An anti-pattern in business
What is the Peter Principle?
If you follow me, you know I normally write about software engineering. You’ll find a lot of the discourse concerning the peter principle is related to software engineering, but the peter principle isn’t exclusive to software engineering. It can and does happen to a lot of teams.
The peter principle is the idea that organizations have a tendency to promote their members to “their level of respective incompetence.” Members continue to receive promotions until they’re promoted to a position they’re not capable of succeeding in, where they end up staying.
The idea was first presented in the 1969 book The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter and Raymund Hull, intended to be satire. To their surprise it was seen as a serious criticism of organizational hierarchies and became a popular talking point in business.
What would this actually look like? Let’s take a look at a hypothetical member of a software engineering team within an organization.
- They’re hired as a Software Engineer I. They’re doing phenomenal, providing a ton of value and crushing every performance metric.
- 18 months later they’re promoted to Software Engineer II. They’re doing great, writing more complex code and juggling multiple projects. They exceed every performance metric.
- 2 years later they’re promoted to Senior Software Engineer. They’re doing good, but are beginning to get stretched a little thin. They architect new projects, write even more complex code and juggle even more projects. They meet most performance metrics and exceed a handful.
- 3 years later they’re promoted to Software Engineer Manager. They’re doing okay. They manage timelines and budgets for projects, help their subordinates in their day to day, and help the senior leadership team create a bigger picture plan. They meet most performance metrics and fall behind on a handful.
The Peter Principle argues that it would have been better for this hypothetical person to have stayed a Senior Software Engineer or perhaps even Software Engineer II and that their jump to being a manager was a net loss for the organization.