Don’t Bother Excelling 
The Peter Principle

Don’t Bother Excelling 

Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull remade management tactics and perceptions forever with this funny, best-selling business classic.

First published in 1969, this title became the standard description of the pervasive, almost ineradicable management problem Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull describe: If you or anyone else performs well at your job, you will gain a promotion, but there’s a catch.

Your first promotion will move you to a position that demands pretty much the same skill set as your previous job. But if you perform that job well, with each subsequent promotion, your new position will require fewer and fewer of the skills, perceptions, habits or managerial abilities that enabled you to shine in the first place. At some point in this cycle, the authors convincingly assert, you will end up in a job at which you can’t excel. You will, they memorably note, “rise to [your] level of incompetence.” And there, Peter and Hull are certain, you will stay.

It is true that work can expand to fill the time allotted, but it can expand far beyond that. It can expand beyond the life of an organization, and the company can go bankrupt, a government can fall, a civilization can crumble into barbarism, while the incompetents work on.
Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

Peter and Hull identify the organizational problem behind this phenomenon: The people at the top, ipso facto, aren’t good at their jobs. And, he and Hull contend, their greatest fear is that other people will discover their incompetence. If you show excellence, you threaten the hierarchy, which, Peter and Hull stress, cares only about maintaining itself. Thus, the authors discovered (in this collaboration, primarily featuring Hull’s writing and Peter’s research), the most necessary survival skill is doing the bare minimum to get by, but never so much that you receive an offer of promotion.

Their perennial bestseller has even outlasted journalistic entities that gave it stellar reviews. For example, the defunct Life magazine presciently wrote that the authors, “… struck a throbbing public nerve.” Life called the book, “a minor cultural phenomenon,” and said that its “title phrase, like Parkinson’s Law, is certain to enter the language.” The more durable New York Times said, “The Peter Principle has cosmic implications.” 

Push Me, Pull You

To rise in any hierarchy, Peter and Hull reveal, you must have pull, which they define as having a relationship with someone above you in the hierarchy who helps you advance. You gain pull, they explain, by finding and influencing a patron, escaping the job ceiling above you and being ready to do whatever your patron demands. Those with the most patrons, the authors make clear, have the most pull and the higher likelihood of promotion. But they warn: never stop making every patron feel like the most important person in your work life.

The combined Pull of several Patrons is the sum of their separate Pulls multiplied by the number of Patrons.Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull

Push, the authors clarify, means pushing yourself with such measures as getting extra training or working extra hard. However, push exists in perpetual struggle against those above you who have seniority. They will resist your push because they can and because they may already occupy the higher-up desk you are trying to get. Push demonstrates greater will but less career effectiveness than pull, so Peter and Hull remind you, if you’ve got pull – don’t let them see you push. 


Followers who become leaders, the authors believe, usually initiate disasters. However, Peter and Hull note, in contrast, bad followers often make excellent leaders. They offer Thomas Edison as an example; he failed as a newsboy, but, when running his own business, he changed history.


The motivating thought pattern of anyone in a hierarchy, Peter and Hull unveil, is that the less those lower down get paid – in money, perks, vacations, bonuses, and so on – the more currency of all kinds becomes available for those higher up. That’s one reason, the authors found, that a sensible hierarchy never hires more people than it needs. However, poorly run hierarchies often hire more staff than necessary because, the authors believe, their leaders have been promoted beyond their competence levels. Thus, people at the top hire more incompetent people to pick up the slack from existing incompetents and existing incompetence.


True progress is achieved though moving forward to a better way of life, rather than upward to total life incompetence. Laurence J. Peterp, Foreword

Being incompetent at a job, as Peter and Hull describe it, will seldom derail a career. Incompetence, they feel, often guarantees career success. But what about being incompetent at life? Peter and Hull find an ominous stalling in human progress, thanks to an ever-increasing devaluing of merit.

In time, the Peter principle spawned office-life satirist and cartoonist Scott Adams’ book, The Dilbert Principle. His corollary to the Peter Principle contends that companies promote incompetent people up to management jobs to remove them from the workflow.

Unpretentious Wit

Peter and Hull write in an unpretentious conversational style of readable simplicity that borders on genius. They indulge in memorable made-up jargon, rules and titles. Their sense of humor stems from an era of longer concentration spans, though their book is short. Will today’s readers have the patience for its slowly unfurling gags? Most probably; this was a smash hit, and its popularity endures undiminished 52 years after its first publication. Peter and Hull wrote their formulas mostly for their own amusement, and they prove entirely amusing.

The Peter Principle in Action

Do read the two separate forewords by Peter and Hull, but you can skip the foreword by Robert L. Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss. He plunders the book’s best lines, thereby robbing the reader of discovering these gems in context. Peter and Hull’s still-timely, still-relevant, accurate and cautionary classic will amuse and enlighten anyone who works with or for anyone else.

Peter built an empire out of this bestseller; his other books include The Peter Prescription, The Peter Plan, Quotations For Our Times and Peter’s People and Their Marvelous Ideas. A prolific playwright, Raymond Hull also wrote the books How To Get What You Want, Effective Public Speaking and Profitable Playwriting.

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