Are you aware of “The Peter Principle and Business”?

Ron McIntyre
4 min readMay 17, 2024

The Peter Principle, formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.” When applied to businesses, this principle suggests that organizations may inadvertently promote employees until they reach roles where they become less effective. For instance, a top-performing salesperson may be promoted to a managerial role, where their team skills may not be as strong as their sales skills. They may also become complacent about innovation or evolve to a point where there is no creativity from the stakeholders.

All policies become outdated, useless, or distorted. It is incredible how many businesses never review their policies, procedures, vision, purpose, or roles. I see this in retail and even large corporations erupting daily in the news with bankruptcies and mergers.

Here are ten reasons businesses encounter the Peter Principle in employees:

  1. Lack of Merit-Based Promotion: Businesses may prioritize seniority or favoritism over true merit when promoting employees, placing less qualified individuals in critical positions. While there have been improvements in leadership, we still deal with narcissism and discrimination in many businesses. The evolution has been slow, and companies are paying the price.
  2. Narrow Skill Evaluation: Employees might excel in their current roles, showcasing their unique skills and contributions. However, the skills required for a promotion may differ substantially, leading to mismatches between employees and new responsibilities. It’s crucial to recognize and value these individual skills when considering promotions.
  3. Inadequate Training: Employees often lack the necessary training and support when transitioning into new roles, which can hinder their effectiveness in higher positions. However, this also emphasizes the importance of continuous learning, empowering employees to take charge of their career growth. Often, when the economy is slow, businesses cut training for several reasons, most of which are flawed.
  4. Overlooking Soft Skills: Promotions may be based primarily on technical skills, ignoring essential soft skills like leadership or communication, which are crucial for higher-level roles
  5. Underestimating Role Complexity: The complexity of new roles may be underestimated, leading to employees being overwhelmed by unfamiliar challenges. Many claim that resumes are exaggerated, but job descriptions are also. Many job descriptions I see today are lengthy and require a roster of skills that no one can attain.
  6. Organizational Inertia: Businesses might resist changing promotion policies or adjusting roles even when it’s clear that an employee is struggling due to inertia or reluctance to admit mistakes.
  7. Overemphasis on Hierarchical Growth: Organizations that excessively emphasize climbing the corporate ladder may encourage employees to seek promotions even when unsuited. However, many companies use this strategy to create disposable layers when cuts are required, which is done with that motivation rather than growth per se.
  8. Inflexible Career Paths: Rigid career paths can limit employees’ ability to specialize or shift focus, forcing them into positions where they are less effective.
  9. Lack of Feedback Mechanisms: Without effective feedback systems, businesses may not recognize when employees struggle, preventing timely intervention or realignment.
  10. Cultural Emphasis on Promotion: Some business cultures equate success with upward mobility, creating pressure to promote employees even when they might be better suited to other roles or specialties. Few companies I am aware of think about building lateral promotions that support innovation and creativity

Here are the impacts of the Peter Principle applying to other areas of business:

Applying the Peter Principle to various aspects of business operations, like policies, procedures, vision, purpose, and roles, can provide unique insights into organizational effectiveness. Here’s how this principle might manifest in these areas:

  1. Policies: Organizations often create policies that initially effectively address specific issues but, over time, become outdated or counterproductive. These policies can reach a point where they no longer align with the organization’s current needs, reflecting the Peter Principle as the policies have reached a level of incompetence.
  2. Procedures: Operational procedures are typically established based on prevailing conditions. However, these procedures may become inefficient or cumbersome as businesses grow and evolve. The Peter Principle is evident when procedures become obstacles rather than facilitators, having reached their level of incompetence.
  3. Vision: An organization’s vision should ideally guide its direction. However, a vision that, once inspired, may become irrelevant or unfeasible over time. When an organization’s vision no longer resonates with its current reality or market needs, it demonstrates the Peter Principle, as it has outlived its usefulness.
  4. Purpose: Companies set their purposes to reflect their core reason for existence. However, if the organization’s purpose remains static while the business environment changes, it might hinder progress or innovation. This stagnation reflects the Peter Principle as the purpose fails to align with current goals or market conditions.
  5. Roles: The Peter Principle often directly applies to employee roles, as people may be promoted to positions where they are less effective. Organizational roles may become outdated or redundant as business needs evolve, leading to inefficiencies. This happens when roles rise to their level of incompetence, becoming ill-suited for the organization’s current requirements.

In all these cases, the Peter Principle highlights the importance of continuous assessment and adaptation to ensure that various organizational components do not hinder success.

To mitigate the effects of the Peter Principle, businesses can implement strategies such as regular performance discussions, not evaluations, providing training and support for employees transitioning into new roles, and fostering a culture of open communication and feedback.

In the final analysis, learning how to adapt, innovate, grow, and expand any business depends on how all stakeholders are mindful of the Peter Principle and address them before it is too late.



Ron McIntyre

Ron McIntyre is a Leadership Anthropologist, Author, and Consultant, who, in semi-retirement, is looking to help people who really want to make a difference.