The Peter Principle — Book Summary and Review

My reading notes on The Peter Principle.

If you or I or anyone else performed well at our jobs, we will get promoted but, what’s the catch?

The catch?

Each time we get promoted, our new position will require fewer and fewer of the skills, perceptions, habits or managerial abilities that enabled us to shine at our first job/position. And at some point in this cycle of recurring promotion, we might get promoted into a job which we aren’t prepared for and worse can’t perform. In simple terms, we will rise to our level of incompetence, and there you will stay.

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Let’s consider some example.

  • Good political campaigners are seldom competent at governing.
  • ‘Good followers’ don’t magically become ‘good leaders’
  • Conformists thrive while rebels like me, most often don’t. (therefore, we need to pick our battles carefully)

Peter suggests that organizational problem is behind this phenomenon. The people at the top, just aren’t good at their jobs. And the greatest fear of those at their level of incompetence atop the ladder is being found out.

That’s why mid-level managers revile those who excelled. If you show excellence, you will be deemed as threatening the hierarchy. And all hierarchies share one common goal, that is to maintain their position in it.

Therefore, the most necessary survival skill an employee needs are ‘creative incompetence,’ that is, doing enough to get by, but not enough to be offered a promotion, ever.

Have you wondered why those high up in a company or an organization or bureaucracy perform their jobs so poorly?

Well, now you know.

Visible Mediocrity

The Peter Principle comes with a crucial corollary: “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” Behaviours like “professional automatism” thwart the will and desires of competent people. Peter cautions that professional robots vest in the identifiable chores of work – such as filling out forms – rather than in the work itself. This employee or boss acts and works as if paperwork matters more than the actual task the papers describe.

But the automaton knows paperwork is quantifiable. If you do all your paperwork, you might get promoted. Someone who’s really good at a job but hates paperwork doesn’t stand a chance. Superiors like “dependability, consistency” and “method.” They don’t care much for originality. Peter warns that most bosses value “internal consistency” over “efficient service.”

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Pull and Promotion

To rise in any hierarchy, you must have pull, defined as your relationship “by blood, marriage or acquaintance” with someone above you in the hierarchy. Nobody likes anybody who gets promoted due to pulls. No, wait. Nobody likes anybody else who gets promoted that way. Peter and Hull explain that when you get promoted, regardless of your pull, your advance is clearly due to your superior job skills.

You gain pull by finding and influencing a patron, escaping the job ceiling above you and being ready to do whatever your patron demands. Those with the most patrons have the most pull. To play this game, never show ambition for a position above your patron’s job; make every patron feel like the most important person in your work life.

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Push and Promotion

Push means being pushy. Push exists in a perpetual struggle against those who have seniority. The people above you resist your push because they can. Some superiors will even admire your push but only those you can’t push you aside on your upward trajectory. Flashy self-improvement, like taking extra classes, is the most irritating, the weakest form of push. Pushy people often show off “pseudo-achievements.”

While such deeds can impress dim superiors, they’ll enrage your peers. Push shows greater will but less effectiveness than pull, so “never push when you can pull.”

“Followers and Leaders”

Having followers become leaders usually ends in disaster. When loyal, obedient, good followers become leaders they seldom “exercise leadership.” In fact, they generally make their direct reports much less efficient and “waste the time” of those above them. However, Peter and Hull note in contrast, bad followers often make excellent leaders.

Take Thomas Edison; he failed as a newsboy, but once he was in charge of his own business, he changed history. When real leaders appear, fear and resentment grow. Peter calls this “hypercaninophobia,” fear of the “top dog.” The only thing worse is “hypercaninophobia complex” – fear that someone lower in the hierarchy could one day become your top dog.

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Freud’s Analysis

The pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud – “a satirist at heart” – recognized the curse of the “Generalized Life–Incompetence Syndrome” well before other thinkers. Freud didn’t call it that, of course, but this book does. Suffering from this syndrome generates tremendous levels of frustration. Freud tended to identify such frustrations as manifest in various sexual neuroses. He thought frustration springs from the impotent need to change your life’s position to something better – this might show up, for instance, as the urge to get a promotion.

Never mind. Peter and Hull teach that true frustration will set in only after you achieve that promotion. You can obtain true, enduring happiness only by never being promoted beyond your natural level of competence.

“Hierarchiology & Politics”

The motivating thought pattern of anyone in a hierarchy is that the less those lower down getting paid, the more “salaries, bonuses, dividends and fringe benefits” become available for those higher up. That’s one reason, Peter notes, that a sensible hierarchy never hires more people than it needs.

However, “inefficient hierarchies” often hire more people than necessary, because they’ve promoted most of their leaders beyond their competence level, so they can’t do their jobs. Thus, people at the top hire more incompetent people to pick up the slack from existing incompetents.

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Life-Competence

Being incompetent at a job, as Peter describes it, will seldom derail a career. Incompetence often guarantees career success. But what about being incompetent at life? Humankind has, through history, progressing from “caveman to fire lighter to bronze smelter to iron founder.” This means people may fool themselves into believing that humanity always will continue to progress and self-promote. Instead, Peter finds an ominous stalling in human progress, a “hierarchical regression.”

This refers to the ever-increasing devaluing of the markers of merit that people once found meaningful, like high school graduation. Accordingly, due to hierarchical regression, college degrees will carry less social or job-market weight and their value will only decrease.

Unpretentious Wit

Peter and Hull write in an unpretentious conversational style of such readable simplicity that it suggests genius. Their dry wit permeates the book. They indulge in made-up jargon, rules, and titles like “The Lateral Arabesque.” Their sense of humour stems from an era of longer concentration spans, though the book is short.

Will today’s audiences have the patience for its slowly unfurling gags?

The book was a smash hit, and its popularity endures 47 years after its first publication. Peter and Hull wrote their formulas mostly for their own amusement, and they are profoundly amusing. Their perceptions, intended as a joke, touched a chord. People started to look at their bosses differently, wondering if they’d reached their level of incompetence. Managers grew a little defensive, but they asked themselves the same question. Such scrutiny and self-scrutiny surely enhanced performance or spurred change.

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The Peter Principle in Action

Ironically, Robert L. Sutton, the best-selling author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, unintentionally demonstrates how inescapable the Peter Principle can be. Sutton, a good business author, reaches his own level of incompetence with his tone-deaf Foreword to the book’s singular, witty, groundbreaking insights. Worse, Sutton reveals a number of its best lines and most amusing bits of made-up jargon, robbing the reader of the pleasure of discovering these gems in context. Sutton purloins those lines because they are funny – is that push or pull? The wise reader will skip the Foreword and savour The Peter Principle uncut. This still-timely, still-relevant, an accurate and cautionary classic will amuse and enlighten anyone who must work with or for anyone else.

I would recommend further related reading in Grit by Angela Duckworth, Principle by Ray Dalio, Maximize Your Potential and Act Like Success, Think Like Success by Steve Harvey.

“The Peter Principle has cosmic implications.”
–New York Times

Back in 1969, Lawrence J. Peter created a cultural phenomenon with his brilliant, outrageous, hilarious, and all-too-true treatise on business and life, By posing–and answering–the eternal question, “Why do things always go wrong?”

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Author: Muhamad Aarif

A notorious book addict by night and an oil and gas executive by day. As Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." So, read, read, and read some more.

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