QUIÉN hay detrás

QUÉ hay detrás


BOOK S TITLE: The Peter Principle

AUTHORS: Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

           J. Peter is a university professor with a large experience in psychological and social research, and Raymond Hull is a writer and journalist very much interested in the object of this book.



Jesús de la Peña Hernández  (June 2007)


This book is the creature born within the marriage of R. Hull, the writer worried about incompetence, and L. J. Peter. The latter have a long time experience of that phenomenon, plus a bunch of comprehensive data, an elaborated thought and research on it, and, most important of all, a lack of time to write due to the fact that he was a victim himself of incompetent bureaucracy.

The word incompetence used by the authors is in most of the cases the sublimated term for clumsy work, i.e. that thing very well known in Spanish language as chapuza.


We can summarise the philosophy of this book as a step to reveal why schools do not convey wisdom, the governments can´t assure order, the courts of justice are inefficient, why prosperity does not produce happiness or why utopian plans never generate utopias.

All these serious matters are treated in the book under the appearance of a joyful way of expression and a very intelligent sense of humour. Don´t even discard laughing.

Though the book was first issued in 1969, most of its quotations appear to be alive at present time. To show only one: When Peter applied for a post in a new school, he presented personally the application form together with the required certificates. They were adequately received but ... Within a few days all the paperwork was posted back to him with a note explaining that a new regulation asked for applications to be sent through the post office to make sure that they were properly received.

Just today something alike happened to me with regard to my insurance company.

We are used to hear about occupational therapy, but what Peter reveals is the great amount of occupational incompetence around us. Noting that this phenomenon is common to all kinds of hierarchies, he jumps to the conclusion, after sound studies, that it should have anything to do with employees placement. Some classical examples:

1) A foreman, being a good one, is promoted to superintendent (for which post he is fully unable). The result is the loss of a good foreman and the gain of a bad superintendent.

2) Something similar happened with a good apprentice promoted to official and eventually to foreman: efficiency degradation accompanying post promotion.

3) A brave general, good in outdoor campaigns was promoted to field-marshal to treat not with soldiers but  with politicians. The result: A disaster.

In consequence, the Peter Principle is formulated this way:

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

(Like a cork, should I add, released at the bottom of a bucket fillet with water).

The examples above show how that level may be situated at any grade in the hierarchy range, according with the inherent characteristics of the employees. Corollary:

Any post in no matter what kind of organisation ends up, with the time, in the hands of an incompetent person .

In the meantime, the organisations may perform well enough as long as some employees are left before reaching their level of incompetence.

The Peter Principle applies not only to line, but also to staff promotion (the promotion that has to do with functions). That is the case of a good small children teacher converted to an awful teacher´s teacher.

To illustrate his principle, Peter uses to say:

The cream rises until it sours

(I prefer my own metaphor:  A water jet will not rise beyond the vertex of its parabola ).

Along the book, the assigned names to characters, places, companies, etc. are most funny. An army general is Goodwin. The city which is supposed to be the cumber of incompetence is Excelsior City. A foreman at Perfect Pill Inc. is named Mr. Sphere. An autocrat is R. Driver. G. Spender is a lost finance manager (who reminds me of the excellent writer Francisco Ayala telling us in his memoirs how his father, a man that ruined his own family´s economy, was appointed by the Second Spanish Republic to the post of Administrator of Las Huelgas Monastery within the National Patrimony Office). Walt Blockett was an incompetent bottleneck in the line of promotion. Killy is the employer that kicks up an incompetent. Waverly Broadcasting Corporation is a successful radio and TV Company due to the fact that all the incompetents are confined and entertained in a remote luxurious building. R. Filewood is an incompetent office manager of Cardley Stationery Inc. Kirk is a protestant priest, and so on.

Even the instrumental names he invents to support his own theory are original: The pullee is the guy pulled up from above. The country abundant in pullees is Pullovia. One Peter´s invert is that who has inverted the means - end relationship, etc.

Peter is aware that people don´t like to be part of his principle; they rather prefer to be considered exceptions to it. So, he warns about those so-called exceptions and devotes some space to only five apparent exceptions.

1. The percussive sublimation (a pseudo promotion). An incompetent is kicked up to allow promotion of other still competent. It is not a promotion because promotion will only take place from a level of competence. The author endorses at least three pieces of achievement associated to the manoeuvre.

2. The lateral arabesque. An incompetent employee is moved to another site without any pay rise, with a new and longer title for the post, to devote himself to supervise and coordinate the second copy filing produced by interdepartmental relations. (in one of the companies I worked for, that was known as being promoted to the Fallen Valley).

The free floating apex is a particular case. Instead of moving the incompetent, he remains in place: his subordinates are moved (even physically) to another department to leave their boss by himself and with nothing to do. For the time being, the hierarchy pyramid will consist in only a vertex floating in the air without any base at all.

3. Peter´s inversion is a kind of bureaucratic vicious circle: The nurse utters to the sleeping patient a  "wake up, it is ten to eight and you should have your sleeping pill" ... At Peter´s times the bureaucratic mesh was handled by clerks, and nowadays by computers, which occasionally helps. Nevertheless, the trouble is now with the computers themselves, i.e, with their internal  bureaucracy . Have you ever tried to disclose something of your interest you came across with in a certain program to get the answer in the help menu that there is nothing in that program related to that topic? On the other hand, computer´s formulations are still more rigid than old clerks used to be.

How, one may ask, is that those incompetent automatons get promotion? Are they out of Peter scheme? The answer is that they are not. The trouble is that for their superiors they are good for promotion, as long as they adhere to red tape and paper work. For them, means and ends are inverted.

4. Hierarchal expholiation. This topic affects to those situated beyond the plus or minus 3 sigma in the Gauss distribution of competence, i.e, it has to do with the minorities of supercompetents and superincompetents: Both are the only throughout the book that are fired out of the organisation because one and the other have in common the attitude of opposing the standards of hierarchy. Here are two exemplars:

- The teacher that working by his own with retardated children (no bead stringing, nothing of finger painting, etc.) got for them better scores than normal children in regular classes.

- The protestant priest that became a deist and partisan of all churches paying taxes.

Being both affected by the Peter Principle, as they have reached his level of incompetence, are no more suitable for promotion. The difference with the rest of not promotable is that they are fired.

5. The paternal in-step. This figure applies to what in Spain we call the recommendable (the plugged-in; el recomendado, el enchufado). Formerly it had to do with family business in which the owner inserted his son. Nowadays we can see the same effects in any hierarchy. The in-stepper (the plugged-in) may be placed at any level within the organisation and he will be suitable for promotion as long as he will be capable to fulfil the desires of his recommender. Otherwise he will be installed at his incompetence level and never will get promotion.

As can be seen, this five apparent exceptions are merely apparent, but not exceptions. There are no exceptions to the Peter Principle.

The book goes on and on developing as fascinating topics as  Followers and Leaders ,  The pathology of success ,  Creative incompetence , etc. etc. It is almost a thriller, so the commentator should not reveal any more details. It s up to the reader to uncover them.

An advise: If possible, better read it in the English version because of the elegance and ingenuity of the author. He is capable of inventing not only the words he needs for his own purpose but also any neologism that will suit to the English language.