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Posts Tagged ‘Laurence J. Peter’

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“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence… In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.”

Laurence J. Peter, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong

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For those of you too young to have been around back then, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong was a book from Dr. Laurence J. Peter that came out in 1969 and was a huge bestseller. It was one of those books and ideas that became ubiquitous in their time. It seemed like everywhere I looked back then, that book cover was staring out at me from book racks in every grocery store, card shop and bus station.

Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something, even then.

In the book, a blend of practical business management principle and mild satire, Peter described every organization as a pyramidal hierarchy in which each member was eventually promoted up the pyramid to a position where they would be proven to be incompetent. The real work of the organization was always done by those within the pyramid who had not yet risen to their own personal level of incompetence.

Those not yet proven to be incompetent were like the mortar that strengthened and bonded the blocks of the pyramid.

It was one of those ideas that seemed so simple that it was hard to believe that nobody had voiced it in that way before. And just looking around at almost any organization, private or public, seemed to offer ample proof of its validity.

Why am I talking about this? I think anybody who has been closely following the US government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis could easily see it as the principle in action.

It is one of the first things that jumps to mind when watching the daily press briefings lately. They are maddeningly difficult to watch with their evasions, lack of information, blame placement, contradictions, empty promises and self-congratulatory puffery often along a raft of outright lies.

Not a shred of reassurance anywhere to be found. For me, it almost always brings on an unpleasant mix of disgust and rage combined with dread.

The dread can be explained by another line from Peter’s book: “Any government, whether it is a democracy, a dictatorship, a communistic or free enterprise bureaucracy, will fall when its hierarchy reaches an intolerable state of maturity.” 

That maturity is the point when most of the level of the hierarchy have been filled with incompetents and this administration has spent much of the last three-plus years removing apolitical professionals who had been competently handling many important positions within the pyramid. These are the people who had yet to reach their own level of incompetence, people were doing the real work that kept the governmental pyramid standing. In their place, they inserted political lackeys, people ill-equipped to handle even the most mundane requirements of their posts let alone a global crisis that requires the ultimate in competence from every level of the pyramid.

Watching closely as I have, it sure feels to me like every position in that pyramid is so packed with incompetence that there is little, if any, room left for the still competent to do the dirty, real work required to keep the pyramid standing.

Thus, the dread.

Here are a couple of other little snips from The Peter Principle that one might think were written solely for the here and now:

“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

“Incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence.”

“If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”

I know that writing this doesn’t accomplish anything. But it’s something I have to do once in awhile if only to try to organize what I am seeing in a way that I can comprehend so I can figure out how to look to the future.

And I do still look to the future, even with a little hope. But that hope is my own and owes nothing to the efforts of these incompetents who sit atop the crumbling pyramid.

Hey, have a great day! And be careful out there.

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