INTRODUCTION TO ESSAY WRITING FOR BUSINESS
FINAL EXAM DEADLINE
MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY 10 DECEMBER 2008
INSTRUCTIONS: Carefully read the extract below from the book The Peter
Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull
and answer all the questions in Sections A and B.
The Peter Principle
Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull
When I was a boy I was taught that the men upstairs knew what they were
doing. I was told, “Peter, the more you know, the further you go.” So I
stayed in school until I graduated from college and then went forth into
the world clutching firmly these ideas and my new teaching certificate.
During the first year of teaching I was upset to find that a number of
teachers, school principals, supervisors, and superintendents appeared to
be unaware of their professional responsibilities and incompetent in
executing their duties. For example my principal’s main concerns ere that
all window shades be at the same level, that classrooms should be quiet,
and that no one step on or near the rose beds. The superintendent’s main
concerns were that no minority group, no matter how fanatical, should
ever be offended and all official forms be submitted on time. The
children’s education appeared farthest from the administrator’s mind.
At first I thought this was a special weakness of the school system in which I taught so I applied for
certification in another province. I filled out the special forms, enclosed the required documents, and
complied willingly with all the red tape. Several weeks later, back came my application and all the
No, there was nothing wrong with my credentials; the forms were correctly filled out; an official
departmental stamp showed that they had been received in good order. But an accompanying letter said,
“The new regulations require that such forms cannot be accepted by the Department of Education unless they
have been registered at the Post Office to ensure safe delivery. Will you please remail the forms to the
Department, making sure to register this time?”
I began to suspect that the local school system did not have a monopoly on incompetence.
As I looked further afield, I saw that every organization contained a number of persons who could not
do their jobs.
A Universal Phenomenon
Occupational incompetence is everywhere. Have you noticed it? Probably we have all notice it.
We see indecisive politicians posing as resolute statesmen and the “authoritative source” who blames his misinformation on “situational imponderables.” Limitless are the public servants who are indolent and
insolent, military commanders whose behavioural timidity belies their dreadnought rhetoric, and governors
whose innate servility prevents their actually governing. In our sophistication, we virtually shrug aside the
immoral cleric, corrupt judge, incoherent attorney, author who cannot write, and English teacher who cannot
spell. At universities we see proclamations authored by administrators whose own office communications are
hopelessly muddled, and droning lectures from inaudible or incompetent instructors.
Seeing incompetence at all levels of every hierarchy – political, legal, educational, and industrial – I
hypothesized that the cause was some inherent feature of the rules governing the placement of employees.
Thus began my serious study of the ways in which employees move upward through a hierarchy, and of what
happens to them after promotion.
From my scientific data hundreds of case histories were collected. Here are three typical examples.
Municipal Government File, Case No. 17
J.S. Minion was a maintenance foreman in the public works department of Excelsior City. He was a favourite of the senior officials at City Hall. They all praised his unfailing affability.
“I like Minion,” said the superintendent of works. “He has good judgement and is always pleasant and agreeable.”
This behaviour was appropriate for Minion’s position: he was not supposed to make policy, so he had no need to disagree with his superiors.
The superintendent of works retired and Minion succeeded him. Minion continued to agree with everyone. He passed to his foreman every suggestion that came from above. The resulting conflicts in policy
and the continual changing of plans soon demoralized the department. Complaints poured in from the Mayor
and other officials, from taxpayers and from the maintenance-workers’ union.
Minion still says “Yes” to everyone, and carries messages briskly back and forth between his superiors and his subordinates. Nominally a superintendent, he actually does the work of a messenger. The
maintenance department regularly exceeds its budget, yet fails to fulfil its program of work. In short, Minion,
a competent foreman, became an incompetent superintendent.
Service Industries file, Case No. 3
E. Tinker was exceptionally zealous and intelligent as an apprentice at G. Reece Auto Repair Inc., and soon rose to journeyman mechanic. In this job he showed outstanding ability in diagnosing obscure faults,
and endless patience in correcting them. He was promoted to foreman of the repair shop.
But here his love of things mechanical and his perfectionism became liabilities. He will undertake any job that he thinks looks interesting, no matter how busy the shop may be. “We’ll work it in somehow,” he
He will not let a job go until he is fully satisfied with it.
He meddles constantly. He is seldom to be found at his desk. He is usually up to his elbows in a dismantled motor and while the man who should be dong the work stands watching, other workmen sit
around waiting to be assigned new tasks. As a result the shop is always overcrowded with work, always in a
muddle, and delivery times are often missed.
Tinker cannot understand that the average customer care little about perfection – he wants his car back
on time! He cannot understand that most of his men are less interested in motors then in their pay checks. So
Tinker cannot get on with his customers or with his subordinates. He was a competent mechanic, but is now
an incompetent foreman.
Military file, Case No. 8
Consider the case of the late renowned General A. Goodwin. His hearty, informal manner, his racy style of speech, his scorn for petty regulations, and his undoubted personal bravery made hime the idol of his
men. He led them to many well-deserved victories.
When Goodwin was promoted to field marshal he had to deal, not with ordinary soldiers, but with politicians and allied generalissimos.
He would not conform to the necessary protocol. He could not turn his tongue to the conventional courtesies and flatteries. He quarrelled with all the dignitaries and took to lying for days at a time, drunk and
sulking, in his trailer. The conduct of the war slipped out of his hands into those of his subordinates. He had
been promoted to a position that he was incompetent to fill.
An Important Clue
In time I saw that all such cases had a common feature. The employee had been promoted from a position of competence to a position of incompetence. I saw that, sooner or later, this could happen to every
employee in every hierarchy.
Hypothetical Case File, Case No. 1
Suppose you own a pill-rolling factory, Perfect Pill Incorporated. Your foreman pill roller dies of a perforated ulcer. You need a replacement. You naturally look among your rank-and-file pill rollers.
Miss Oval, Mrs. Cylinder, Mr. Ellipse, and Mr. Cube all show various degrees of incompetence. They will naturally be ineligible for promotion. You will choose – other things being equal – your most competent
pill roller, Mr. Sphere, and promote him to foreman.
Now suppose Mr. Sphere proves competent as foreman. Later, when your general foreman. Legree, moves up to Works Manager, Sphere will be eligible to take his place.
If, on the other hand, Sphere is an incompetent foreman, he will get no more promotion. He has reached what I call his “level of incompetence.” He will stay there till the end of his career.
Some employees, like Ellipse and Cube, reach a level of incompetence in the lowest grade and are never promoted. Some, like Sphere (assuming he is not a satisfactory foreman), reach it after one promotion.
E. Tinker, the automobile repair-shop foreman, reached his level of incompetence on the third stage of the hierarchy. General Goodwin reached his level of incompetence at the very top of the hierarchy.
So my analysis of hundreds of cases of occupational incompetence led me on to formulate The Peter
In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.
A New Science!
Having formulated the Principle, I discovered that I had inadvertently founded a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies.
The term “hierarchy” was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning includes any organization whose members or employees are
arranged in order of tank, grade, or class.
Hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration.
This Means You!
My Principle is the key to an understanding of all hierarchical systems, and therefore to an understanding of the whole structure of civilization. A few eccentrics try to avoid getting involved with
hierarchies, but everyone in business, industry, trade-unionism, politics, government, the armed forces,
religion, and education is so involved. All of them are controlled by the Peter Principle.
Many of them, to be sure, may win a promotion or two, moving from one level of competence to a
higher level of competence. But competence in that new position qualifies them for still another promotion.
For each individual, for you, for me, the final promotion is from a level of competence to a level of
incompetence. The phenomena of “percussive sublimation” (commonly referred to as “being kicked
upstairs”) and of “the lateral arabesque” are not, as the casual observer might think, exceptions to the
Principle. They are only pseudo-promotions….
So, given enough time – and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy – each employee
rises to, and remains at, his level of incompetence. Peter’s Corollary states:
In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent
to carry out its duties.
Who Turns the Wheels?
You will rarely find, of course, a system in which every employee has reached his level of incompetence. In most instances, something is being done to further the ostensible purposes for which the
Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their
level of incompetence.
SECTION A: Write short answers to the following questions.
1. Is this essay aimed at a general audience or an expert audience? What led you to your
2. What is the essay’s thesis? At what point in the essay does the thesis statement appear? Why
do you think Peter and Hull wait so long to state it?
3. How serious are Peter and Hull? What words or phrases indicate whether their purpose is to
instruct or to entertain – or both?
4 Why do you think Peter and Hull begin the essay with an example? Why do they present a
series of brief examples before introducing the typical case histories?
5. Why do Peter and Hull say they collected hundreds of case histories for data? How are the
three case histories analyzed here typical?
6. Does the use of hypothetical examples strengthen or weaken the writers’ case? Explain.
7. Do Peter and Hull use a sufficiently wide range of examples? Explain.
8. Write a 350-450 word exemplification essay of a school, business or organization that you
know well showing how the Peer Principle applies (or does not apply).