A pandemic Peter Principle.

In 1968 Canadian sociologist Laurence Peter coined the phrase “Peter Principle” as a contribution to the sociology of organisations. It explains that in complex organizations people rise to the level of their own incompetence. That is, they get promoted so long as they meet or exceed the specified criteria for and skill set required of a particular position until they eventually reach positions for which they do not have the aptitude, skills or qualifications to continue advancing. Hence a floor manager in a retail outlet may advance to warehouse manager and perhaps regional supply supervisor but then meets the ceiling of his/her competence in handling more complex tasks required for further advancement up the managerial chain of command.

Because Peter was interested in organisational efficiency, he advised training programs for individuals as they progressed upwards. This raised the “ceiling” of their incompetence, which he believed promoted efficiency in corporate decision-making. His views have been very instrumental in organisational sociology and have been applied in numerous contexts beyond the corporate world.

One thing that is relatively under-studied is the specific factors that reveal incompetence. Because the Principle is offered as a broad theory it assumes that at certain points a level of incompetence will be reached, but does not address the specifics of what conditions, duties, responsibilities and other criteria comprise the “ceiling” or end point at which the level of incompetence is reached in given instances. This is an undervalued aspect of the Principle because different organisations and management levels have different responsibilities and skill set requirements as well as criteria for advancement. Moreover, the Principle may, depending on context, be influenced more by extrinsic rather than intrinsic factors. The tired “Mad Men” era joke about choosing between two secretaries, the one in which the more attractive individual is chosen regardless of qualifications, illustrates the point. The broader question is what factors contribute to determining a level of incompetence according to the Peter Principle? In this essay I extend that thought to the impact of CV-19 on global management responses.

In short, what the pandemic has done is to expose managerial incompetence at a global level. To be sure there are instances of competency is handling the disease, but what is most striking is the sheer number of and decisional sites in which incompetence has been exposed.

Let’s start with the easily identified fiascos. The US leads by negative example, but the UK and Brazil run a close second when it comes to turning a public health threat into an omnishambles of preventable deaths. Italy and Spain have a lot to answer for in this regard, and the Morrison government in Australia is not immune from the incompetency virus. This is different than in places where inadequate resources, human, technological and medical, prevent adequate responses to the infectious spread. In such instances people know what to do but simply do not have the tools with which to do it.

Then there are the sub-national and non-governmental Peter Principled. Around the globe church leaders demand that they be allowed to congregate their flocks within their houses of worship. This may well be a form of divine intervention in which a specific type of Darwin Award candidates are culled from the population, but it seems to me that as a human enterprise this is up there on the incompetence scale. Likewise and closer to home, the responses of Auckland universities has been a blinder. The VC of the more famous one wrote an op ed shortly before global infection numbers exploded saying that any quarantine or border control efforts was discriminatory against Asian students, then demanded a government bailout for the lost tuition revenues generated by those students (so it was not about discrimination or student health after all). This ethics-challenged Einstein is one of NZ’s highest paid “public servants.” Go figure.

The lesser known institution cancelled its classes near the mid-term break and decided, thanks to the advice of an “education theorist” who apparently has never taught a real class, to start all over and move to an on-line “block” teaching format in which students lost all of the work they had completed until then and in spite of the fact that the technological capacity of the university to host mass on-line distance learning was sketchy at best and in many instances unavailable to lower income students with limited access to on-line services. Then, after much hue and cry, the university reversed its decision two weeks into the lockdown and after having its teaching staff drop their original course preparations and quickly devise block style on-line presentations. Not only did this undo all of the staff effort put into ginning up block style courses, it left different faculties with a smorgasbord of half-competed courses and missing assignments that cannot be fully recovered. Yet the genius who thought up the block “surprise” and the VC who ordered it into effect (then not) continue to hold their jobs.

Similarly, the Trust monopoly in West Auckland reduced the number of stores where liquor can be purchased, as well as the number of hours that the stores are open and the number of items (six) that can be purchased at any one time. What it did not do was remove distilled spirits from the shelves, something that was problematic because all hard liquor outlets outside of the Trusts jurisdiction in West Auckland are closed and supermarkets are forbidden from selling anything other than wine and beer. With the “one out, one in” entry policy in place, this was a recipe for disaster as hundreds of out-of-zone punters showed up to buy hard liquor in Trust stores, causing huge crowds who, to say the least, are not always adhering to safe distance guidelines. The efforts to take names and addresses at the doors was an exercise in futility that only added to the waits. After more than a week of complaints, hard liquor was pulled from Trust shelves, and the “one out, one in” policy has been modified so that store employees gather items for customers waiting at the till. The long queues remain.

In short: in the face of pandemic restrictions the Trust leaders decided to limit stores, hours and purchasable quantities but invited an increase in customers from outside the Trusts monopoly zone by neglecting to consider the spill-over effect of hard liquor outlets closures in the rest of the city. Win!

At a more individual level, there is the case of NZ Heath Minister David Clark, who breached the quarantine in order to take his family to a beach, and then use his branded electorate van to take his mountain bike to a popular trailhead before going on a ride. One could argue that this is another example of political Darwin Award aspirations, except for the fact that Clark has no background in medicine or health matters and was actually a Presbyterian minister who held assorted public service jobs before entering parliament. Yet somehow he got bumped up the chain to the Health portfolio, only to fail to understand a cardinal rule of ministerial politics: optics are more important than actual knowledge of the policy area being managed. In any event, it appears that the Peter Principle should have applied earlier in Mr. Clark’s political career, but for some reason the Labour Party decided to extend his shelf life until he became an embarrassment. That was an avoidable mistake.

There is the US Navy response to a plea from the commanding officer of one of its Pacific-based carriers to help off-load CV-19 stricken sailors in Guam (there were more than 150 cases among the 4800 sailors on board when he made his plea). The CO resorted to writing a letter to 20-30 senior uniformed officers in and outside his chain of command when he could not secure the cooperation of his immediate superior (a Rear Admiral who still is the Strike Force Commander of the seven ship carrier group) or of the Pacific Fleet commander (another Admiral) to quickly off-load the sick personnel. Apparently, these superiors and the civilians staffing the highest ranks of the Navy Department were more concerned about disclosing operational details (that the ship was in port with a pandemic in it rather than at sea in the Western Pacific) then in protecting the health and welfare of the sailors on board the carrier. The end result was that the Acting Navy Secretary, a Trump appointee, relieved the CO of his duties (a career ender for a much decorated and loved officer, who has been diagnosed with CV-19 himself) saying that he had compromised national security by sending the letter out over an insecure email system (the .mil system). He then flew, at a cost of over US$250,000, out to the carrier, got on the CO’s bridge microphone rather than address the sailors directly, and proceed to insult and disparage the CO as “naive” and “stupid.” He used a number of profanities while doing so, including a few F bombs for good measure. He then returned to DC, was summoned by Congressional Armed Service committees to explain his actions, initially stonewalled, then played the victim of a media beat-up, only to eventually apologise and resign. All in the space of 5 days.

There is an irony in this particular Peter Principle at work. Having the strongest symbol of US military power, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, crippled from within and idled in port pleading on deaf bureaucratic ears for relief for its sailors, is symptomatic of a much broader malaise in US military and political society. In the past five years the US Navy has seen two negligence-caused fatal ship crashes, accusations of war crimes against its elite commandos, the Fat Leonard corruption scandal involving dozens of senior officers, a number of high profile sex scandals amongst flag ranked officers and delays and irregularities in procurement and commissioning of the next generation of warships. And yet, besides some convenient scapegoats forced into retirement or court-martialled, zero institutional changes have been made to the way in which it operates, especially with regards to promotions into leadership positions. It is as if there is a Peter Principle pandemic at work throughout US Navy leadership circles!

There are many, many more instances of the Peter Principle at play throughout the world. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brasil could have an entire encyclopaedia written about his dumbassery and recklessness, including denying that CV-19 is anything more than a seasonal flu that his political opponents (including those who have previously supported him) have exaggerated for partisan reasons, and urging his followers at mass rallies to to ignore local quarantines and congregate in churches to pray for immunity (there again, you have that religious/idiocy nexus, now floating up to national level politics). He is not alone but the point should be clear: there is a whole lot of incompetence being exposed by this pandemic.

One can argue that what I have described is not so much the application of the Peter Principle on a global scale thanks to the pandemic, but instead mere stupidity, evil, venality and opportunism brought onto display by it–and that is not just confined to Trump. It can also be argued that the Peter Principle cannot be applied to politicians who are elected on things other than merit, or (in the case of authoritarians) for purposes other than the common good. These are reasonable counterpoints but what is different, I think, is that the pandemic has unveiled the gross incompetence of so many “captains” of industry, government and civil society, be they in transportation, logistics, sports, education, local politics, the military and a host of other endeavours.

One can only hope that once the pandemic subsides, there will be a clearing house effect on managerial elites throughout the world, preferably in concert with a return to sustainable economies and environmental protection efforts that, as I mentioned in an earlier post, allow us to live equitably within our means as members of local, national, regional and global societies.

But even then the question will remain: can such a transition remove the Peter Principle as an organisational feature in the future? Methinks not.

6 thoughts on “A pandemic Peter Principle.

  1. I don’t think anybody expected the pandemic to remove the Peter principle – it has been in action throughout recorded human history.

  2. Gorkem:

    It is not that simple. Since Weber’s time there has been a belief that modernisation included as a core characteristic the rise of complex bureaucracies driven by meritocratic principles for promotion and advancement (the so-called “Iron cage”). Pre-modern societies may have been nepotistic, patronage-ridden and therefore inefficient in their accumulation and provision of goods and services, but the hallmark of the “modern”, as Weber outlined in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and continued through “Economy and Society” was the replacement of personal, capricious and ascriptive organisational logics with objective, rational and uniform standards of training and responsibility for those occupied in them. The whole point was no remove incompetence within the organisation, thereby promoting efficiency across the board.

    Human nature being what it is, that was an ideal rather than a practical objective in most cases. Peter was making the point that even within a Weberian Iron cage there comes a point where meritocracy hits a ceiling. That is due to the fact that people are rewarded and advanced in merit-based complex organisations because of what they did before (in other roles) rather than because they seem especially suited to a particular position. Hence the need for specialised training up the promotion ladder, which among other things would winnow out those who cannot cope with, acquire or comprehend the skill set and requirements of that training.

    The point of the post, seemingly undermined by my last sentence, is that the CV-19 pandemic has exposed incompetence on a grand scale across the world. This incompetence, it seems, has been an invisible feature of post-modern, post-industrial (I dare not use that tired phrase “neoliberal”) “late” capitalism and of the political and social superstructures that have been erected upon it. We can only hope that out of the ashes of the pandemic comes a new socio-economic and political order that replaces the national-populist and broader authoritarian politics and feral cowboy capitalism of the day. We shall see.

  3. Hasnt incompetence been broadly speaking a constant? I am not arguing that incompetence doesn’t exist, but can we say that incompetence is more common in the post-modern/post-industrial era than it was in the modern/industrial era, or the pre-modern/pre-industrial era? Have we seen a decline in administrative competence during the post-modern era? Did the machinery of the administrative state in the pre-post-modern era, e.g. the 1950s or earlier, have an average level of competence that does not exist now?

  4. The whole point of Taylorism and other such “scientific management” schemes developed during the late 19th and throughout the 20th century was to remove irrationality, non-meritorious advancement and incompetence from the administration of complex organisations. Thousands of MBA programs world-wide churn out graduates who supposedly have had their competence levels raised as a result of their studies. And yet a global pandemic arrives and incompetence is exposed in pretty much every aspect of life (while admitting that there are plenty of competent people trying to make a positive difference). It could be that many business mantras are no more than cover for patronage, nepotism and corruption. It could be that anti-scientific sentiment and conspiracy theories have undermined logic and rationality in organisations. It could be that this is no different than in pre-modern eras, except for the fact that the technological complexity and sophistication of post-modern societies is considerably greater than that of pre-modern societies, and since Weber there has been a concerted effort to study and prescribe methods that reduce or at least ameliorate the impact of incompetence of complex organisations.

  5. I don’t think MBA programs claim to be preparing people for pandemic prevention/mitigation. It’s a Masters of Business Administration, not a Masters of Public Health or Epidemiology.

    It’s true that all kinds of programs, philosophies, policies etc etc have had the goal of reducing the general level of incompetence, but I don’t think anybody has ever claimed they could totally eliminate it. The continued appearance of incompetence doesn’t invalidate any existing governance or educational philosophy any more than the continued appearance of diseases invalidates hygiene theory, or the continued appearance of spelling mistakes invalidates dictionaries, or the continued appearance of earthquake related deaths invalidates earthquake preparedness training.

    We don’t know that competence levels haven’t been raised. The counterfactual is – would there be more or less incompetence without Taylorism, or MBAs, or modern business practices, or whatever other institution/program/philosophy is seen as having failed. This is a very difficult counterfactual to address one way or another.

    There is a kind of popular conception that this sort of thing “isn’t supposed to happen”, but this may be more to do with mismatched expectations of what the administrative state was capable of – and it is as much about lower level expectations, e.g. how much hospital capacity we have, versus higher level expectations e.g. what politicians can do. It certainly has little to do with the explicit tenets of Taylorism.

    And I have to say, there are not very many people who saw this coming. Those who stand apart from the kinds of systems that are being criticised here have not exactly been ringing the alarm bell re: pandemics, either.

  6. It is clear that you are now arguing for the sake of argument, and getting pretty close to trolling. The fact is that a lot of people saw the pandemic possibility and tried to prepare for it, a lot saw it coming and were ignored (just read the accounts of Trump’s dismantling of CDC and White House pandemic units) and a lot of charlatans and incompetents jumped in to derail a coherent response in many nations, including here in NZ (think David Seymour and Gareth Morgan). The pandemic started because hygiene practices were initially ignored at its point of origin and then as it spread, with a concern about loss of face and priority awarded to giving the impression of control informing the PRC’s initial decision-making.The reference to MBAs and Taylorism was to make the point about the practical application of Weberian constructs and the attempts to remove incompetence in complex organisations over the last century and a half, not about specifically public health administration per se. And so on.

    If you think that this is just the usual level of incompetence surfacing because the pandemic could not be foreseen and the responses have been in no way compromised by incompetence any more than usually occurs throughout history, then so be it. I consider this discussion closed.

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