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The enduring significance of the Peter Principle

When Dr. Laurence J Peter first wrote about the “Peter Principle” in 1968 and later published it as a book the subsequent year, it was published under the genre of “Humor” It still sells under that genre-category. However, his principle that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to the level of his/her incompetence” or stated differently “People are promoted to the level of their incompetence” remains one of the most enduring and consistently accurate predictive principles of all time[1].

There are two corollaries to this principle that have also endured across time:
(1) In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties. (2) Work is achieved by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Dr. Peter further added, presciently one must concede: “Look around you where you work and pick out the people who have reached their level of incompetence – you will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.” For a long time, this principle was quoted in jest and used to rue some of the bad decisions that leadership and management make in choosing whom to promote, what to delegate & to whom, when to promote, and so on, till the time a paper appeared in the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2018.

This study of 1,531 promotees (sales reps who were promoted to managerial positions) from a pool of 53,035 sales reps (the study sample) showed that not only is the Peter Principle real, it is also consistent, as the authors note: “Consistent with the Peter Principle, we find that promotion decisions place more weight on current performance than would be justified if firms only tried to promote the best potential managers. The most productive worker is not always the best candidate for manager, and yet firms are significantly more likely to promote top front-line sales workers into managerial positions.”

Two critical points are being made here: One, that promotion decisions are often made based on current competence levels and skill sets and not on the basis of the skill sets and competence required for the performance in the new role. Two, the concept of capacity-building, Training, and preparing people for future roles is non-existent – neither do individuals plan and/or chart their own progress nor do organizations.

Today, we see the Peter principle in action everywhere and across all sectors. Mediocrity is a direct function of the Peter principle – when people don’t invest in lifelong learning and bettering themselves, they typically end up at positions that are either at or beyond their level of incompetence.

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SV-Quote-a-day #190

Man is so impatient, so short-sighted! He has not the patience to wait, he has not the power to see. He wants to rule, he wants results immediately. Why? He wants to reap the fruits himself, and does not really care for others. Duty for duty’s sake is not what he wants. “To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof,” says Krishna. Why cling to results? Ours are the duties. Let the fruits take care of themselves. But man has no patience. He takes up any scheme. The larger number of would-be reformers all over the world can be classed under this heading.

Complete Works, Volume-04, My Master, Page: 159

SV-Quote-a-day #189

If you wish to be a true reformer, three things are necessary. The first is to feel. Do you really feel for your brothers? Do you really feel that there is so much misery in the world, so much ignorance and superstition? Do you really feel that men are your brothers? Does this idea come into your whole being? Does it run with your blood? Does it tingle in your veins? Does it course through every nerve and filament of your body? Are you full of that idea of sympathy? If you are, that is only the first step.

Complete Works, Volume-4, Lectures & Discourses, Pg: 158

SV-Quote-a-day #188

Most of us are born believers in a personal religion. We talk of principles, we think of theories, and that is all right; but every thought and every movement, every one of our actions, shows that we can only understand the principle when it comes to us through a person. We can grasp an idea only when it comes to us through a materialized ideal person. We can understand the precept only through the example.

Complete Works, Volume-4, The Great Teachers Of The World, P; 121

SV-Quote-a-day #187

You cannot make a plant grow in soil unsuited to it. A child teaches itself. But you can help it to go forward in its own way. What you can do is not of the positive nature, but of the negative. You can take away the obstacles, but knowledge comes out of its own nature. Loosen the soil a little, so that it may come out easily. Put a hedge round it; see that it is not killed by anything, and there your work stops. You cannot do anything else. The rest is a manifestation from within its own nature. So with the education of a child ; a child educates itself.

Complete Works, Volume-4, Addresses On Bhakti-Yoga , P; 55

SV-Quote-a-day #186

This universe, as an absolute entity, is unchangeable, and unchanged, and the same throughout. But you and I and everybody else hear and see, each one his own universe. Take the sun. The sun is one; but when you and I and a hundred other people stand at different places and look at it, each one of us sees a different sun. We cannot help it. A very little change of place will change a man’s whole vision of the sun. A slight change in the atmosphere will make again a different vision. So, in relative perception, truth always appears various. But the Absolute Truth is only one.

Complete Works, Volume-4, Addresses On Bhakti-Yoga , P; 53

SV-Quote-a-day #185

The final idea is that my religion cannot be yours, or yours mine. Although the goal and the aim are the same, yet each one has to take a different road, according to the tendencies of his mind ; and although these roads are various, they must all be true, because they lead to the same goal. It cannot be that one is true and the rest not. The choosing of one’s own road is called in the language of Bhakti, Ishta, the chosen way.

Complete Works, Volume-4, Addresses On Bhakti-Yoga , P; 37

SV-Quote-a-day #184

When men hear of something very high and wonderful, they all think they will get that, and never stop for a moment to consider that they will have to work their way up to it; they all want to jump there. If it is the highest, we are for it. We never stop to consider whether we have the power, and the result is that we do not do anything. You cannot take a man with a pitchfork and push him up there; we all have to work up gradually.

Complete Works, Volume-4, Addresses On Bhakti-Yoga , P; 35