Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Peter Principle: Why things always go wrong.

by Charlie Parsley
Incompetence is everywhere. Structures collapse due to faulty design. A theater house is built without enough seating for the theatrical productions. Motorists complain about problems in new cars. High school students cannot read. Sales clerks are insolent. Politicians are indecisive and ineffective.

As a reporter, Raymond Hull has had a variety of opportunities to study the workings of civilized society, and has repeatedly encountered incompetence in nearly every segment of industry. He has investigated and written about government, business, education, and has interviewed people from a variety of professions. He has noticed that, with few exceptions, men ‘bungle their affairs’.

Mr. Hull began asking questions of his acquaintances, and heard plenty of theories about why we’re in the state we’re in. Political irresponsibility. Fiscal crisis. Social changes. One night, during an intermission at a theater performance, Mr. Hull met Dr. Laurence J. Peter, and discovered that they shared this field of interest, as Dr. Peter was a scientist studying incompetence. They met after the show and spent a long evening discussing the doctor’s findings.

Together, they discovered commonalities among their observations. They have outlined these concepts and theories, and have made them available to the casual reader in a handsome 1969 paperback publication.

The Peter Principle: Why things always go wrong, by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. A Bantam Book, copyright 1969.

The Peter Principle applies to laws such as that of Murphy’s: a sort of theoretical social science. The Peter Principle describes the workings of a hierarchy, and so can be said to be the study of hierarchiology.

Dr. Peter hypothesized that the cause of workplace incompetence was an aspect of the way employees are chosen and placed in their position. Additional forces applied from the pyramidal chain-of-command structures predetermine how said employee will then rise up through the hierarchy in their workplace. A particular employee may advance from an entry-level role into a position with responsibility. It is in this moving, or, repositioning as is the current term, which will make all the difference.

If said employee is competent in the new role, he will then be eligible for promotion into another position. If said employee is not competent, then he will not be eligible. Therefore, he will remain in the position he is incompetent at. If said employee is competent as said before, promotion can and likely will continue until the employee reaches a plateau where he is no longer competent in the role and will therefore not be promoted again. Advancement up the hierarchy will continue until an employee is ineligible to proceed any further. He has then ‘reached his level of his incompetence.’

Dr. Peter discovered a commonality: employees are first placed in a role they are competent at. Because of this competence, they are then promoted into another role, which may demand new skills. If the employee is not competent in the new position, then there will be no further promotion, and the employee is then stuck in that role.

“In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

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

Mr. Hull goes on to provide ‘Case Studies’ of particular persons with thoughtful pseudo-names such as Mr. C. Breeze, D. Roane, Mr. B. Lunt, Miss P. Saucier of the Lomark Department Stores, Captain N. Chatters, General Goodwin, Roly Koster, and many more. Such names make page turning enjoyable, as the names are continually fresh and new, and never repeated.

Case studies provide insightful and believable profiles of the moderately competent worker, the competent worker and the incompetent, and how advancement for all will result in failure at some point.

A good, industrious auto mechanic, while and expert with cars, may become an auto shop owner, where he will continue to manage the cars rather than the finances or the other employees. Other employees may lag in their productivity if no one will provide the organization and coordination with the customers.

A current example: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has achieved his success from presenting himself to he public through bodybuilding and then films. He has excelled at entertainment. Yet he has now advanced into a higher public role with a very different skill set, that of politician, for which he has no prior experience. Has he reached his level of incompetence?

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Actually, I think the Peter Principle would more aptly apply to Arnold's successor, Gray Davis. With Arnold, it's more a matter of having reached his level of disinterest. The daily details of the job seem to bore him, and it's only when some sort of political or natural crisis arises that he fully feels in his element.

All of which is to say that he's been no better or no worse than any California governor since Jerry Brown.