The Peter Principle – Let’s talk about it!

Preventing the risk of failure in your organization


This morning, I woke up to a text message from a friend. He shared this interesting article on the Peter Principle. Honestly, I have never come across this principle before, and I was intrigued to know more about the concept. The concept is funny; the reality is not for those unfortunate enough to run into it. It could certainly help one of you, though. As a lifelong learner and a professional in HR, it is essential to do research and always be open to learning and sharing new things even if it does not make sense at first.

What is the Peter Principle?

In short, the Peter principle states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.” Sounds weird, right? Yup, that’s why I needed to learn more about this theory. How could someone reach a level of incompetence within an organization? According to this principle, if you perform well in your job, you will likely be promoted to the next level of your organization’s hierarchy. You will continue to rise the ladder until you reach the point where you can no longer perform well. The key word to remember is “Hierarchy” (yes – corporate structure)!

Peter Principle graph In 1969, a book (The Peter Principle) gave a new explanation for the incompetence in an organization: internal promotion! The Canadian author Laurence Peter explains the story of people who can no longer grow professionally! It demonstrates that an employee evolves until they reach their level of incompetence. I know it sounds dramatic, but keep reading to make sense of all this.

The author justifies this with two observations:

  1. A competent employee will be promoted to a higher hierarchical level = We develop high-performing employees.
  2. An incompetent employee is not promoted or demoted = Non-performing employees remain in their positions.

I even asked my friend if he was a victim of the Peter principle, to which he replied with a laughing emoji. I guess we are all in this together.

In short, all the positions of an organization end up being filled by incompetent employees! That’s why, according to Laurence Peter, “why things always go wrong.” I know it’s not too optimistic. But I’m pretty sure you realized why you always feel surrounded by incompetent people, or maybe you feel like you are incompetent (me included).

Let’s demystify this principle – or I should say observations!


It has been found in research made by three professors of MIT, the University of Minnesota, and Yale analyzing the performance of 53 035 sales employees concluded that the best salespeople were more likely to a) be promoted and b) perform poorly as managers. The research found that “the most productive worker is not always the best candidate for manager, and yet firms are significantly more likely to promote top frontline sales workers into managerial positions. As a result, the performance of a new manager’s subordinates declines relatively more after the managerial position is filled by someone who was a strong salesperson before promotion.”

Often, the internal promotion has a «royal» way, all found or, by default, management. In other words, to evolve, you have to become a manager.

Among those who want to evolve, not everyone necessarily wants to become a manager. But if they have to choose between not changing and evolving into a manager… well, we know what many will choose.

We are not (not born) managers; we become them. It is developed and learned.

Note that this applies INTERNATIONALLY as well (for my Africans in the back, I know what you are thinking). From my little experience, I’ve come across people who held very high positions in their respective organizations and were incompetent (I like to think I could have done their job better).

What to do about it – Individual perspective!

You may want to avoid getting promoted. I know y’all are coming for my throat, but please let me explain. One of the most significant pieces of self-awareness is the knowledge that management, whatever its perks, might not be worth the burdens it will impose on you. For example, I significantly contribute to team cohesion, strategic thinking, and community outreach. I’ve also had minor roles where I had to manage other people, but I was not too successful at it (I mean, I can still learn some tools and be better at it, but I am fully aware that at the moment, it is not for me).

           In addition to being rarely accompanied, taking a new position is often underestimated in terms of resources to be allocated to support and monitor the process and the time required to upgrade skills and obtain initial results,

If you’re a top whatever in your new field (insert any position title here) or newly promoted, get humble and collaborative fast. Start by taking each team member to coffee and asking somewhere in the conversation, “How can I best support you in my new role?” Then write it down. Then do it. Simple right? Just do it!

You need help with the transition. 

Prepare yourself. Ask for help, guidance, and advice. Listen to your peers who have been doing it for years.

If a top colleague from your team just became your new boss, it might be time to move on. All jokes aside, you may want to think about your next steps if you are not comfortable with this team.

What to do about it – Organization perspective!

Objectify the competence. What makes competence in the company and the different functions? Yes, the company must be competent in competence management! It is necessary to define what competence is to be able to evaluate it (from the moment of recruitment), measure it, and develop it.

Think about all the different ways to facilitate mobility. There isn’t one way to the top. There are always several ways to help your employee evolve and grow professionally:

– in the same position by enriching the scope and/or empowerment (accountability/empowerment/transversality);

– by adding specific functions to a position as project manager, technical reference, facilitation, etc.;

– by cross-functional mobility (or assignment), moving to a different position on a similar level of responsibility, and/or in another entity;

– by vertical mobility: evolution towards a different position on a higher level of responsibility (technical, managerial, commercial, etc.).

Support internal mobility… yup as an organization, you should support your employees by creating space to learn, mentorship programs, training, individual coaching, workshops, etc. You know the drill!! Don’t forget to consider exit doors to facilitate the transition of employees that want to leave if they wish. Your organization is not a golden prison.

Picture of Aissatou

Key takeaways – Luckily, there are ways to prevent employees from falling into the Peter Principle trap. They include demoting without stigmatizing, offering higher pay without promotion, and working with alert employees (This means working with a team of people who know the extent of their capabilities and skills.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *