27 SEPTEMBER 1969, Page 9


The gospel according to Peter


:•er's Principle has been given to the world ol powerful publicity and many students politics have been predictably impressed. Is set out by Dr Laurence J. Peter in e Peter Principle, now published in this suntry (Souvenir Press, 30s). His doctrine \ briefly, as follows: In a Hierarchy Every rnployee Tends to Rise to his Level of In-

■ rnpetence.

Ours is a world, Dr Peter points out, of ncompetence rampant. So long as anyone orks efficiently he is regarded as suitable ,r promotion. Successive promotions bring ,rn to a level in the organisation at which proves incompetent, the work being be- nd his ability. ile is not, therefore, pro- ited again but is left where he is, unable as er to cope with his duties. By this process se are told) the majority of posts come to filled by incompetent people who remain office until they retire. At their level of competence employees are said to have cached Peter's Plateau and are given a Pro- otion Quotient (P0) of zero.

This basic trend is confused, Dr. Peter dmits. by apparent exceptions and varia- ons. He thus happily describes such pheno- ena as the Lateral Arabesque, the anoeuvre by which the incompetent em- loyee is given a longer title and moved to a emote office. His final advice is that e should all refuse promotion when at ur level of competence. or else (and more btly) ensure that no promotion is offered s. He thus triumphantly justifies 'The ower of Negative Thinking'.

There is much to admire in this chain of asoning and it cannot be denied that he as made some significant discoveries. His .ntral doctrine is explained with lucidity

d eloquence and his disciples are said to be umerous. There is only one possible objec- on to his theory, the objection that it appens to be wrong. It does not accord with ur actual experience, nor does it stand up to itica! scrutiny. We have indeed to ask our- yes. at the outset, how Dr Peter came to lieve in it. When we learn that he is Co- rdinator of Programs for Emotionally Dis- rbed Children at the University of uthern California we incline at first to spect that the Peter Principle is just one of

e programmes he has managed to co- rdinate. It would seem certain, however, at any such conclusion would be ill- nsidered and superficial.

The clue to Dr Peter's thinking lies not in current coordinating role (which repre- nts no more than a Lateral Arabesque) but his past career and his present obsessions. e is a schoolmaster and school psycholo- t (Ed.D) who has made himself an Asso- ate Professor of Education in Southern alifornia. The examples of incompetence 'en in his book begin with the Excelsior fly School System and revert to it at regular tervals with stories about school prin- ais, teachers and educational administra- rs. He quotes examples of incompetence m the worlds of public and business ad- nistration but without any hint of inner owledge or previous research. Outside the celsior. School System he moves without nfidence, a clergyman on his first visit to e casino. Behind the author and his theory ere looms a significant and peculiar land- ee.

The male schoolteacher in the us is a per- son left behind among the women and child- ren after the men of the tribe have gone to work or war. He is taken from the least intelligent of those who undergo higher education, being only marginally superior to those who graduate in social studies. Once committed to his semi-adult occupation he learns 'How to take a class in - ' the last and vital word being left out. We all know that successful teaching beyond the infant class involves (a) wide and detailed know- ledge of a difficult subject, (b) an enthu- siasm for the subject which communicates itself to the class, and (c) a few simple tricks of the trade, learnt by anyone from a single volume and from about three weeks of ex- perience. The art of the educationaliser is to expand (c) into a mass of pretentious nonsense, fogged by technical terms and psychological twaddle. To do research in educationalisation is to forget about (a) and (b) and make the mastery of (c) seem practically impossible. Those who can, do (it has been said) and those who cannot will teach teachers how to teach other teachers the art of teaching. This is the brotherhood of the Ed.D. and it forms a sort of campus within the campus: an enclave, as it were, of people committed to the study of nothing. It is in these surroundings that Dr Peter bewails the fact that most people are incompetent. He has lived all his life in a world where that is literally true.

Others of us have had a different sort of experience. We have lived, some of us, among airmen, bankers, engineers, seamen, composers, soldiers and journalists: among many people indeed, of an almost appalling competence. More than that, we have come to assume that most people we know are fully equal to the work they have under- taken. The pilot of the jet plane in which we travel is trusted implicitly by passengers who have not even seen him. The surgeon who removes our appendix is assumed to be skil- ful and sober and we have almost as much confidence in the mechanic who services our car. There are rare instances of navigators who steer their ship into fatal collision but the average ship's captain does nothing of the sort. There are engineers whose bridge

falls into the river and this even happened once to a hydro-electric plant on the Ameri- can side of Niagara Falls. We cross our bridges, nevertheless, with an unquestioning faith in their stability and a faith which our experience would seem to justify. We may not have quite the same confidence in architects, plumbers and tax-collectors. We may have actual doubts about politicians, pop-singers and painters. The fact remains, however, that we assume the competence of most people with whom we have deal- ings and our trust is only occasionally misplaced.

So much for the practice, but what of the theory? Where does Dr Peter's argument fall down? Its breakdown is over the word 'competent' on which the whole theory depends. As an educationaliser, Dr Peter has been brought up to believe in the Intelligence Quotient or IQ. In the Excelsior City School System the child's IQ is known and the teacher does not expect more from a pupil than his potential, as thus measured, would seem to foreshadow. The wise child fixes himself a low IQ so as to gain the more credit from any subsequent success. Cheat- ing apart, the IQ is almost entirely fixed by heredity and is incapable, therefore, of im- provement. The author of the Peter Prin- ciple uses the word 'competence' in the same way, assigning to each human being a 'ceil- ing' in terms of ability, a level above which he will prove incompetent. All (or nearly all) surpass their proper level, thus producing a hierarchy of this pattern : Directors, competent only as Managers

Managers, competent only as Assistant Managers, Assistant Managers, fit only to be Foremen.

Foremen, who would do as Charge Hands,

Charge Hands competent only as Workmen, Workmen, unfit to be employed at all, and Apprentices, unfit to live.

The fallacy in this chart is that no ordi- nary institution employ, just four men on each level, the directors as numerous as the foremen, the workmen no more fre- quent than the charge hands. There has to be a president or managing director at the top and there have to be more people lower down. We come back in the end to the pyramid. There are exceptions to this pattern, as Dr Peter seeks to emphasise, but some of them are more apparent than real. The commoner forms of organisation must still have an apex and a base. The oblong shape inevitably becomes: President/Managing Director Directors * * * * * * * * * * Managers Assistant Managers Foremen * * * * * *

* *

* * * * ***** Charge Hands Workmen

This is a simplified organisational chart and the pyramid would soon assume a flatter, perhaps less regular form. Even, however, were the numbers as shown and all eligible for promotion within the factory, there would only be the one president and a minimum of eleven workmen. If we assume with Dr Peter that the president is incom- petent—being fit only for a directorship we have to deduce either (a) that there wa. nobody fit for the top post or (b) that those who would have been suitable are lower in the organisation and are therefore below their level of competence. When we realise, however, that of the forty-two people be- low the rank of president, only two or three can succeed to that office as it falls vacant, we are forced to conclude that thirty-nine or forty are doomed to disap- pointment in the nature, of things. Even were ten of them potential presidents, the majority of these would have to content themselves with office at a lower level. The narrowing of the pyramid holds people down irrespective of their competence. So far from being made directors when only fit to be managers, many will have to re- main at the managerial level because there is no vacancy for them on the board. Given an oblong, the Peter Principle might at least be plausible. Given a pyramid, it is plainly incorrect.

Whatever the pattern of the organisation, Peter's Principle assumes that each person's level of competence is as permanent as his height and blood group. But competence is not comparable to IQ. While some failures and mishaps are due to an employee's basic lack of brain, the majority are due to dis- loyalty, idleness, cowardice, untidiness, lack of concentration and lack of care. The fault, in other words, is more moral than intellec- tual; and moral qualities vary from day to day, being governed by external influences, of which leadership is the chief.

We know this from our own example, with our energy almost feverish at one time and almost non-existent at another. There remains, it is true, a typical level of effi- ciency for any given person but it may rise steeply at the prospect of promotion and fall as dramatically at the prospect of re- tirement. The fixed ceiling of competence is a myth, as has been proved repeatedly in a time of revolution. Another myth is the be- lief that everyone works for promotion until the point is reached where all further promotion is denied. People with effective ambition are in fact relatively few. Some would take higher office were it given them but a majority would be embarrassed by the offer. Were we on the bridge of 'Queen Elizabeth II', we should not, most of us, be overjoyed were the captain to say 'All right—you take her to sea!'. Our mental picture at that moment would not be one of personal triumph but of imminent dis- aster, with the destruction of the Statue of Liberty a mere incident in the subsequent sequence of sad surprises.

It is doubtful, finally, whether the maj- ority of promotions are governed by the candidate's competence as shown on the rung below. In most organisations a bar- rier exists which the majority of employees can never surmount. In some offices the higher posts go only to relatives of the chairman, in others only to graduates of Princeton.

It is manifest, as Dr Peter himself ad- mits, that the existence of such barriers will keep some people to a level below their ceiling—even supposing that they have a ceiling—and that others may be promoted on grounds which have nothing to do with competence.

Even, moreover, in organisations which theoretically offer the same prospects to everyone, the competence which gains the highest reward may be quite unrelated to the work in hand. A successful career may be founded on a competence in passing examinations, furthered by a competence

in flattery and crowned by a competence in marrying into the right family. Each type of competence is real enough but is not strictly comparable with the sorts of competence in which rival executives may have specialised. From even the most casual observation we can fairly conclude that Peter's Principle is not applicable to public or business administration nor to any of the hierarchies which are concerned with trade or war. It is a factor only in the world of education and more particularly in the sector of that world which is con- cerned with educationalisation. Even in that sector it may not be universal but may apply only to Southern California. One may suspect, indeed, that Peter's Principle holds good only in the Excelsior City School System. The Kingdom of Incom- petence may turn out to be as small as that, with only this one Peter to hold the keys.