Remember the Peter Principle? It's alive and well in an organization near you

Make those decisions and set those policies based on evidence and reality

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

In a typical day you might encounter various evasions, distractions, manipulations and outright deceptions in every arena from television, routine conversations and internet memes – and much more.

As one who, I could almost say, reads for a living, I run into assumptions and themes that run the gamut from crazy to almost believable.

Like everyone, there are many of these statements and philosophies that I’d like to believe – and many more that I just don’t have time or inclination to confirm.

Those who pass laws or make decisions that impact us all should, one would hope, confirm the validity of the basic principles of their decisions and policies

The fact that this rarely happens is perhaps the single unifying theme of virtually every political party.

The excuses and justifications for legislative or corporate inaction seem to be infinite.

One classic principle at work in industry, politics and the military is the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle posits that a person who is competent – even skilled – at their job will earn promotion to a more senior position which requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for their new role, then they will be incompetent at their new level, and so they will not be promoted again.

But if they are competent at their new role, they will be promoted again, and will continue to be promoted until they eventually reach a level at which they are incompetent.

In other words, the momentum of any organization, according to The Peter Principle, is to promote the least competent and – if possible – the least informed and aware (some would say the most malleable) candidate to the highest possible office.

A related philosophy, at least in its frequency of adoption, is the “Tall poppy syndrome”.  (1*)  The Japanese have a similar philosophy with a different metaphor – “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down”.

The principle is the same – anyone who stands out for their talent, intelligence or expertise is inherently a threat.

The “tall poppy” must be cut down, the “nail that sticks up” is a hazard to everyone – and as we all know, every organization has the same primal priority – self- preservation.

Even these Barbie dolls know how far they can stick their heads up.Photo: Morf Morford
Even these Barbie dolls know how far they can stick their heads up. Photo: Morf Morford

As you might imagine, these principles expand geometrically in the world of politics – and always have. History is full of the accounts of kings (and a few queens) who have murdered siblings or even their own children to consolidate or maintain power.

Political leaders have inspired their own terminology for their own inadequacy and lack of accomplishment.

The principle of “Negative selection” is one. It’s a very simple premise – candidates are hired precisely on the inability to adequately perform the necessary duties.

The advantages of this hiring policy are very clear – (at least to the organization) the candidate will be forever thankful – and loyal – and can be easily dismissed if it gets too awkward.

Bill Gates, on the other hand, in early days of Microsoft, had as his dominant hiring philosophy a deliberate choice to hire the smartest people possible.

Another concept, kleptocracy – particularly common in poor countries of African and South America – is a government with rulers who exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political power.  (2*)

At lower levels of government, kleptocrats may demand bribes for any action (like utilities or maintenance) while at higher levels they may use political leverage to pass laws that enrich them, their families and friends or their constituents and they usually circumvent the rule of law.

A kakistocracy is a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens.

This too, is not a new term.

American poet James Russell Lowell used the term in 1877, in a letter to Joel Benton –

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone. Is it or is it not a result of Democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

This is graffiti from the Berlin Wall circa late 2017. I can't say that I understand what it means or might refer to. Berlin is a city literally covered with layers of the evidence of competing philosophies. Photo: Morf Morford
This is graffiti from the Berlin Wall circa late 2017. I can’t say that I understand what it means or might refer to. Berlin is a city literally covered with layers of the evidence of competing philosophies. Photo: Morf Morford

One more principle, one seen practiced at every level from household budgets to church splits, is “Parkinson’s Law of triviality”.

The premise of this principle that the least important  – or least expensive – project warrants the most debate.  (3*)

Politicians are notorious for arguing over pittances and passing bills for billions without any discussion.

There are practical reasons for this of course, the trivial issue represents a problem that is easier to understand and formulate an opinion about.

The trivial issue requires less time, effort, or money in order to solve. In contrast, the important issue would require someone to take responsibility for their decisions.  (4*)

And finally, policy makers generally assume that the people responsible for the important issue must have already done their job and assessed it.

More churches, for example, split over the color of new carpeting rather than over issues of doctrine, and most divorces are ultimately over incidentals like toilet seat lids.

Civil wars, even world wars, are often begun more by petty insults than actual threats or aggression.

I’m not interested in partisan politics; I would like to see informed, fair honest policies equally applied and basic services provided while sticking to a budget. I’d like to see corporations held accountable for their excess and abuses and workers paid and treated fairly.

These used to be considered as traditional conservative themes. Even as I write them, they seem like mythic naive beliefs from an ancient culture lost in the mists of time.


(1*)    The “tall poppy syndrome” dates back at least to Herodotus’ Histories (Book 5, 92)

(2*)    One of the ironies of many of these “poor” countries is that most of them tend to be rich in natural resources. The Republic of Congo is the one of  the largest sources of diamonds and “rare earths” essential to smart phones and other devices, yet thanks to a history of corruption stays poor amongst its riches.

(3*)    One variation of this is Sayer’s law, which is that “in any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake”; this concept has been used to claim that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes involved are generally so low.

(4*)    Technology, especially smart phones have allowed each one of us to be infinitely more stupid and irresponsible. A recent story of someone calling 911 on some kids selling lemonade in Gig Harbor is an example ( Just a reminder, 911 is FOR EMERGENCIES only.

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