Laurence J. Peter

From New World Encyclopedia

Laurence J. Peter (September 16, 1919 - January 12, 1990) was a Canadian educator and author. Peter began his career as an educator, teaching both within the school system and as a professor of education at the college level. He was particularly interested in special education, and published several texts in the field. He is best known to the general public, however, for the formulation of the "Peter Principle."

The "Peter Principle" was first published in a humorous book co-authored with Raymond Hull. This "principle" basically states that each employee rises to the level of his incompetence. Although written in a humorous style, Peter's book contained many real-world examples and thought-provoking explanations of human behavior.

Peter had clear insights into weaknesses in human nature. In particular, he recognized that those who rise to positions of authority often become ineffective, while others, particularly those with original and creative ways of thinking, find their talents are unused. Peter suggested that these problems are particularly pronounced in classless societies, and thus that some form of assigning individuals according to their talents and abilities to different classes of work is more efficient. Such a system better serves the whole purpose of the organization or society, and also is more satisfying to each individual, as they are able to fulfill their potential and contribute to society in the way that best suits their abilities. Although some may deny its validity, for many in the world of business and management, Peter's accounts and suggestions ring true.


Laurence Johnston Peter was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on September 16, 1919. He received his bachelor's (1957) and master's (1958) degrees in education from Western Washington State College. He then obtained a Doctor of Education degree from Washington State University in 1963.

He taught in Vancouver schools from 1941. Peter married Nancy Bailey and they had four children: two sons, John and Edward, and two daughters, Alice and Margaret. He then joined the faculty of the University of British Columbia in 1965. In 1967 Peter married Irene (Howe) Taylor.

Peter moved to California, where he became an Associate Professor of Education, Director of the Evelyn Frieden Centre for Prescriptive Teaching, and Coordinator of Programs for Emotionally Disturbed Children at the University of Southern California.

He became widely famous in 1968, after the publication of The Peter Principle. The manuscript had been rejected by thirty publishers, including McGraw-Hill which had previously published his texts on education. In the rejection slip from McGraw-Hill, the editor wrote, "I can foresee no commercial possibilities for such a book and consequently can offer no encouragement" (Barron 1990).

Finally, William Morrow and Company accepted the manuscript. Not expecting it to be successful, they printed only 10,000 copies. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year and was on the New York Times best-seller list, and was translated into 38 languages (Barron 1990). Following this success, Peter retired from academic life, authoring several other popular books.

Peter received the WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1980. From 1985 to his death in 1990, Peter attended and was involved in management of the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Humboldt County, California. He proposed an award for the race, titled "The Golden Dinosaur Award," which has been handed out every year since to the first sculptural machine to utterly break down immediately after the start.

Peter died on January 12, 1990, at his home in Palos Verdes, California.


Did you know?
The "Peter Principle" states that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence"

Laurence Peter began his career as an educator, teaching both within the school system and as a professor of education at the college level. He was very involved in special education, and published several texts in the field. He is best known, however, for his authorship of the "Peter Principle" published in a humorous book co-authored with Raymond Hull. He also "inadvertently founded" the "salutary science of Hierarchiology" in the same work. While written in a humorous style, Peter's observations have been found to have validity.

The Peter Principle

The "Peter Principle" was stated in the 1968 publication of the same name as follows:

In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.

This principle holds that in a hierarchical organization, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain. Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence" (Peter and Hull 1969).

Peter noted that although competence would appear to be a vital asset in performing tasks, promotion to higher levels of responsibility depends almost entirely on competence at tasks that the person has already accomplished not on their competence at the new level of responsibility. With his clever wit, Peter was able to satirize both hierarchical organizations and those who wished to succeed in them: "Equal opportunity means everyone will have a fair chance at being incompetent" (Peter 1984). He also highlighted a number of problems and obsessions that befall those who seek promotion to the highest levels, including "Tabulatory Gigantism," the obsession with having a bigger desk than one's colleagues.

Peter's description of management, "the cream rises until it sours," was based on his observations of incompetence in a wide variety of organizations including businesses, school systems, churches, and government agencies. In fact, he noted that bureaucracies of all sorts were inevitably made up of those inadequate to deal with their responsibilities. Continuing his sarcastic insights, Peter noted that "Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status" (Peter 1977, 83).

The employee's incompetence is not necessarily exposed as a result of the higher-ranking position being more difficult—simply, that job is different from the job in which the employee previously excelled, and thus, requires different work skills, which the employee usually does not possess. For example, a factory worker's excellence in his job can earn him promotion to manager, at which point the skills that earned him his promotion no longer apply to his job.

Peter wrote that some workers, recognizing that their abilities lay in the tasks required in their current positions, resorted to "Creative Incompetence," or "creating the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence" to avoid promotion to their level of incompetence. Peter noted that "for a clerical worker, leaving one's desk drawers open at the end of the working day will, in some hierarchies, have the desired effect" (Peter and Hull, 1969).


Along with the Peter Principle, Peter also coined "hierarchiology" as the social science concerned with the basic principles of hierarchically organized systems in human society:

Having formulated the Principle, I discovered that I had inadvertently founded a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies. The term hierarchy was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning includes any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of rank, grade or class. Hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration (Peter and Hull 1969).

Entry-level jobs are usually detail-oriented and restrictive, thereby favoring detail-oriented workers, yet hindering creative and innovative workers. By definition and necessity, entry-level jobs are the assembly line of an organization, and thus, the most creative and innovative employees start in positions of incompetence. The detail-oriented persons are thus promoted over the creative employees. Often these creative employees are incapable of showing their work strengths because of the structured and restrictive assembly line environments, and then are tagged as bad employees.

In reality, creative employees may be more suited to management jobs, but because they are unable to use their strengths in the low-level jobs they hold, they never rise to management, and the innate flexibility and innovation needed for managing is lost to the company. The end result for an organization as a whole is that it will collapse when the incompetents in the ranks outnumber the competent because the organization is no longer able to produce results favorable to its continual existence.

Peter pointed out that a social class, or caste, system is more efficient at avoiding incompetence. Lower-level competent workers will not be promoted above their level of competence as the higher jobs are reserved for members of a higher class.

The prospect of starting near the top of the pyramid will attract to the hierarchy a group of brilliant [higher class] employees who would never have come there at all if they had been forced to start at the bottom (Peter and Hull 1969).

Thus, he reasoned, hierarchies with different classes of people "are more efficient than those of a classless or equalitarian society."


Although humorous, Peter's book contains many real-world examples and thought-provoking explanations of human behavior.

In an organizational structure, practical application of the Peter Principle involves assessment of the potential of an employee for a promotion based on performance in the current job, in other words, members of a hierarchical organization eventually are promoted to their highest level of competence, after which further promotion raises them to incompetence. That level is the employee's "level of incompetence," where the employee has no chance of further promotion, thus reaching his or her career's ceiling in an organization.

One way that organizations attempt to avoid this effect is to refrain from promoting a worker until he or she shows the skills and work habits needed to succeed to the next higher job. Thus, a worker is not promoted to managing others if he or she does not already display management abilities. The corollary is that employees who are dedicated to their current jobs will not be promoted for their efforts, but might, instead, receive a pay increase.

In a similar vein, some organizations recognize that technical people may be very valuable for their skills, but poor managers, and so provide parallel career paths allowing a good technical person to acquire pay and status reserved for management in other organizations.

Peter's humorous descriptions of incompetence, and the ways employees and management deal with it, made his Peter Principle part of popular culture. While business and management are areas to be taken seriously, Peter's use of humor made his critical insights acceptable to a greater degree than perhaps a more serious analysis would have been. Similar humorous observations on incompetence in management can be found in the Dilbert cartoon series (such as "The Dilbert Principle"), the movie Office Space, and the television show, The Office.

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