with substitution tend to argue that it’s better to be safe than sorry. They busy themselves with endless preparatory activities. Watch out for a seemingly endless series of meetings, reports and reviews, all before any obvious action is taken. Are there several attempts to confirm the need for action? Perhaps in the hope that the need will eventually go away! If this need for action doesn’t go away is the next step an over elaborate study of all possible alternative options, methods and outcomes? Is this further delayed by calls for expert consultation, or even referred responsibility?

Note that these activities may be appropriate in many circumstances. But when they are continually combined do they really indicate a clever smoke screen to avoid actually doing something or making a decision.

Side Issue Specialisation

A second technique is side issue specialisation. This is where incompetent managers substitute a zealous concern for something they can do, for what really needs to be done. Unable to do the task required, the incompetent manager finds plenty of other things about the organisation in which to immerse themselves. The motto is: look after the mole hills and the mountains will look after themselves.

This should not be confused with managing one’s strengths. We are keen advocates of strengths-based management and agree with Peter Drucker when he says: “It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.” However, where that strength does not add value to the organization, or where the incompetence is counter-productive, action needs to be taken. Neglecting important management tasks because it’s easier to focus on the easiest will lead to low productivity, ineffectiveness and poor staff morale.

Image Replaces Substance

The third substitution technique discussed in the Peter Principle is that of replacing substance with image. This can be typified by managers who excel at being at the right places, attending the right meetings and meeting the right people. Effective networking is a key part of any management role, but this technique is more about being seen to be busy, rather than actually getting things done. Incompetent managers may place great emphasis on the perception of others. They can often be heard saying the right things or appearing to be taking action, but the reality is something far removed. A focus on image can be a very successful technique for hiding a lack of substance. And revealing that shallowness can take quite some time!

The Most Important Decision an Organization Makes

Managers do indeed make the difference – find out how

Though dated, the Peter Principle can still be a very useful tool. It can help to identify the subtle and clever techniques used by someone promoted beyond their competence. Being aware of these techniques can serve as an early warning system. It serves to highlight one of Peter Drucker’s most pertinent arguments. That decisions about placing people are critical because they determine the performance capacity of the organisation. He therefore argues that :

“to keep misfits in a job they cannot do is not being kind: it is being cruel. But this is no reason to let the person go …… the proper course of action ….. is to offer the misfit a return to his old job or an equivalent.”

All too often, particularly in hierarchical organizations, these decisions are not taken or managed. The consequences can be catastrophic. Drucker concludes that:

“people in organisations tend to behave as they see others being rewarded. When the rewards go to non-performance, to flattery or to mere cleverness, the organisation will soon descend into non-performance, flattery or cleverness.”

Perhaps the final thought should be left with Laurence Peter, who re-counted a story attributed to the Duke of Wellington:

“Wellington, examining the roster of officers assigned to him for the 1810 campaign in Portugal, said, ‘I only hope that when the enemy reads the list of their names, he trembles as I do.”

Look out for “the Peter Principle” at work, the 4 issues discussed above may indeed be a helpful “Bad Boss early warning system!


If you found our discussion of the Peter Principle interesting, you might also like to look at: Time Management At Work: Is Busyness Killing Business?, for more tips on how to manage time-wasting at work. Alternatively our article on Boss Time Management provides some broader tips on how to work effectively with your boss.

If you want to read some more background to the “Peter Principle” you can find out more here.

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