The “Peter Principal”

Steven Rudolph

You have probably heard of the Peter Principle – a management theory that states “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle.

After having spent two decades in the area of education, I believe the concept should have a specific application to this field, which should be termed as “The Peter Principal” (sic) – i.e., every educator rises to his highest level of incompetence. She starts out as an excellent classroom teacher; becomes a very good coordinator, an average department head, a poor headmistress, and awful principal!

I like to use the Multiple Natures model to describe this phenomenon in this manner: The Multiple Intelligences and Multiple Natures that make someone exceptional in one type of work cannot necessarily be applied in another area. Sachin Tendulkar is an incredible batsman – but a lousy captain. That’s mainly because captaincy requires strong Interpersonal Intelligence and a strong Administrative Nature, which he must lack. The Peter Principle, as I see it, deals largely with this same issue – as one moves up the organizational hierarchy, he must use more of these two particular qualities, which correlate highly with effective management.

As such, when it comes to educational management, my advice is that both the teacher and employer should be careful when considering promotions, and should do a careful analysis to determine the strength of the teacher’s Administrative Nature and Interpersonal Intelligence. If these qualities are on the weaker side, it might be better to keep her happy and successful in her instructional role, positively affecting dozens of students on a daily basis (which is a great thing!). If they’re of medium strength, both should have realistic expectations of how much management-related responsibility should be given. And if she’s promoted, plenty of support and training should be provided to help her develop these qualities. However, if they are strong, then it would make every bit of sense to let her spread her wings and rise to the top as the head of the school.

I believe Peter would have certainly approved of this principle – and principal.

The author is an American educator, TV personality, public speaker and bestselling author based in India. He can be reached at [email protected].

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