Major Teoh’s Blog

February 9, 2007

Peter’s Principle

Filed under: Heera Singh — Major (Rtd) Teoh @ 3:22 pm

Peter’s Principle

By Heera Singh *

Have you ever been in a position where you have wondered about how your boss (whom you think is not up to the job) came to be in the rank/position he is in? Have you ever been to a conference and wondered how that guy who gave that totally absurd presentation ever become a CEO? If you have, then welcome to the concept of the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle concept was introduced by Dr. Laurence Johnston Peter in his book of the same title in 1968. The concept of this principle is that in organizations, new employees typically start in the lower ranks, but when they prove to be competent in their job, they get promoted to a higher rank and to a new job.

The flawed thinking behind the promotion is that if you are good at your current job, then you will also be good at your next job. This promotion process then goes on indefinitely, until the employee reaches a job where he or she is no longer competent! And why are they incompetent? It is because they have reached a position above their career potential.

A good example to explain this would be when a good and dedicated teacher is promoted to the post of principal of a school. This teacher soon finds out that the skills and competencies required of a teacher and principal are totally different. It comes as no surprise therefore when the promoted teacher performs miserably in his/her new job, not due to lack of commitment but lack of the relevant skills and competencies.

A surprising number of people are promoted this way and although incompetent, they are kept in the job as it is very difficult to ‘demote’ someone. The net result is that many of those in management and lower levels of an organization are filled by incompetent employees, who got there because they were quite good at doing different work than the work they are currently expected to perform.

Another good example of this concept is in the case of a sales department where it is usual to promote the best sales person to a management position. The nature of the new job however is totally different i.e. managing a sales force. The sales person may be very good at doing sales but falls short when it comes to managing people. Hence he has been promoted to a job that he is incompetent in, triggering the concept of the Peter Principle.

How many times have we seen this principle being demonstrated in organizations? How many times have we all at some time or other wondered about how certain people got promoted to their present positions?

Ironically they are there not because they are good at their present job, but because they were good at their past jobs. And as they cannot do their present jobs well, they then carry on doing some of the tasks involved in ‘their past jobs’.

How many times have we seen managers go on and on about the font and format of a report rather than the substance of it; How many times have we seen a sales manager trying to teach a sales person how to sell when his priority should be drawing up sales strategies for his sales force: How many times have we seen CEO’s getting involved in the administration of the company annual dinner when the mission statements and strategies for the organization have yet to be drawn up. The list is endless.

There is no escaping this concept in organizations as this flawed thinking that someone who is good at his present job will similarly be good at his new job will prove to be very difficult to change. Some possible ways to minimize this problem would be as follows:

1.. Always ensure that whenever a person is promoted, it is ability in the future job that will play a critical role in the promotion process, and not ability in his present job. Job specifications and competencies must be clearly stated out and criteria set against which individuals can be measured accurately.
2.. Have a performance development program where individuals can only be promoted if they have attended a certain skills set program.
3.. Put individuals in ‘acting’ roles, so that they can be evaluated before being formally placed in their new jobs.
The Peter Principle exists in all Malaysian organizations and constitutes a loss to the organization in relation to work output, efficiency, motivation etc. Most of these organizations do not realize it but in promoting inappropriately they are actually adding incompetent employees to their payroll.

Taking some of the measures stated above may help, but to eradicate this phenomenon is certainly not going to be easy as it requires a massive change in mindset of Malaysian managers and employees alike. But then whoever said that management is easy!!


* Heera Singh is the Principal Consultant of HEERA Training and Management Consultancy. He can be contacted at HP: 0126083708. Please visit:


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