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‘The Peter Principle’ is ageless as it turns 40

A satiric treatise on workplace incompetence, the book touched a nerve with readers because it was so funny. And so true.
Image: The Office
How timeless is "The Peter Principle?" Ask the writers of "The Office."Paul Drinkwater / NBC
/ Source: Business Week

"The Peter Principle," about to be reissued in a 40th anniversary edition, was a best seller when it was first published. A satiric treatise on workplace incompetence, it touched a nerve with readers because it was so funny. And so true. Much like the film "Office Space," NBC's "The Office," and Scott Adams' "Dilbert" comic strips, this book by Laurence J. Peter (a former teacher) and Raymond Hull (a playwright) captured the twisted logic of workplaces — tapping into how ridiculous they feel to insiders. It gleefully emitted a cloud of jargon monoxide and absurd advice as it reached its famous main conclusion: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

The Peter Principle made us laugh, but it also made us aware of the importance of simple competence — and of how elusive it could be. When people do their jobs well, Dr. Peter argued, society can't leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals — promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail — start using a bag of tricks to mask their incompetence. They distract us from their crummy work with giant desks, replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, cheat to create the illusion of progress.

If Dr. Peter were alive today, he'd find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats, or consider yourself a loser.

We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking. Many of us didn't want to see the lies, exaggerations, and arrogance that pumped up our portfolios. Instead we showered huge rewards on the false financial heroes who fed our delusions. This is the Bernie Madoff story, too. People may have suspected that something wasn't quite right about the huge returns on their investments with Madoff. But few wanted to look closely enough to see the Ponzi scheme.

Nor did anyone care to see the limits of professional athletes. Baseball's Barry Bonds was a great player, but excellence wasn't enough for the San Francisco Giants' management, himself, or deluded fans like me. During those alleged steroid years, Bonds sure looked juiced: His head resembled a balloon. My reaction? Like most Giants fans, I joked about the meds — and loved it when he blasted those homers.

The cure for our malady? We should return to what Dr. Peter wanted: rewarding ordinary competence and being wary of feats that come too easily. Perhaps the late Ray Kroc is the right role model here. One of his first steps in building the McDonald's empire was to run his own outlet — he cooked, cleaned bathrooms, picked up the trash. The focus on doing ordinary things well was, he believed, key to McDonald's success.

Simple competence was central, too, for former U.S. Marine Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, who led a platoon in bloody street battles in Iraq. As Campbell's account, "Joker One," tells us, he earned his men's respect and protected them through simple acts: training them to get in and out of a Humvee quickly, reminding them to eat, and arguing with superiors when those under his command were unnecessarily put in harm's way.

Finally, consider how Captain Chesley Sullenberger III explained his astounding emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York's Hudson River in January. "I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do," he said. As Dr. Peter might have observed, there were no pretenders, blowhards, or shared delusions that day, just the deftly coordinated actions of people who had not reached their level of incompetence.