The Peter Principle Explained

Peter Principle2

I was not a great laboratory technician. Some days I was so bored doing exactly the same thing that I would experiment with different ways of doing it. Good thing that I worked in a research laboratory and my playing around was useful.

For most jobs, the traits necessary to be an outstanding entry-level worker are not the traits necessary to become an outstanding manager. This is the Peter Principle: Do a great job, and you will eventually be promoted until you reach your level of incompetence.

One explanation for the Peter Principle is based on the working trait of Scope. A person can have a Specific scope or a General scope, or move back and forth between them as necessary. Most people work with a General scope. About 1 in four move easily between scopes, and 1 in 10 are limited to the specific scope.

Specific people are extremely over-represented in middle management, because they perform so well during their entry level job. These people handle detailed information very well. They understand sequences of events, procedures, rules, and how each part of a complex “thing” works. They do not need to understand why that “thing” works, or how that “thing” works with other “things.”

Interrupt a specific person, and they will continue from exactly the spot where you interrupted them, or shake their head and go back to the beginning. A specific person excels at almost all entry-level jobs, where there is a supervisor handling the how and why questions.

A general person is limited by the amount of time they can spend mired in the details. They can jump from step to step in random order, brainstorm new ideas based on seeing the effect of one decision on many different areas, and care about the why and how in everything they do. Spending large amounts of time dealing with the details of a “thing” will eventually cause a loss of focus for a general person. These people struggle in entry-level, detailed jobs.

Recognizing Specific Scope

  • Relays information with lots of detail
  • Uses adverbs and adjectives, always trying to find the exact form of the verb or noun (“bright red” car, or moving “with agitated purpose”)
  • Start over again if interrupted
  • Very aware of what came before and what comes next

Recognizing General Scope

  • Information comes in random order (gives you the most important information first, then the rest of it)
  • Great at summarizing, poor with the details
  • Concise sentences

One easy way to spot this trait is length of conversation. It will be much longer with a specific person vs. a general person.

“Remember to tie off that ladder on the bottom. If the slope is less than the required 4 to 1 ratio, then tie off the top securely as well. Do you know where the rope is stored. You can’t tie it off if you don’t have the rope first. Once it is tied off, you can climb the ladder.” (Specific)

“Remember to tie off that ladder. Don’t forget to get the rope before you start. That’ll help remind you to tie it off. Safety first, so you can get the job done right, okay?” (Specific ANDGeneral)

“Follow all the safety rules and don’t get hurt when you tag out that valve.” (General)

Understanding the Scope trait can go very far in allowing you to avoid the Peter Principle. A person with a very strong General focus, needs to learn how to get in the weeds and work with the details. Breaking up those focused times with short breaks or general-oriented tasks will make the details less painful. Get through the first few years of drudgery, developing your Specific skills, and you will be rewarded with a management position more suited to your General trait.

A manager promoting a person to a supervisory position needs to understand this trait as well. It is very easy to promote an outstanding worker who then fails miserably as a supervisor. As a manager, it will be important to not only motivate your Specific workers using their traits, but also to help them develop and express the General trait.

The Peter Principle is equally a problem for the newly promoted, as it is a problem for the person doing the promoting. -Rolf D.

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