Not Waving but Drowning

I recently stumbled back onto an old classic that genuinely perked me up.

Old – well it’s now been 50 years since publication; and a classic, because even after the extended passage of time, it remains bang on the money.

The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. 

In it, they advance that in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

A satirical work and one that would shame incompetents and their incompetent bosses into mending their ways, right?


It remains a poignant evocation of organisational fundamentals, as it did from the moment it hit the shelves.

The part I like most is when they touch upon the ostensible exceptions to the rule and then mercilessly debunk them.  For example, when the incompetent continue to be promoted again and again, way past their level of incompetence. They call it percussive sublimation – the movement from one harmless position to another; or the lateral arabesque – moved to a harmless position but given a souped-up job title. 

To you and me, kicked upstairs or moved sideways.

And we will all be very au fait with how such internal promotions can even serve as a morale boost to those who see that their organisation supports progression. That must make it a great place to work, right?


But what resonates the most, having touched on both in Flypaper for Freaks and Freaking Hired! is the concept of Pull promotions being the most effective means of slithering up the greasy pole. These are the ones where the incompetent has a sponsor or a benefactor.

Yes, in the prevalent vernacular, the Facebook promotions.

Lamentably, the Push promotions that are supported by most organisational values – those propelled by an employee’s skills and efforts – rarely make it to the starting gate before the local HR quack has pulled out a sharp and pumped in a Mickey Finn.

If you aren’t one the gang, you aren’t going anywhere.

Even more illuminating is their examination of the super-incompetent and the super-competent and their respective vulnerabilities. In both cases, you are at risk if you disrupt the hierarchy.

For the super-incompetent, they just need to toe the line and let it wash all over them. Massage the numbers, get the forms filled in correctly, foster the corporate image and sit back and let it be. That routinely does the trick in averting any unsolicited attention.

Well, from the senior managers at least. The rank-and-file can suss a charlatan at ten paces or less.

The super-competent rarely last long, precisely because their success results in their heads rising above the parapet, where their noggins are unceremoniously and pitilessly shot off.

You see, even when they smash their numbers, they are deemed to have not achieved success in the right way.

The Principle at work is at its most astounding when you consider that organisations are more comfortable with the promotion of failure and mediocrity than with decisive action to effect progress.

So, what impact does all this have on employees?

Unsurprisingly, the incompetent tend to have very little self-awareness, which of course is good news for their mental health and immeasurably ghastly news for the rest of us.

As for the competent workers, they need to Nureyev their way through a maze of potential banana skins in order to survive.

Their incompetent boss may see them as a threat, who might even undermine them for raising improvement ideas. After all, they are likely to be ideas that they will be seen not to have thought of actioning themselves.

They may be faced with the daunting prospect of cutting through the meaningless Google-scraped management drivel to understand precisely where the boss is coming from? If not, how can they manage to react appropriately to the boss’s future moves? 

Should they befriend their boss or ensure that everything remains strictly formal.

One misstep and the dramatic shape you throw as your career is upended will be matched only by the spectacle of your imminent defenestration.

The real problem though, is that too many organisations feel safer with idea foam and inaction and have little incentive to change. While the players may be incompetent, they make the place feel more comfortable. And movers and shakers end up causing more work for everybody else, the bastards.

Don’t ever assume that most people want to goosestep à la Red Bull and uproot trees for their companies.  The ranks of middle and senior management will have long since swelled with guys arriving on Monday with only Friday in their thoughts. With 50-year olds dreaming of hitting 55 and releasing some dough from their pension kitty. Don’t believe the corporate flim-flam that spins you a dissenting yarn.

For most businesses, if the overall number that was inked into the budget forecast is hit at year-end, nobody will be asking questions about how it happened.

And if a key number is missed, and it looks like a sagging, semi-inflated balloon is about to go up, there will never be a dearth of well-versed explanations centring on inevitability and client or supplier decisions that were unexpected and beyond our control.

The buck never stops with the chaps, oh no.

Hot potatoes get dropped sharpish after some similarly egregious boss has vented and all look to the next budgeted number. Nobody spends even a yocto of time to consider the potential for the business. 

What they could have been achieving and why nobody had been shooting for that.

Regrettably, businesses are habitually content with failure from the clique, rather than allowing their super-competent outsiders to lead the drive.

It’s why 50 years have passed since publication, and many of us can still flick through with a wry smile.

And a slight sense of exasperation.

unsplash-logoIan Espinosa

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