Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book Review: The Peter Principle

The Peter PrincipleThe Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books develop a life of their own outside of what is actually in the pages.  Machiavelli's The Prince is like that... people think they know what it says, but then when you read it you find out it is actually quite different from what you'd heard.  A more recent example is Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, which, contrary to what I've seen in the news or on social media, neither bashes men nor criticizes women who work at home. 

The Peter Principle, on the other hand, is exactly what the popular culture holds it to be: a not-completely tongue in cheek disquisition about one of the Western world's most vexing problems: incompetence in the work place.  First published in 1969, the book is full of delightful anachronisms, but the truth of the basic thesis is - I am afraid - far too commonly observed in modern life: In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

We all know how this happens.  When management needs to hire the foreman for a group of construction workers, they elevate the man who is distinguishing himself as a construction worker.  Doesn't matter that a foreman needs a completely different skill set. Doesn't matter whether he has any aptitude for supervising others.  So now the construction workers are being managed by someone who has no ability to do it.  (Or maybe he does... which means that he will soon be promoted to project leader, and the cycle continues.) All real work is accomplished by people who have not yet risen to their level of incompetence.

Professor Peter (yes, the book and the principle are named for the author) offers no solutions. He considers the situation incurable.  Some of the book is dedicated to advising individual workers how to avoid the fate of rising to their own incompetence.  Strategies include feigning incompetence where you are, refusing the next promotion, and side-stepping to a different hierarchy. Mostly though the professor bloviates on a series of additional, less-famous principles:

            *Peter's Corollary: In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.
            *Peter's Inversion: Internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service.
            *Peter's Paradox: Employees in a hierarchy do not really object to incompetence.
            *Peter's Placebo: For achieving personal satisfaction, an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.

The glossary in the back of the book is funny. "Coordinator" is defined as "an employee charged with the task of extracting competence from incompetents" and "promotion" is "an upward movement from a level of competence."  That's good for a chuckle.

As with all books I review here, I am glad I read this one, but that's all.  Nothing terribly enlightening.  Maybe someday at a party when someone refers to the Peter Principle I'll be able to honestly claim that I read the book. Probably, though, I'll just keep that to myself. 

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