On Organization by Circumstance


One of the books that influenced my thinking in the past couple of months is The Peter Principle by the Canadian teacher and author Laurence J. Peter. The book is famous for its principle, which goes as follows:

In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence given enough time and enough levels in the hierarchy.

And there is Peter’s Corollary to this principle.

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.

At first glance it appears that the book is an attempt at satire or parody. In many ‘case studies’ Peter humors the way that employees move upward in an organization to their level of incompetence and paints a somewhat melancholic and bleak picture of the employee who is caught at this level, like a rat in a cage.

Once you progress through the book and read about the symptoms and syndromes of ‘final placement’, you start to realize that this is actually happening all around you. The principle is viciously simple and Peter shows over and over again that when you try to explain why the hierarchy of the organization is the way it is, the Peter Principle is the only way to account for that.

Though the principle is a philosophic contemplation rather than a scientific fact, it has made me realize that the hierarchy of an organization is not formed of individuals being placed in these positions because they are the best fit for the job. I know that this, like the realization in my previous post, is a wide open door. And yet it made me look at the organization as an organism; as an entity consisting of people who are organized along other guiding principles than you might expect or suspect.

Especially the fact that you expect people in a certain position in the hierarchy to behave in a way or to show traits that are characteristic of that position, reduces your chances of interacting with the organization in meaningful way. Right now I am looking at the organization as a system in which people move around rather like molecules in a gas, bouncing off other molecules. Thus, the reasons for a person to be in a certain position are circumstantial and should be analyzed through the evolution of his or her environment, rather than from the perspective of organizational intent.