Peter Principle In A Nutshell

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Peter PrincipleThe Peter Principle is a management concept that suggests that individuals in a hierarchical organization tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, people are often promoted based on their performance in their current role rather than their ability to perform effectively in the new role. As a result, they may eventually reach a position where they are no longer competent.
Origin and ResearchThe principle was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1969 book, “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” It was presented as a humorous observation of organizational behavior but has since gained attention in management studies.
Key CharacteristicsPromotions Based on Performance: The Peter Principle assumes that employees are typically promoted when they excel in their current roles.
Incompetence at Higher Levels: As employees move up the hierarchy, they may encounter tasks and responsibilities that are beyond their skills and competence, leading to decreased job performance.
Stagnation: Incompetence at higher levels may result in individuals remaining in roles where they are no longer effective, causing organizational inefficiency.
Examples– Common examples of the Peter Principle include a successful salesperson being promoted to a sales manager role, even though their expertise is in sales, not management.
– Another example is an exceptional engineer being promoted to an engineering team lead position, where leadership and communication skills are more critical than technical prowess.
Implications– The Peter Principle highlights the importance of considering a person’s suitability for a new role beyond their current performance.
– It suggests that organizations should prioritize leadership development and provide training and support for individuals transitioning to higher-level roles.
– The principle also underscores the need for regular performance assessments and a willingness to reassign individuals when necessary.
Mitigation– To mitigate the Peter Principle, organizations can implement more rigorous promotion and succession planning processes that assess not only current performance but also leadership potential and skills.
– Providing training and mentorship for newly promoted individuals can help them develop the necessary competencies for their new roles.
Relevance Today– The Peter Principle remains relevant in contemporary discussions of organizational management and career development. It serves as a cautionary reminder to balance promotions with assessments of an individual’s readiness for increased responsibilities.
– Some argue that the principle reflects inherent flaws in traditional hierarchical structures, leading to the exploration of alternative organizational models.
Alternative Views– Critics of the Peter Principle suggest that it oversimplifies the complexities of career advancement and may not apply universally. They argue that with proper training and support, individuals can adapt to new roles effectively.
– Others contend that the principle can be addressed through better talent management practices and a focus on individual growth and development.

Understanding the Peter Principle

Peter argued that in organizations with hierarchical structures, employees were likely to be promoted until they were one rung above their level of competence. Given enough time, every position within an organization would then be filled with incompetent staff.

While the book was originally written as satire, subsequent research into the Peter Principle discovered some degree of truth. 

In the next section, we will discuss some possible causes of position incompetency.

Factors that encourage the Peter Principle

A lack of future skills planning

In 2018, a study of over 200 American businesses found that employees tended to be promoted to managerial positions based on their performance in their previous position. They did not, as a matter of course, consider their managerial potential. 

The study also found that sales employees were more likely to be promoted for management positions based on sales ability alone.

Promotion culture

Many job seekers are attracted to businesses that have a promotion-centric culture. They may have no interest in the nature or scope of the work itself.

As a result, these businesses are more likely to hire unqualified staff who are only motivated by money or status.

How businesses can avoid the Peter Principle

There are some relatively simple ways of avoiding the deleterious effects of the Peter Principle.

These include:

  1. Incorporating a demotion policy. Demoting an employee without the requisite experience is the most obvious solution. But it must be done sensitively and not be equated with failure on the employee’s part. Instead, the individual who authorized the original promotion should accept fault.
  2. Substituting a promotion for better pay. Most employees are thrilled when promoted because of the associated financial benefits. However, a company can still reward excellent work in a role without attaching the reward to a promotion.
  3. Employing self-aware individuals. During the recruitment stage, prospective employees should only be hired if they understand the extent of their capabilities. When a promotion is eventually offered, the employee realizes that the higher workload and broader skillset of the new role are beyond them.
  4. Reassigning employees to another role in a different department. Peter called this process “lateral arabesque”, where incompetent staff are unaware that they’ve been fired from a role they were originally promoted to.

Case Studies

  • Educational Institutions: In universities and schools, exceptional teachers may be promoted to administrative positions, even if they lack the necessary skills for educational leadership.
  • Hospital Management: Senior nurses might be promoted to management roles, but their clinical expertise doesn’t necessarily translate into effective leadership.
  • Retail Chains (Continued): Beyond store management, even at corporate levels, individuals promoted from functional roles like marketing or finance may struggle with strategic decision-making.
  • Police Departments: Outstanding police officers can be promoted to supervisory positions, but they might lack the management skills required to lead a team effectively.
  • Engineering Firms: Highly skilled engineers may become engineering managers, but they may struggle with project management or team leadership.
  • Research Institutions: Talented researchers may be promoted to research group leaders, yet they might face challenges in managing a team and securing funding.
  • Legal Firms: Successful lawyers may ascend to partnership positions but may not excel at managing client relationships and administrative responsibilities.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Staff members passionate about a cause can be promoted to leadership roles but might find it challenging to manage budgets or organizational strategy.
  • Restaurant Chains: Exceptional chefs could be promoted to oversee multiple restaurant locations but may face difficulties in managing staff or logistics.
  • IT Departments: Skilled programmers might be promoted to IT management positions but may struggle with team leadership and project planning.
  • Manufacturing Plants: Expert machine operators may be promoted to supervisory roles but could encounter difficulties managing production schedules and personnel.
  • Creative Agencies: Talented designers or writers may be elevated to creative director positions but may not excel in team management and client relations.
  • Public Relations Agencies: Successful PR specialists may be promoted to account management roles, where they must juggle client relationships and strategic planning.
  • Research and Development Teams: Scientists with groundbreaking discoveries might be promoted to lead R&D departments but could find it challenging to manage budgets and resources.
  • Athletic Teams: Exceptional athletes may transition to coaching roles but may struggle with strategy development and player management.

Key takeaways

  • The Peter Principle argues that staff within an organization are promoted until they become incompetent. Given enough time, every position is occupied by someone ill-equipped to carry out their duties.
  • The Peter Principle was originally written as a satirical piece about manager incompetence in hierarchically structured organizations. However, subsequent research has found that the effect has some merit.
  • Businesses can avoid the negative effects of the Peter Principle by incorporating a demotion policy that does not lay blame on the employee receiving the promotion. Screening potential employees for high self-awareness is another excellent strategy.

Key Highlights about the Peter Principle:

  • Definition: The Peter Principle, formulated by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter, posits that individuals are promoted within an organization until they reach a position where they are incompetent, implying that every role eventually gets occupied by an ill-equipped employee.
  • Origins: The principle was introduced in Peter’s 1969 book “The Peter Principle” as a satirical observation about the hierarchical structures of organizations and the consequences of continuous promotions.
  • Research and Validity: While initially satirical, subsequent research has indicated that there is some truth to the Peter Principle. Employees tend to be promoted based on their performance in their current roles rather than assessing their aptitude for managerial positions.
  • Causes of Incompetency:
    • Lack of Future Skills Planning: Organizations may promote employees based solely on their performance in their current roles, without considering their potential managerial skills.
    • Promotion-Centric Culture: Companies that emphasize promotions as a measure of success may attract employees driven by financial rewards or status, rather than suitability for the position.
  • Avoiding the Peter Principle:
    • Demotion Policy: Introducing a demotion policy can help address the issue. If an employee is promoted beyond their capabilities, they can be demoted sensitively, without attaching blame.
    • Pay Increase Instead of Promotion: Rewarding exceptional performance with better compensation, rather than a promotion, can motivate employees without putting them in positions they are not suited for.
    • Hiring Self-Aware Individuals: During recruitment, hiring individuals who understand their capabilities can prevent the overpromotion that leads to incompetency.
    • Role Reassignment: Moving employees to different departments or roles, also known as a “lateral arabesque,” can allow them to excel in positions better suited to their skills.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).


Ergodicity is one of the most important concepts in statistics. Ergodicity is a mathematical concept suggesting that a point of a moving system will eventually visit all parts of the space the system moves in. On the opposite side, non-ergodic means that a system doesn’t visit all the possible parts, as there are absorbing barriers

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Metaphorical Thinking

Metaphorical thinking describes a mental process in which comparisons are made between qualities of objects usually considered to be separate classifications.  Metaphorical thinking is a mental process connecting two different universes of meaning and is the result of the mind looking for similarities.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Google Effect

The Google effect is a tendency for individuals to forget information that is readily available through search engines. During the Google effect – sometimes called digital amnesia – individuals have an excessive reliance on digital information as a form of memory recall.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.

Compromise Effect

Single-attribute choices – such as choosing the apartment with the lowest rent – are relatively simple. However, most of the decisions consumers make are based on multiple attributes which complicate the decision-making process. The compromise effect states that a consumer is more likely to choose the middle option of a set of products over more extreme options.

Butterfly Effect

In business, the butterfly effect describes the phenomenon where the simplest actions yield the largest rewards. The butterfly effect was coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1960 and as a result, it is most often associated with weather in pop culture. Lorenz noted that the small action of a butterfly fluttering its wings had the potential to cause progressively larger actions resulting in a typhoon.

IKEA Effect

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias that describes consumers’ tendency to value something more if they have made it themselves. That is why brands often use the IKEA effect to have customizations for final products, as they help the consumer relate to it more and therefore appending to it more value.

Ringelmann Effect 

Ringelmann Effect
The Ringelmann effect describes the tendency for individuals within a group to become less productive as the group size increases.

The Overview Effect

The overview effect is a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts when they look back at the Earth from space. The shift occurs because of the impressive visual spectacle of the Earth and tends to be characterized by a state of awe and increased self-transcendence.

House Money Effect

The house money effect was first described by researchers Richard Thaler and Eric Johnson in a 1990 study entitled Gambling with the House Money and Trying to Break Even: The Effects of Prior Outcomes on Risky Choice. The house money effect is a cognitive bias where investors take higher risks on reinvested capital than they would on an initial investment.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to rely on an initial piece of information (the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments or decisions. Price anchoring, then, is the process of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making a buying decision.

Decoy Effect

The decoy effect is a psychological phenomenon where inferior – or decoy – options influence consumer preferences. Businesses use the decoy effect to nudge potential customers toward the desired target product. The decoy effect is staged by placing a competitor product and a decoy product, which is primarily used to nudge the customer toward the target product.

Commitment Bias

Commitment bias describes the tendency of an individual to remain committed to past behaviors – even if they result in undesirable outcomes. The bias is particularly pronounced when such behaviors are performed publicly. Commitment bias is also known as escalation of commitment.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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