Future Manager Italy Insights

Peter and Dilbert’s Principles

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Author: Future Manager Research Center

Laurence Peter, a Canadian psychologist active in the 1960s, has the merit of having formulated the so-called “Peter principle”, also known as the “incompetence principle”. Peter had set out to give his own interpretation of the mechanisms that regulate the corporate careers of workers, all embroidered with a good dose of irony bordering on the paradoxical, thanks to the collaboration with the humorist Raymond Hull. The essay “The Peter Principle” was published in 1969 and the reaction of the readers was extremely positive. According to Peter, in each hierarchy each employee tends to rise to their “level of incompetence” and, in doing so, the more time passes, the more each job position will be filled by an employee who does not possess the skills suitable for the tasks they should perform.

The considerations contained in the essay by the Canadian psychologist can be summarized in a practical example: an employee who perfectly performs his duties is rewarded with a promotion; the role he will have to cover will presuppose the performance of duties different from the previous ones. At the end of the process these same employees reach the famous “level of incompetence”, that is the condition in which they are no longer able to carry out the tasks assigned to them and therefore will no longer have any possibility of advancement, thus ending their career in company.

Clearly, those of Peter were beautiful and good provocations sweetened by the humor of Hull and which, in a modern way, invite us to ask ourselves serious questions about the corporate concept of meritocracy. The social complaint that emerges sees promotions as tools in the hands of the oligarchic powers that manage large companies, which favor personal interests rather than the true skills of an employee.

In the wake of Peter’s principle, another was born in the 90s, namely the one conceived by cartoonist Scott Adams and which is remembered as “The Dilbert principle” (from the name of a protagonist character in a comic strip whose author is Adams himself). Using the same satirical touch as the previous one, Dilbert’s principle argues that the least competent are systematically assigned to positions in which they risk doing the least harm: those of managers.

However, it is observed that Adams’ arguments end up being diametrically opposed to those of his predecessor: according to Peter, an incompetent manager was therefore competent in his previous position, but in the utopian dilbertian company the leaders were the worst in subordinate positions.

Both principles have had a great resonance, although their logic is highly questionable. All this, however, would serve to ask practical and useful questions.

How long can companies that have incompetent staff in the highest positions last?

As business leaders do you think you have applied the right yardstick in granting a promotion and, even more provocatively, do you think you deserve your role?