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VINE VOICEon October 26, 2008
It's interesting yet perplexing, that when I studied Public Administration (yawn), we studied German economist and sociologist Max Weber, but never once, did our courses include the work of Laurence Peter. They should have.

The "Peter Principle" was written in 1969, but you'll realize immediately it's still very accurate and useful today. Many anecdotes and case studies may remind you of yourself, someone, or some people you've worked with. There are illustrations, diagrams, charts, graphs, and the ever-present Bell Curve. There are too many good things in this book to list. It's also a quick and easy-read.

The author's background is very relevant to the credibility of this book, which in my opinion, is a true classic. Laurence J. Peter received an Ed.D from Washington State University and had extensive experience as a teacher, counselor, school psychologist, prison instructor, consultant, and university professor. (I don't know much about the other author, Raymond Hull.) Here a a couple of concepts from the many things in the "Peter Principle."

Push & Pull:

Two different ways to "move up." No reason to go into detail, but a person pushing upward usually will not get the result of a person who's "pulled up from above." My favorite quote in the "Peter Principle" is on the "Push & Promotion" chapter on page 63:

"Never stand when you can sit; never walk when can ride; never Push when you can Pull."

Judging the competence of an employee:

Outsiders usually don't judge your performance. In general, your superior does. So if you have a:

Competent superior:

If a superior is competent they evaluate his/her subordinate by the usefulness of work. Performance. Output.

Incompetent superior:

If a superior is incompetent they will often judge the subordinate by "behavior that supports the rules, rituals, and forms of the status quo. Promptness, neatness, courtesy to superiors...." This is evaluating input, not output.

Creative Incompetence:

Most of us have witnessed and perhaps experienced a happy and talented person doing well at what they do in the workplace. Because of his/her optimum performance they're offered a promotion. A raise, yes. But also more stress, more time consumed, more responsibilities, and often new duties and skill-sets needed at the new position.

Some employees understand that in their particular circumstances the negatives outweigh the positives of a promotion. When realize they are next in line, or close to getting that promotion they don't want, they have (at least 2) options:

One, carefully refuse the promotion, while vocalizing that he/she is still committed and dedicated to the company, etc. This is called "Peter's Parry," and is not recommended by the author for most (but not all) employees.

The second option for the employee to avoid advancement, is not by refusing promotion but by intentionally doing minor and forgivable mistakes that will cause him/her to never be offered a promotion, but retain the current position. This is ---> Creative Incompetence. The author offers some techniques in the sub-section of this chapter for successfully executing Creative Incompetence. Peter states it's important that one conceal the fact that they want to avoid a promotion.

Again this book is almost 40 years old. Some of the individual (worker) values and the corporate climate has changed since then. But in private, public, and non-profit organizations, we see many of Peter's situations today. Too many.


When someone reaches his/her level of incompetence (called Peter's Plateau) the Zero PQ - Zero Promotion Quotient - 0% chance of a promotion exists. Understanding when one reaches the point of Zero PQ is very important. Many employees don't recognize when they hit it, and sometimes when an employee hits the ceiling he/she thinks it's incompetence, inferier skills, or lack of production, when it might actually be politics. They think they are not working "hard enough," or good enough. This person pushes harder by working longer, skipping breaks, and going the extra mile. These are the symptoms of ---> Final Placement Syndrome.

Have you ever witnessed or even experienced Zero PQ at work?

In organizations (i.e., hierarchies) people get promoted as long as they continue to be competent. Eventually they are promoted to a position in which their skills are not adequately applicable for their new position. Therefore other employees at the same level or below carry out the tasks, because these "other employees" have not hit their level of their incompetence, yet.

The Chapters are worthy of listing because they do highlight the points and topics in the book:

1. The Peter Principle
2. The Principle in Action
3. Apparent Exceptions
4. Pull & Promotion
5. Push & Promotion
6. Followers & Leaders
7. Hierarchically & Politics
8. Hints & Foreshadowings
9. The Psychology of Hierarchiology
10 Peter's Spiral
11 The Pathology of Success
12 Non-Medical Indices of Final Placement
13 Health & Happiness at Zero PQ
14 Creative Incompetence
15 The Darwinian Extension

There are numerous sub-chapters within the chapters, as well. This is a practical book with many anecdotes we've seen in real life. The "Peter Principle" can help corporate hierarchical rejectionists and corporate minions alike. A great glossary and chapter index is in the back of this classic.
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on July 29, 2005
In the first chapter of the book, after a few examples of his principle in action, Laurence Peter proposes his Peter principle: "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." He proceeds to take the reader on a journey through the nascent field of "hierarchiology," defining the necessary terms as he goes along. He provides superb insight into why the hierarchies and bureacracies of the world are so inefficient and are becoming increasingly so, why successful people are often unhappy in their jobs and why the most talented people often proceed through their careers without material reward. Peter's observations are funny, but alarmingly true. An excellent resource for the armchair sociologist - highly recommended.
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on June 12, 2009
With this simple phrase on p.15 of my edition of The Peter Principle he explained nearly every problem the human species has faced as we have entered increasingly complex organizations in the development of our civilization,

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence given enough time and enough levels in the hierarchy

And the more I've thought about it, internalized it, experienced corporate hierarchy... the more I've realized that it explains everything.

A housing bubble caused by artificially low inflation rates? Some blame Greenspan but the reality is that he was just serving above his level of competence. It makes sense. America's colony in Iraq flubbed? Some blame Bush or his subordinates but the reality was that they were serving above their level of competence. We all do from time to time. We all think we are the exception.

As acquaintances enter the work force and through my own witness to the mindset of the low level employee, everyone seems to be focused primarily on ascending to the higher levels. Why? I think it is what we do as a species. It is our fate. I don't mean to dissuade blame from individuals, removing responsibility from personal action. I only intened to explain that we shouldn't expect success, we should expect blindingly stupid failure and then be pleasantly surprised when things aren't flubbed up. That's not being cynical or "realist". It is just recognizing human nature. Incompetence knows no boundaries of time or place.

The Peter Principle when published in 1969 raised a storm because many did not want to accept that they existed at their level of incompetence. Business people didn't take it seriously because it was written tounge-in-cheek with full blown laugh out loud moments. Far different from the bland, dry language they were used to while obtaining their MBAs. I thoroughly enjoyed the book because it is an opportune time for me to examine if I have already achieved my level of incompetence.

While the explanations of the Principle could easily be redundant... (the plot is summarized at the beginning as Dr. Peter states the principle) this book isn't redundant, like a Dilbert cartoon with some acute wisdom. Dr. Peter describes, through various case studies and examples, that every perceived exception to the Principle isn't really an exception at all. Complex hierarchies will see its members achieve the ominous final placement. Someday I too can reach this level.I can get stressed out while making poor decisions. I too can wear the badge of administrative "success": the ulcer.

This might all seem a bit pessimistic. A little defeatist. But not at all. The solution is to focus our species on moving forward instead of upwards. We see our cohorts in groups struggling for status on a, "treadmill to oblivion." But Dr. Peter clearly states that we can rescue ourselves by seeing where this unmindful escalation is leading us. If we focus on the quality of our situation we can achieve previously ignored success without obtaining a literal or figurative promotion.

By applying this principle to our everyday experience, we witness many byproducts. For example, the applied Peter Principle approximates that employees in a hierarchy, "do not truly object to incompetence, they merely gossip about incompetence to mask their envy of employees who have pull." ... with pull being the ability to develop a relationship with someone above you in the hierarchy who can pull you up with them. How poignant. We decry good `ol boy networks but rarely focus on the one thing that could break them up, changing our focus from output to input. I can put in a 40-50 hour work week but would I be more productive if I worked 30-35 hours? We may never know because a full-time job insists that I work 40-50 crushing and life imbalancing hours. Society has focused on input in this situation. Can we think of a better solution to this situation? I'll apply Peter's Bridge to this question: if you can't think of a better solution you have already reached your level of incompetence.

Although the observations made in the Peter Principle are obviously applicable to corporate environments, Laurence Peter made some other candid observations of society in these pages. Such as, exposing our modern caste system on p.64 and p.83 of the 2009 edition:

...we have a class system, it is based not on birth but on the prestige of the university one has attended. The graduate of an obscure college does not have the same opportunity for promotion... but as college degrees become the prerequisite for more jobs, soon everyone will have access to his or her level of incompetence.

...with incompetent handling, the test system is only a disguised form of random placement. The purpose of testing is to place the employee as soon as possible in a job which will utilize the highest competence level on his profile. Obviously, any promotion will be to an area of less competence.

Brilliant stuff that has played out over the last 30+ years just as Dr. Peter predicted.
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on April 14, 2014
I thought this book was pretty good. I only gave 4 stars because it gets a bit silly at some points. The author comes up with a lot of different names for a lot of different principles. By the end, you lose track of which is which. I feel like that sometimes after a hard night after a concert with my groupies. There is this girl here and that girl over there and then this other girl passed out on the sofa. Who is that? What was her name? Bah… doesn’t matter…

It’s an interesting concept that individuals rise to their level of incompetence. However, I think we could also explore how many individuals aren’t competent to begin with. I submit that a large segment of the population is incompetent, period. They don’t have to rise to their level of incompetence because they are inherently incompetent. It doesn’t matter what they do for a living… they will do it in an incompetent manner. Let’s call it the Moondonkey Principle.

Now to refine the principle:

Competent people only rise to their level of incompetence if they feign incompetence.

The Moondonkey Principle states that the general population exists in a permanent state of incompetence. There is no job at which they will be competent. No task at which they will be competent. No level at which they will be competent. They are simply incompetent. Period.

On the other hand, there are a small minority of people that are competent. However, these competent people find rising to their level of competence difficult because, by definition, they are surrounded by incompetent people. The inherent flaw in The Peter Principle is that it is based on the assumption that competence is recognized and rewarded. That’s bologna. If you work in a business and your boss is incompetent, how will your boss recognize your competence? Your boss is more likely to recognize a similarly incompetent employee because that employee’s incompetence is a reflection of you bosses own incompetence… which they mistakenly believe is competence.

Even if competence is recognized, is it likely that competence will be rewarded? According to The Moondonkey Principle, the answer is no. If incompetent leadership recognizes competence at a lower level, that competence will not be recognized and rewarded… it will be controlled and marginalized in order to maintain the status quo. Competence is more likely to be penalized.

Therefore, in order for a competent person to rise to their level of competence, the competent person must feign incompetence. The competent person must sit in meetings listening to incompetent people voicing incompetent ideas and nod his or her head in agreement. The competent person must slow down the pace of his or her work… maybe even put in overtime that isn’t necessary. If you do your job too efficiently, then you must not be doing it well. The Moondonkey Principle states that you must put in extra time that is not needed in order to create the perception of doing extra work and/or taking extra time to perfect your work. This may require long breaks to the restroom to sit on the toilet and play games on your phone in order to take up the extra time spent in the office doing nothing.

The competent person must be the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Then, when opportunity presents itself, the competent person must trick incompetent leadership into promoting him or her based on meaningless and irrelevant traits that have nothing to do with the competence required for the position… like worthless overtime.

The Moondonkey Principle is very different than The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle holds that an individual will be promoted based on competence in his or her current position. That trend will continue until they become incompetent in a position. Moondonkey holds that promotion of a competent person is based on the competent person’s ability to feign incompetence in order to manipulate incompetent management into making the promotion decision.

I submit the following case study for your review:

Ace, Inc employs 10 people in its file review department. Their job is to process files for some purpose that isn’t relevant to this discussion. 8 of these employees are incompetent. They work slowly, waste time, are inefficient, and put in extra hours every week in order to get their jobs done… or just get extra pay if they can. 1 employee is competent, but pretends to be incompetent. She intentionally works slowly and/or holds completed work on her desk in order to justify overtime every week. 1 employee is competent and acts in a competent manner. This employee does more work than any other employee, but does not work any overtime.

What is the result? Is the competent employee promoted as The Peter Principle would suggest? Heck no. Anyone that has worked in business knows the answer. The competent employee who acts competent is penalized. He may even be put on a performance improvement plan. Incompetent management doesn’t see him as productive… he can’t be… he isn’t working overtime. They don’t see the quantity of work completed as productive… it can’t be… no one else is doing that much and, of course, he doesn’t work overtime. Rather, his production is seen as evidence that he isn’t following procedures or isn’t taking time with his work. He must be doing sloppy work.

So who gets the promotion? Not the competent employee. Rather, probably an incompetent employee who works the most overtime – overtime that should be seen as evidence of incompetence, but is not seen that way in an environment where the majority are incompetent (which is how things really are). The competent employee who pretends to be incompetent may have a chance as well, but only if she wastes a lot of extra time.

This observation should be obvious to anyone who has worked for a business – especially a large business. How can the business be run by a team of people who are totally clueless? Does the business succeed because of management, or somehow succeed in spite of management?

So how do companies manage to stay in business? Luckily for us all, there are always a few competent people that haven’t figured out that they need to pretend to be incompetent. This small number of competent people, who actually continue to act competent, drive the business and get the work done.… well… until they figure out that they need to act incompetent in order to get promoted. Companies go out of business when they run out of those few competent people and are stocked with incompetent people top to bottom.

That’s The Moondonkey Principle.

What does it all mean? It means we are all screwed. It means that competent people are either (1) marginalized by incompetent management, or (2) have been promoted to their level of incompetence by pretended to be incompetent over a number of years. In other words, there are little to no individuals of positions of power in either business or government that have any competence whatsoever. The world is run by bumbling fools.

Anyway…Having read this book, I’ve been wondering what my level of incompetence might be. Apparently, we all have a ceiling and, if we pass over it, we will be incompetent. I’m not so sure though. Maybe I don’t have a ceiling. I may be an example of omnicompetence.
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on July 19, 2000
This book's subject has been described as "satirical sociology". It's a rather short book that consists of made-up stories about administrative and business hierarchies. Some (if not all) of them are based on true events. Mr. Peter has given his characters funny names and the stories make you laugh frequently, but actually the message of the book is very serious. Mr. Peter demonstrates that endless climbing higher and higher is bound to lead your life into a dead end.
The book's fun to read and, in my opinion, delivers really valuable knowledge. It helps you to stand hold to the pressure from the environment that is telling you that when you are not successful with something, you just need to keep trying harder and investing more. Mr. Peter helps you realise why this won't work.
I have heard that some US government institutions are actually applying Mr. Peter's discoveries in their organization.
If you liked "Parkinson's Law", you'll enjoy this book as well. (And vice versa.)
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on December 13, 2012
The whole time I'm reading this, I'm thinking, "Jesus, this was written in the 60's and it's more truer than ever today." In every organization I've worked in, I've seen the Peter Principle in action. It's depressing and inevitable. It's likely the main downfall of modern business and I would love to work for a company that embraces the principle as a practice to avoid by restructuring the hierarchy.

While the book is fantastic in explaining the different components and manifestations of the PP, it lacks detail in how to manipulate it. I found that section lacking clarity. I have read a few books on bettering oneself and it seems like there's 2 components: recognizing the problem and fixing the problem. This book leans heavily on recognizing the problem and graces the doorstep of fixing the problem. I suppose it's up to me to figure that out in my organization.

I still gave this book 5 stars despite that criticism. It's a classic for business reading and a must-have for anyone looking to climb the corporate ladder based on merit. It's oddly surprising what you'll find out based on that.
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on July 8, 2013
The Peter Principal should be required reading for everyone, it is NOT a joke! Prepare yourself as best you can to avoid the pitfalls of being "managed" by your lesser counterparts, arm yourselves with knowledge, read the Peter Principal and know that it is true!
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on May 5, 2013
A few years ago, I had to deal with a difficult boss. I tried to explain him to someone by comparing him to Michael Scott from "The Office". That person mentioned "The Peter Principle", a concept I had never heard of. After a little research, I came across this book. In a nut-shell, it explains the entire world.

Anyone who has ever worked in an office environment, military organization, or even volunteer group will be able to instantly identify with this work. For some people, they might identify with it in a bad way and realize they embody the Peter Principle.

Everyone who has to deal with other human beings should read this book. It will not solve all your problems, but it will at least help you understand your surroundings better.
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on January 16, 2013
The book is truly a classic for a reason. It explains why things seem to go wrong anywhere there is a hierarchy. Unfortunately, the book solely uses anecdotal evidence to back up the theory. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read.
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VINE VOICEon December 4, 2009
Everyone should read this book as it will provide serious insight into incompetence. Not just in the workplace but in everyday life. The book details that everyone has a certain competence level at which they might excel but at some point their abilities will not provide what is needed without something additional. Ex; why does a successful high school football coach fail as a college coach. Ex; why does a successful salesman fail as a sales manager. This book can not only prevent you from attaining your level of incompetence but it can provide you with insight on how not to promote someone into their level of incompetence.

I read the negative reviews and completely disagree with them. The book does not promote the power of negative thinking, it promotes the power of thinking. It teaches one to understand one's strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to determine if one is qualified to move to the next level or whether more learning and/or more skills are required. I would rather be a successful salesperson than a failed sales manager but if I know that I would fail as a sales manager, I can stay where I am at or determine and study what it would take for me to be a successful sales manager.

If the "Peter Principle" were not so valid, why are there not millions of examples available to support it. Simply look around at individual failures of people that were previously successful. And look at those who continued to become successful. The difference will be that those that continued, knew what would be required (personally and corporately) to achieve success at each next level. If you do not understand what is required then you will fail. If you do not have the necessary skills and do not or cannot obtain them, then you will fail. To me that this the overriding tenet of this book.

This book provides an outstanding look into the failings of individuals and companies and how to prevent it. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
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