September 16

1919 The birth of a hierarchiologist

Laurence J. Peter (1919-90) was a Canadian educator known best for his studies on bureaucratic incompetence. Born in Vancouver, Peter worked as a teacher in British Columbia before receiving his doctorate in education and moving to the United States. While at the University of Southern California, he published (with Raymond Hull) his groundbreaking The Peter Principle which seems to explain so much about what we experience at the hands of institutions. Briefly stated: “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 … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Peter’s book spawned much critical thinking in businesses and organizations. The truth of his observations have long been recognized but solutions for the problem he discerned have not been notably successful. Other of his maxims include:

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

The noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.

The only valid rule about the proper length of a statement is that it achieve its purpose effectively.

The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to where they can do the least damage: management.

Super competence is more objectionable than incompetence .. [it] disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.

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