The other day, out of nowhere, one of my sons asked me, “What’s the Peter Principle?” I scrambled together something about people tending to get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Then, of course, curiosity compelled me to find the book. And I did—quite a feat considering the number of books we own and the lack of any discernable organization. It was, as I remembered, a slim, black hardcover; it was also the 1969 edition, the year it was first published. Even if the book were a first edition—it doesn’t appear to be—its worth would be diminished. As usual, my husband marked and underlined the crap out of it.
My answer to my son was reasonably accurate. Early on, Peter & Hull provide the principle: “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It was only afterward that I wondered why my son had asked the question. But it was too late; he was already out the door.
While much of the book is taken up with permutations on the original principle, the book is much more and pretty wise at that. I’d also forgotten the book includes wonderfully droll Victorian-looking black-and-white pictures. Intrigued, I found out the authors got permission from Punch to publish the pictures without their original captions.
But back to the wisdom. Most of us are competitive enough to view a promotion favorably, and perhaps accept a new position without enough reflection. I was pretty happy as a college teacher, but flattered when I received one promotion and then another. Now I’m mostly in administration and miserable. I’m not sure I would have accepted Peter & Hull’s advice had I remembered it pre-promotion: “Lasting happiness is obtainable only by avoiding the ultimate promotion, by choosing at a certain point in one’s progress, to abandon one-upmanship…” Hmmm…
The book is also wickedly funny. Consider this section on the distinction between Pseudo-Achievement Syndrome and Final Placement Syndrome. They provide a useful selection of choices based on the question, “‘Is the person accomplishing any useful work?’ If the answer is:
a) ‘YES’ – he has not reached Final Placement Syndrome and therefore exhibits only the Pseudo-Achievement Syndrome.
b) ‘NO’ – he has reached his final level of incompetence, and therefore exhibits the Final Placement Syndrome.
c) DON’T KNOW – you have reached your level of incompetence. Examine yourself for symptoms at once!”
Answer “c” cracked me up.
While the book lapses into occasional cutseyness (a new word, and don’t you dare refudiate it!) and the self-evident, I’m thinking employers should re-read it now and then and take a look around.
The last chapter, “Creative Incompetence” was my personal favorite. Here, Peter & Hull explain how to avoid getting promoted by practicing a bit of harmless incompetence such as picking up rubber bands and paper clips out of the wastebasket in a show of “niggling, officious economy” or occasionally parking your car in the place reserved for the company president.
A light read that provokes more thought than you’d imagine.