Over 50 years ago, Laurence Peter published The Peter Principle – the principle is simple – “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Peter held a doctorate in education, so it is probably no surprise that his early research took place in schools.
According to Dr. Peter, “Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” He described governments: “Any government, whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, a communistic or free enterprise bureaucracy, will fall when its hierarchy reaches an intolerable state of maturity.”
He saw the advantages of aptitude testing in job placement: “The main difference between tested and untested employees is that the tested people reach their levels of incompetence in fewer steps and in shorter time.”
Sometimes the organization, the hierarchy, tops out before the employee can reach his level of incompetence. Peter termed this summit competence, and did not believe that it falsified the Peter Principle – it demonstrated that the limited size of the hierarchy did not allow everyone to reach his level of incompetence.
The Marine Corps has the “terminal lance” as a descriptor of those who will end their enlistments as lance corporal. While it could be a level of incompetence, it more likely shows that that the organization is too small for everyone to reach a level of incompetence during a 4 year enlistment.
Peter later published The Peter Prescription – basically a list of techniques to avoid the promotions that will force you to your level of incompetence. In schools, these are frequently teachers who stay in the classroom and avoid promotions to administration. Still, Peter describes people who are competent students, yet arrive at their levels of incompetence with the first teaching job.
“Many an employee never realizes that he has reached his level of incompetence. He keeps perpetually busy, never loses his expectation of further promotion, and so remains happy and healthy.” When I worked for USDA, I equated that with a GS-9 step 10.
I’m sure that copies of The Peter Principle are still available – it is definitely worth reading.