Skip to main content

Remember the Peter Principle?

Don is a retired engineer and shares his experiences and knowledge with his readers to help them as technology gets more complicated.

Typical Straw Broom

Typical Straw Broom

Incompetence in the Corporate World

Come On! You’ve run into them haven’t you, dealing with those smiling (sometimes), people with no real customer communication skills who have migrated; or sad to say ,have been hired directly into certain jobs where they have to deal with real people.

Before I retired a decade or so ago, there was a popular book out that described a special class of people in professional jobs who were, often through no fault of their own, incompetent at performing their jobs.

I’m sure that many of you have never heard of them, but there are far too many people, especially the ones working in large corporations who are actually victims of this theory mentioned in the book called THE PETER PRINCIPLE by Laurence Peter.

The root of the problem mentioned in the book is the fact that corporations, if they are successful, eventually reach a size where they have employees who cannot perform the job that they were promoted into.

To paraphrase this interesting book in one sentence, it states that everyone who is good at their jobs will eventually get promoted. And, they will continue to get promoted until they are promoted into a job that are not very good at. Once they reach this point in their careers, they will not get promoted anymore.

So, according to this theory, employees are invariably promoted until they reach their level of incompetence; and they will stay in that job until they retire, or are fired.

Promotions are For Doing a Good Job

Think about it. Let’s say someone gets a job with a company, for a job, any job really; but let’s say for this example its a sweeper in a factory.

The company hires a new guy who consistently does a good job every day; he sweeps the factory floor for his eight hour shift, and his boss is happy with his work.

After a few months, his boss gives him a raise because good sweepers are hard to find. Not everyone wants to sweep floors for a living, but here’s a guy that is really good at his job.

The next year, his boss gives him another raise, again because he is really good at his job and when he works his shift, the factory floors look great.

Well, let’s say that eventually one of the Materials clerks in the parts storage area quits his job. The boss, looks around and there is his best sweeper, still doing a great job.

So, this does’t take much thought, he give the clerk’s job to his favorite sweeper, and then he hires a new guy as his new sweeper. He figures everything is going to be great. He just just promoted a good worker into a higher paying job.

So, here you are, the average American, reading this sequence of events and you’re thinking to yourself; What a great company! People who are doing a good job are being recognized for their hard work by management. Right?

Well, yes, this happens quite often with businesses, especially the progressive ones; not all of them, of course; but by a large majority of them. This is an idealized example of employees being promoted for their skills and work ethic.

But What If?

The problem is that we do not live in a perfect world, nor do corporations hire the perfect person for all of their new job openings.

So, let look at another scenario. What if the ex-sweeper cannot do the job of the Materials Clerk? What if he cannot read well, or what if he cannot operate a computer, or what if he just doesn’t like chasing and ordering parts.

He was happy just sweeping the factory floor and being his own boss all day, and in his new job he just didn’t like having people always pushing him to get their parts for them.

At the same time, let’s say that the new sweeper doesn’t work well without supervision and the factory floor starts to become dirtier and dirtier. Because of this, the factory foreman is constantly looking for the sweeper and pushing him to do a better job. And because of this the foreman is not getting his job done properly either.

Scroll to Continue

So what happened, simply put, is that by promoting a good sweeper to a higher paying job, that had more responsibilities and better pay, the new materials clerk and his replacement in his old sweeper’ job are both now performing at their level of incompetence.

You probably know of people that you have worked with, or even for, who were reporting to work every day and while honestly trying to do their jobs, are actually just getting through the day trying not to be noticed as being incompetent.

What Can Management do?

Here is where the real problem shows its head. Companies are strictly regulated by Federal and State regulations when they need to manage a personnel problem. Employees are protected from arbitrarily being replaced or fired and it can take months, even years of bad reviews and personal oversight before an employer can demote, much less fire an incompetent worker.

This is good right? Well. NO!

Almost every company ends up with a certain number of these incompetent workers, who are not really earning their pay, which in turn can cause the company to become less profitable.

So, the smart company’s management will, at some point, have a Reduction in Force and lay off a certain number of employees in their efforts to get their company back to some level of efficiency and profitability.

On the other hand, far too many companies will, rather than take action and go through all of the red tape of following the many regulations, just keep the incompetent workers and live with the added costs.

Bad Seeds Sprinkled Throughout

Bear with me now! I just want to add one other scenario to what I have mentioned so far.

As an analogy, we all know that when a farmer plants a crop he hopes to make money on, he uses the very best seeds he can get. He knows that he will be more profitable if he uses the best seeds because he will get a larger crop of product to sell.

So, imagine that another farmer buys cheaper seeds to plant but the bags of seeds are sprinkled with bad seeds. These seeds either don’t produce at all, or they only produce half as much crop as the good seeds would have.

Taking this analogy to to the corporate world, over time every company’s workforce, from the lowest paid worker to the highest paid members of management will eventually be operating at their self-determined level of incompetence.

This happens more than you might like to imagine and could eventually drive the company out of business.

In Summary

Rather than bore you with other more complicated examples of this principle, I’ll just try to summarize the results of what can strike any company, which is;

Incompetence Breeds Inefficiency, which Breeds Higher Costs, which can destroy a once profitable and viable company.

Nuff Said!

by Don Bobbitt, All Rights reserved.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Don Bobbitt


Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on October 17, 2020:

Liz - Some lessons need to be relearned every decade or so. College professors are often disassociated from the real corporate world and far too often they pass over some hard learned lessons that were quite effective just a few years before.

And, I have also recognized that when you get into a conversation with the ruling generation today (millenials?) over some of these business philosophies, the first thing I get are the "rolled eyes" of rejection.

Anyway, each generation needs to learn their own lessons?

Have a Nice day,


Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on October 17, 2020:

Eric - Sometimes I just enjoy flashing back to past experiences and appreciating what I learned and profited from.

You have a great Day, Eric!


Liz Westwood from UK on October 17, 2020:

You make some interesting points in this thought-provoking article. It makes me look at the business world in a new light.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 16, 2020:

Maybe it was twenty years ago I got promoted. I was good at what I did. I did not want to be an "O" "officer". Deal. Glad I left. I studied this principal in sociology in undergrad. Thank you Mr. Peter and thank you for writing this piece.

Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on October 16, 2020:

Kayode - Love the "Cheater" analogy. Thanks for the read and comment.


Related Articles