Deckard on the Peter Principle Among the Letter Bees

Original Post: The (Male) Fantasy in Letter Bee (02)


October 12, 2009 at 8:30 am

I don’t think Peter’s Principle is as sound as you make it because in the form quoted it doesn’t mention underlying assumption. These are very strong thus severely limiting to Principles generality. In particular, if the Bees organisation is sufficiently small and narrow in duties, the Head Bee may well be the most capable practitioner.

Almost universally, within an organisation different levels of responsibility require different number of staff. In mail delivery, there is only on CEO and numerous postmen; think about this as a pyramid with CEO being the top (narrowest) and postmen bottom (widest).
Let’s assume, for simplicity, that there is only one skill relevant to all positions within the organisation (ability to deliver mail) and progressively higher positions require more of that skill. Now start filling the pyramid with members of the organisation. You will begin at the base of the pyramid filling it with the least capable people and progress towards the top where the most capable will be placed as CEO.

Note that if someone within the organisation cannot be promoted while he is competent than the Principle is violated since it requires that “members are promoted so long as they work competently”. If the Principle holds for the organisation, then person just below the CEO (arguably, so must be CEO) is incompetent. Furthermore, because none of the people just below the him can be promoted (there is no empty space above them in the pyramid), these people are incompetent by virtue reaching their promotion ceiling; etc until everyone within the organisation is declared incompetent so long as we believe that Peter’s Principle applies to the organisation. The absurdity implied by the Principle should be obvious.

What this principle relies one is that people become incompetent sooner than they reach promotion ceiling. Note that the principle as quoted by ghostlightning specifies “Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent” implying the that competence is a 0 or 1 (i.e. binary) variable. Thus, the Principle does not talk about degree of incompetence, but about incompetence vs. competence.

An important note to the above argument is what exactly is competence. Because in the Principle competence is binary variable, the definition has to reflect that. One definition is that at each level a certain – limited – amount of skill is required and person is considered competent if his amount of skill is higher than the limit of the position. Of course, this definition further undermines the Principle since it imposes another very strong assumption: CEO has less skill than is required by his position.

In case of the Bees organisation, it is difficult to claim that it is a meritocratic fantasy because we (at least I am) unaware of the size of the organisation and its structure. If it is sufficiently small in size and narrow in its duties than the most capable practitioner may well be the CEO. Note that example ghostlighting gave (Ghibli, Ganinax) are all very narrow is tasks they perform and small in size. Furthermore, Bees organisation is not necessarily build along patriarchal lines because it relies on the strength of heart, not physical strength.

I hope i didn’t mess up somewhere; though I probably did.


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