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When people in a sufficiently large hierarchy are promoted because of their competence, the end result will tend to put everyone into a position for which they are not competent.
In other words, the cream will rise until it sours.
The theory behind the Peter Principle is this: when Alice is competent in her position, she will be promoted to another position because of her competence. Alice may or may not be competent at that new position. If she is incompetent, then she will become ineligible for promotion and stay put; she will be kept in that position indefinitely, even if there are other positions in the hierarchy which may suit her skills. The workers who are competent will keep being promoted for as long as they are competent and there are open slots above; they will be promoted out of the positions they are competent in but kept in the position they fail at. Since the only way to stay
in a position below the top of the hierarchy indefinitely is to be incompetent, the hierarchy will eventually stabilize into an organization that is mostly incompetent
A common example of this is in any technical field where an especially good engineer may be promoted to lead engineer and then made a supervisor. Now, his strongest skillset is going unused — supervisors don't get to engineer directly — and he struggles to get by using his less developed management skills.
The name comes from the book by Dr. Laurence J. Peter
, which is about this principle and discusses it in about twelve chapters worth of detail.
A common cause of the Pointy-Haired Boss
and Modern Major General
. The Career Building Blunder
is one method of defying this trope. Compare and contrast Brain Drain
The counterpoint is The Dilbert Principle
, which states that incompetent workers will always be promoted first (into inconsequential middle management positions), in order to keep them from interfering with the efforts of the competent, and is said to be a reaction to the identification of this trope. Compare/contrast Kicked Upstairs
(arguably an invocation
of the trope) and Unfit for Greatness
Examples of this Trope include:
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Anime & Manga
- In Attack on Titan, only the best students are allowed to join the "prestigious" Military Police Brigade that guards the innermost wall and the King. Therefore, the most skillfully trained soldiers are placed in a position of authority farthest from any actual fighting, while those less capable are more likely to be on the front lines. This situation is actually well known, and most who hone their skills high enough to be able to get the position were doing so just to be placed in a safe life. Eren bitterly notes the disconnect.
- Adding to this, since hand-to-hand combat skills aren't valued as highly as 3D Maneuver Gear piloting, students who want to join the Military Police Brigade prioritize 3D Maneuver Gear training over melee combat training. This means that the soldiers who would be expected to fight human-sized opponents more often are actually the least qualified ones to do so.
- In Star Trek II, Spock reminds Kirk that he is more competent as a captain than as an admiral. "Being a starship captain is your first, best destiny," he explains. "Anything else is a waste of material."
- A fact not lost on the rest of Starfleet and Federation government, after Kirk's "punishment" by being demoted to captain two films later.
- Kirk then makes sure to tell Picard in Generations never to accept a promotion out of the Enterprise's captain's chair.
- The protagonist of Major Dundee allegedly only got where he is by siding against a friend, and he makes some very questionable decisions during his quest to destroy an Apache tribe massacring essentially innocent settlers, at one point causing his own men to resent him.
- Casino gives us Nicky Santoro (who was, in fact, based on a real person). Nicky is a highly competent thief, drug dealer, extortionist, and hit man, so competent that he is promoted to be The Mafia's representative in Las Vegas. Sadly, running the mob's operations in Vegas requires tact, subtlety, and more than a little bit of stealth, none of which are skills Nicky actually possesses.
- Played with in Get Smart where the Chief doesn't want to promote Max to a field agent because he's so good at his current job. He's later forced to when most of the agents covers are compromised.
- The author of the comic Dilbert wrote an entire book dedicated to how promotion has changed from this to what he calls the Dilbert Principle, in other words, instead of people getting promoted to their lowest level of competence, any and all incompetent employees are placed in the one place where they can do the least damage: Management.
- Which in turn leads to the creation of managers like the Pointy-Haired Boss.
- It's plausible enough in the high-skilled area he works in, Engineering and similar fields. If you wanted to avoid promoting your most talented workers out of roles in which they could use their talents (averting the Peter Principle) but you were determined to promote internally, you would end up promoting, not the most incompetent employees perhaps, but individuals who have less of a grasp on what is going on than those they supposedly supervise do.
- Two cartoons in February 1993 featured a character called Peter, who illustrates this principle.
- Averted in E. E. “Doc” Smith's Skylark Series, when the Osnomian King is much relieved by his son's adequate performance in a critical test. Had the younger man failed, the king would have had him executed for it and then would commit suicide for failure himself "...as only an incompetent would delegate an important task to another incompetent."
- Played with in the Honor Harrington cycle. The Ace Pilot Scotty Tremaine, despite his preference and obvious knack, gets promoted to command a squadron of cruisers, but his superiors know of it and give him this post so he could gather some experience beyond the small-craft operations. One may presume he'll return to light attack craft and carriers, once he finishes this tour of duty.
- The Big Bad of Michael Stackpole's contributions to the X-Wing Series is a fantastic Director of Intelligence for The Empire. She's ruthless, hideously smart, can convert people into Manchurian Agents, and in general is a Manipulative Bastard. However, the Council which rules the Empire some time after the Emperor is dead does not respect her advice or recognize her skills, so she has them killed. As the leader of the Empire, without checks on her authority and people vetoing her plans, Isard is terrible. She's such a Bad Boss that some of her employees defect to the New Republic, and she keeps coming up with plans like infecting Coruscant with a really, really awful Synthetic Plague and then letting them take it.
- Borborygmus Gog in Galaxy of Fear is clearly good at Mad Scientist and infiltration things, enough so to be put in charge of Project Starscream, which has various sub-projects that all produce interesting results. But he's frankly awful at keeping them all from being sabotaged by Meddling Kids. Darth Vader notices this and is snide, so Gog decides to try and find out a way to get rid of him, but guess how well that works.
Live Action TV
- The Office (US)'s Michael Scott, Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin. It's shown that he used to be a great salesman and still is when called upon but has none of the right skills for management. His UK counterpart is less this and more simply a guy that flaked out once cameras started being pointed at him.
- By extension, Dwight would be a clear example of this too if he ever got promoted, and even Jim Halpert, who is very intelligent but still somewhat immature, has fallen victim to this.
- Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock, who was promoted from the microwave oven division of GE, was written this way early on. Liz Lemon, too, is a comedy writer by experience and inclination but her job is as much management as anything else, she's received no management training other than what Jack has given her on the job, and much of the show's comedy is derived from how in-over-her-head she is.
- Strangely justified for Jack, as Real Life GE has been known to routinely shuffle upper-level management between unrelated departments.
- As of the 100th episode this is really starting to haunt Jack, who never expected to be stalled on one corporate rung for five years.
- In the episode "Double Edged Sword", Pete references this by name
Pete Hornberger: The reason people are unhappy in their careers is that they keep getting promoted until they're in over their heads. The Peter Principal says you rise to the level of your incompetence.
Tracy Jordan: But my incompetency knows no bounds!
- Archie "Snake" Simpson in Degrassi: competent, well-liked and respected, Reasonable Authority Figure tech teacher who has the school spiral out of control as principal, cracks down hard, and has already begun capitulating less than five episodes later, in one case to a student who covered his car in Post-It notes!
- The title character of The Brittas Empire is so far above his competence level at this point that people will write him glowing recommendation letters in order to get rid of him.
- Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones was mentioned to be a good warrior and general, which was how he got his throne in the first place. Unfortunately it turned out that he was a poor administrator who rarely paid attention to his advisors whenever they tried to reign in his spending and he was less than a stellar husband in a position that required a decent marriage to ensure stability when it was time to transfer power. The moment he died everything fell to pieces.
- In Star Trek: Enterprise, while everyone's lack of experience is understandable given humanity are newcomers on the galactic stage, the sheer incompetence displayed by Jonathan Archer in any area relating to captaining a starship, gives the impression that he was only given the captain's chair due to his father designing the Warp 5 engine, as well as being one of the test pilots who helped to break the Warp 2 barrier. He's no doubt a decent Starfleet officer by any means, but he's clearly way out of his depth as the man leading humanity out into the black.
- Both Power Rangers Lost Galaxy and Power Rangers S.P.D. had episodes where the resident engineer was offered a promotion, only to back out when they realized it meant they'd be supervising projects and not engineering themselves any more.
- Golden Tee Golf's original prize structure drove this home hard. Players were grouped into Bronze, Silver, and Gold classes, each with correspondingly greater prizes. One official tournament was held every month, after which the top Bronze finishers advanced to Silver and the top Silver finishers advanced to Gold. The kicker was that in Silver, it wasn't too hard for reasonably skilled players to consistently finish in the money, and they'd drop to Bronze if they came up empty for three straight tournaments. Gold, however, paid off only the top 75 finishers...about a quarter of the class at any given time...and demotion to Silver happened only after losing out in SIX straight tournaments. Worse, Gold had, of course, the best Golden Tee Golf players in the world, many of whom were good enough to cash in every tournament, leaving even fewer spots for the new blood. The net result was that for many, many players, promotion to Gold meant having absolutely no chance to win anything for half a year!
- Which was the original point of the structure - it was specifically made to prevent Gold-level players from exploiting the system by sandbagging just to win extra money at the Silver level.
- In sumo, a rikishi getting promoted to a rank where he's completely over his head isn't a big deal; he'll simply have a terrible tournament and be demoted. The exception is ozeki. Reaching the rank requires an exceptional record over three tournaments, generally 30-15 and one runner-up at minimum. However, he cannot be demoted unless he has two consecutive losing records. He is merely "kadoban" after one losing record; if he has a positive result the next tournament, even 8-7, the slate is clean. This has allowed quite a few ozeki to remain at the rank long after they've dropped WAY below the level they were when they got it:
- Chiyotaikai - Promoted to ozeki after his breakout January 1999 basho, he stumbled horribly out of the gate in March and May, but recovered and had a pretty good track record through 2000...before suffering two nasty injuries in 2001 and 2002 that completely ruined his form (the pressure of being Kokonoe-beya's next great hope after Chiyonofuji certainly didn't help either). From then on he was doomed to a 6 to 9 win treadmill and a humiliating parade of kadobans. He finally was demoted in January 2010, where he blasted off to a 0-4 start and promptly retired.
- Musoyama - A good-but-not-great oshi specialist and one of the then-formidable Musashigawa stable, he had one amazing stretch of dominance in early 2000 which made him ozeki...and he never lived it down. Inconsistency and seemingly endless injuries would plague the remainder of his career; he only ever topped 10 wins once more (March 2001) and was kadoban 6 times.
- Miyabiyama - Another Musashigawa stalwart, he shot up the ranks like a rocket in his early career, needing a mere 12 tournaments...two years!..to make ozeki. He was the surest lock for yokozuna since Takanohana. So how did his ozeki stint go? He goes 54-51 over his next 7 tournaments (barely adequate for a komusubi), going kadoban 3 times in the process, then in September 2001 suffers a devastating injury which knocks him out of the next TWO tournaments and catapults him back into the rank and file. The Sumo Association was so disgusted by his collapse that they refused to promote him back to ozeki in July 2006, even though he'd gone 34-11 with a runner-up, which should've been more than enough.
- Kaio - One of many outstanding ozeki who just wasn't quite good enough to make the final jump to yokozuna. Despite never contending for a championship after 2004 and having to miss a lot of tournaments to injury, he hung on for tournament after tournament, one losing record never becoming two. He had an amazing knack, however he did it, for getting that all-important 8th win; he was 8-7 for all six tournaments in 2009. He finally succumbed to the inevitable, at the age of 37, in July 2011. He's tied with Chiyotaikai for the most tournaments at ozeki (65) and is the sole holder of most tournaments in makuuchi (107). He was never demoted.
- Tochiazuma - Formidable multi-talent who made ozeki during his peak from September 2001 to January 2002. Unfortunately, that's when his myriad health problems decided to come crashing down on him en masse, and his ozeki tenure was a horrendous roller coaster where he was as likely to finish with 2 wins as 12. Did manage to pull in one championship and two runners-up before his body completely gave out in March 2007.
- Michael Jordan is one the undisputed greats to ever play in the NBA. For a while, it seemed like a couple of mediocre years in Washington would be his career low point. Then came 2010, where MJ became general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. To say his management of the team(Who posted a floundering 7-59 record in a strike shortened season) has been unimpressive is putting it mildly.
- Isaiah Thomas is another example: great player who led the Pistons to two championships, horrible coach and general manager.
- Wayne Gretzky is known among hockey fans as "The Great One". A total legend in his sport. Then he became coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. 4 lousy seasons, only one of them ending with Phoenix finishing above .500(By one game at that) and zero playoff appearances. "The Great One" moniker clearly didn't follow him into coaching.
- The Sims 3, where an early job promotion can lead to poor performance at the new level, if skills and other requirements are not improved.
- Not an individual example, but the Turian race in Mass Effect actively tries to avert this. From the in-game codex: "Throughout their lives, turians ascended to the higher tiers and are occasionally "demoted" to lower ones. The stigma associated with demotion lies not on the individual, but on those who promoted him when he wasn't ready for additional responsibility. This curbs the tendency to promote individuals into positions beyond their capabilities."
- The entire Citadel Council tend to be portrayed this ways, as a group of over-glorified ambassadors and politicians. If left to die in the first game, the third game reveals that their replacements aren't that much better either. The tendency to simply stick their head in the sand whenever there's trouble, forces Shepard in the third game to go over their heads and organise a summit with the leaders of each of their respective governments, so that they can properly organise a counter-offensive against the Reapers.
- This is the reason given, via All There in the Manual, for why Dawn of War's Indrick Boreale was such a raging General Failure. He was one of the Blood Ravens chapter's greatest scout snipers, but his achievements lead to him being promoted far above his level of competence, culminating in him being given the unenviable task of trying to subjugate an entire solar system overrun with over a half dozen different enemy factions, with predictable results.
- Hearts of Iron 2 depicts this process with its military commanders: each successive promotion (which is required to allow them to command larger armies or fleets) reduces their skill level. Therefore, an excellent Major-General (skill level 4), who commands one division, can be promoted three times to become a mediocre Field Marshal (skill level 1), who commands twelve divisions. (Fortunately, skill level cannot fall below 0.)
- Stanley the Plaid of Erf World is an excellent frontline fighter and squad leader who wields a weapon forged by the gods. Once he 'earns' a promotion to Overlord, he is totally incompetant at his new role. Worse, since his entire side is a Keystone Army with him as the keystone, he can't go out and use his real skills lest he die in battle and doom his entire kingdom.
- Airachnid of Transformers Prime is a lethal hunter, and masterful solo operative. Her skills however do not translate well into command, and she has proven to be rather incompetent when placed in charge.
- Starscream, on the few rare occasions when he does manage to achieve leadership of the Decepticons. While not completely incompetent (he actually does a pretty good job), he's nowhere near as diabolical or cruel as Megatron.
- It's worth pointing out that Starscream is only interested in the glory of command, not the responsibility. He's only out for command to stroke his own ego, whereas Prime's Megatron does his damnedest to keep the Decepticons a unified force.
- In an episode of Family Guy where Chris briefly took over Peter's job he proved so much better at it he got promoted. But his new position was so far beyond him that he had a heart attack from stress.
- A memorable Rocko's Modern Life episode featured Ed Bighead being asked to make a corporate decision, which he does...with help from a Magic Meatball. (Kind of like a Magic 8 Ball...only it's a meatball.) He does this more and more, quite literally rising through the ranks until he gets an office in space and his old supervisor becomes his Yes-Man. He then has a nervous breakdown once his Meatball accidentally breaks, and is demoted back to his old position.
- A Real Life example of this would be General John B. Hood of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. An excellent brigade and division commander, he was merely competant at the corps level and performed poorly while in command of an army.
- Avoiding this trope in real life is one of the primary reasons many modern militaries discharge or retire members who go more than a certain length of time without being promoted. The idea is to make room for younger, and potentially more talented, members to be promoted to those positions.
- One of the challenges is that different ranks require different skills. Those in higher positions, by necessity, need to become bureaucrats and administrators, for example. For this reason, YMMV in terms of how much Peter Principle applies to specific individuals. Erwin Rommel, for example, remained outstanding tactician and fine strategist even in command of armies and army groups. However, his failings as an administrator and, to a lesser degree, a politician became more and more visible as he rose in ranks.
- This is one of the purposes of the Warrant Officer corps. Warrant officers are officers in the traditional sense, but are usually (almost exclusively) recruited up from the NCO ranks. However, where Commissioned Officers are trained to lead successively larger numbers of troops and everything that entails, Warrant Officers are technical specialists, who continue to hone and use the technical skills they received as Enlisted personnel. Most NCO's are trained to lead troops with their Commissioned Officers, other Enlisted gain technical skills the military don't want wasted...therefore they have a separate track for them to continue to use the valuable skills the organization needs...rather than waste them on trying to lead troops, for which they are not really trained.
- Common Real Life examples (too numerous to list) include people who were great as military commanders but failed in the field of politics later taking office, and vice versa, politicians who have no military experience, being at a loss when their new station requires them to make military decisions.
- General Sir Redvers Buller, VC. Buller made his reputation with some really fearless battlefield behaviour that deservedly won him Britain's highest honour. Unfortunately it also won him promotion in line with this trope. When he was immediately subordinate to a better field commander, he did as well as any other general. Left to his own devices, not so much. The fact that the 'd' in his forename is silent meant that he got called "Reverse" Buller after his disasters in the Boer War. Again, deservedly.
- John Romero's admittedly high skill as a programmer and designer did not translate to any skill whatsoever as a project leader, manager or administrator. This was painfully evident throughout the Daikatana debacle.
- The same could be said of Ultima's Richard Garriott during Ultima VIII and IX.
- Former President Jimmy Carter is often held as an example of this. He did well in the Navy and as Governor of Georgia, but as President his approach faltered. He had a management strategy known as "spokes of the wheel", where he was the central hub and everyone else in the White House answered to him. However, this meant he would be handling all their responsibilities, rather than appointing capable leaders in those departments to do that work for him. After he left the White House, he ended up having a successful career as a diplomat, enough that historian Nigel Hamilton, who was critical of his Presidency, said his post-presidential work made Carter "the American Gandhi".
- Truth in Television for many creative jobs, like at ad agencies. Someone might be incredibly talented at something artistic (say, a copywriter or graphic designer.) At some point, the higher up you go, the creative part of the job fades away and it becomes just like any other middle management paper-pushing job, which the person probably is not suited for.
- Luigi Cadorna is a shining example of this in Italian history. While a magnificent staff officer and manager, his preference for offensives at all costs (something frequent among European generals at the time) and love for the harshest discipline made him a bad battlefield commander, getting him passed over for operative commands multiple times (most humiliatingly when command of the invasion of Libya was given to Carlo Caneva. Justified due the Curb-Stomp Battle Caneva inflicted on him during a wargame, but still an officer of dubious abilities at best), until the sudden death of the commander in chief Alberto Pollio (an equally capable manager and a superior tactician and strategist) and his own seniority saw him promoted to commander in chief. As commander in chief he was fast to learn the value of superior firepower and intelligent enough to create specifically trained shock troopers to defeat trench lines (one of the first) and orchestrate an effective (if callous) strategy based on his larger reserves of manpower, but his ruthlessness and lack of creativity ruined any chance for a quick victory and gave him an horrendous reputation (especially because superior generals did exist: the Duke of Aosta is rightly known as the best Italian general of the war and Undefeated Duke, and didn't get Cadorna's job only because the king feared he'd use it to take over the throne, and Armando Diaz, Cadorna's successor and a pupil of the Duke of Aosta, was so formidable that, when ennobled, his title was that of Duke of Victory).
- By contrast, Carlo Caneva: while a capable general in the peculiar terrain of Italy, he just couldn't understand that Libya's flat desert plains were the perfect terrain for cavalry (an error that offensive enthusiast Cadorna would have not made), preventing him from achieving an easy victory at the start of the invasion and dooming the Italian occupation to a long guerrilla war.
- The tenure/professorship system in universities have been described by the cynical as, "Say, this chap appears to be very good at researching, let promote him so he can spend his entire time doing paperwork!"