The Peter Principle – book review

Book Review – The Peter Principle

(reviewed by Vikram Karve)


I think there is a Chinese saying that it is a misfortune to read a good book too early in life. I think I read ‘The Peter Principle’ too early in life. And I being of impressionable age, the book influenced me so much that I “rose” to my level of incompetence pretty fast, either unintentionally or by subconscious design.

I read ‘The Peter Principle’ in the early seventies, maybe sometime in 1972, when I was studying for my degree in Engineering, and even bought a personal copy of the book in 1974 (which I possess till this day) which considering my financial status those days was quite remarkable.

The book, written by Laurence J. Peter in collaboration with Raymond Hull, a management classic and masterpiece in the study of hierarchiology, is so fascinating, riveting and hilarious that once you start reading, it’s unputdownable.

In the first chapter itself, giving illustrative examples, the author establishes the Peter Principle: In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence and its corollary: In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent.

Dr. Peter writes in racy fictional style and as you read you experience a sense of verisimilitude and in your mind’s eye can see the Peter Principle operating in your very organization. That’s the way to savor the book, and imbibe its spirit – read an illustrative “case study” in the book and relate it to a parallel example in your organization.

He discusses cases which appear to be exceptions like percussive sublimation, lateral arabesque etc and demonstrates that The apparent exceptions are not exceptions. The Peter Principle applies in all hierarchies.

Discussing the comparative merits and demerits of applying ‘Pull’ versus ‘Push’ for getting promotion, Dr. Peter concludes: Never stand when you can sit; never walk when you can ride, never Push when you can Pull.

He then tells us how to recognize that one has reached one’s state of incompetence (final placement syndrome) and should one have already risen to one’s state of incompetence suggests ways of attaining health and happiness in this state at zero promotion quotient.

At the end he illustrates how to avoid  reaching the state of incompetence by practicing various techniques of Creative Incompetence. (I probably practiced Creative Incompetence quite competently and hopefully I am still at my level of competence!)

In the end Dr. Peter tries to briefly explore remedies to avoiding life-incompetence which he has elaborated in his follow up book ‘The Peter Prescription’ which is a must-read once you are hooked onto The Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle is a compelling book, and with the flattening of hierarchy and advent of flexible organizational structures and HR practices, it would indeed be worthwhile for young and budding managers to read this book and see to what extent the Peter Principle applies to, and is relevant in, today’s world.



The Book : The Peter Principle

Authors: Dr. Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull

Published: 1969 William Morrow


Reviewed by: Vikram Karve


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