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Peter Principle


The Peter Principle is a management theory concept described by Canadian educational scholar, Dr. Laurence J. Peter, in his 1968 book titled "The Peter Principle." Basically, the principle states that “In a hierarchy, every person tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.” Being incompetent, the person will not qualify for promotion again, and so will remain stuck at this position, their “Peter Plateau.” This leads to Peter's Corollary, which states that "In time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties."

Peter intended the book to be satire, but it became popular as it was seen to make a serious point about the shortcomings of how people are promoted within hierarchical organizations. The principle has been the subject of much commentary and research over the years.

Some companies and organizations expect that productivity will "regress to the mean" at some point, so they have changed their policies to contend with the Peter principle. Others have adopted "up or out" policies in which employees who do not advance are periodically fired. The military uses this kind of policy; service members have limits on how many years they may continue to serve without a promotion.

Hierarchy in business and government

As the Peter Principle applies to business and government jobs, it means that employees stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively at their current positions. However, this does not mean that they will be demoted back to the level at which they were effective; it usually means they will keep working ineffectively at their current level until they retire or leave. This means that at some point most of the employees in business and government become ineffective incompetents. 

This also means that employees who were good performers at their previous positions and enjoyed their jobs are promoted into positions they are not good at doing and don’t enjoy. Thus, they are stuck in the new positions doing incompetent work and are unhappy when they were competent and happy in their previous positions.

Hierarchy in the martial arts

The Peter Principle can also be applied to rank promotions in martial arts. Martial artists are promoted until the point where they can no longer pass the next rank test. This does not necessarily mean they are incompetent at their current ranks; it just means they don’t have and probably will never develop the skills to advance to the next rank. A side effect is that these students may become super stars at their current rank because they get so much practice from training in the rank for so many years. The Peter Principle also applies to students who were excellent color belt students, but who are incompetent as black belt students. 

As an experiment at any martial arts school, you could have all the students in a mixed-belt group class take off their belts and put them in a pile. Then invite a group of strangers to watch the students perform during the class. After the class ends, have the group assign each belt in the pile to the students they think are of that rank. What do you think the results would be in your school?

However, the principle does not always apply to the martial arts because of the current philosophy that says that everyone who tries should get promoted no matter their abilities, that no one is a loser. This means that the entire hierarchy of ranks in a martial art becomes saturated with incompetents. 
If you go to a promotion test at the average martial arts school, you will see this in action. You see fat, nonphysically fit, incompetent students (some even black belts) who move like slugs, can’t kick knee-high without losing their balance, and who awkwardly perform every technique. But, if they have come to the required number of classes, try to do every required technique, try to perform the required breaks, try to do all the moves in their patterns, and–most of all–pay all their fees, they will get promoted.

The cure

The only way to prevent the Peter Principle from affecting a martial arts school is to set clear, definite, high requirements and standards for each rank and then strictly enforce them. Don’t make pity promotions, don’t make promotions based on emotions, don’t make promotions just to keep students enrolled, and don’t make any exceptions. You clearly state that the policy for rank promotion is:
  • This is what is required for this rank.
  • This is the level of proficiency required for each of the requirements. 
  • If you can meet or exceed all these requirements at THIS promotion test, you will be promoted; if not, then you must try again at the next promotion test. 
  • You may be injured, ill, grieving, or have other unexpected reasons for your poor performance, but if you cannot perform what is required at the time it is required, then you will not be promoted.
This may seem harsh, but that’s the way it is in the real world. 

You may be a fantastic swimmer but if you fall overboard unnoticed and are unable to swim for some reason at that moment–you will drown. None of your excuses or reasons for not being able to swim will matter; you either swim or you die trying.

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