[FOUNTAIN]The Peter principle at work

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[FOUNTAIN]The Peter principle at work

Life does not always go smoothly. Somebody spoils things and causes trouble. Accidents can occur at unexpected times. Things are likely to fail at some point.
Why can’t an organization or society always run smoothly? It is a question that everybody has asked at one time or another. Canadian educator Laurence Peter (1919-1988) noted that a process of incompetence operated within organizations. As he went through various jobs, he observed that people around him were incompetent. As a result, in 1969 he created the Peter principle.
Its content is simple. If a person performs his duty within an organization without failing, he is evaluated as competent and will be promoted. If the person does his new job well he will be promoted again. If continuously promoted, at some point he will rise to a position that he cannot manage capably. From that moment, he is no longer seen as competent and promotions come to a halt.
In this way, an organization, step by step, is filled with people who were “competent in the past but incompetent at present.” Even though inefficiency becomes common, improvement becomes hard.
Of course, the Peter principle is not an exact social science theory. It is just a reasonable summation of Mr. Peter’s experience. It also does not consider that a person’s capability or talent can change according to his efforts or environment.
But the principle is still often quoted, as it simply and clearly explains the irrationality that occurs in every corner of society. It also holds the lesson that a person’s desire for advancement which does not consider his ability spoils him as well as the organization.
The Peter principle is not limited to developments within organizations. Gu Young-rok, a former honorary professor at Seoul National University, once said, “In Korea, there are many politicians who were caught by the Peter principle.” That referred to the fact that a devoted Korean liberation activist, a competent soldier, a pure fighter for democracy and a sincere scholar ended as incompetent politicians. It also includes cases where a person who was competent as an opposition member became incompetent as a ruling force after winning election.
The same is true for public servants. Someone who passed the national examination and was well-balanced begins to cause trouble at random. Doesn’t this exactly fit the Peter principle?


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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