Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Has Your Organization Adopted The Weissman Principle?

By Bob Weissman
Former Chairman & CEO of Dun & Bradstreet

Few people will recognize the name Laurence J. Peter, but almost everyone has heard of his now famous Peter Principle.

He became widely famous in 1968, on the publication of The Peter Principle, in which he states:  “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of
incompetence…in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties…”

While Peter’s Principle is funny because it contains more than a grain of truth, it is a gross overstatement. The dictionary defines incompetent as:  “…lacking the skills, qualities, or ability to do something properly”, so if his principle was literally true, no enterprise should survive very long.

But many organizations that we suspect have been infected with the Peter Principle do endure, some for decades. What is really happening?

In the real world, people are hired and invited to contribute their skills and energy to the goal of achieving continuing success. Sometimes their contribution is well beyond what is expected. More often the performance is outstanding in a few areas and weak in others – overall a satisfactory outcome.

As they acquire organizational experience, they also get better known by their peers and their managers. They become candidates for promotion, and if promoted, their job description changes. All too often they are thrust into new roles for which they are unprepared and/or under trained.

What then?

In many cases the organization does not respond by adding training or reversing their promotion decision. Instead, they merely take that person off the promotion list and leave in place someone who is not incompetent, but merely mediocre. While it is generally true that “A” players hire “A” players, these “B” players will hire “C” players.  As a result the “B” players, through their hires, will weaken the organizational talent pool.

And there is another bad side effect.  As weaker players are promoted or brought into the organization, the best and the brightest inevitably see what is happening and they begin to exodus or refuse to join it.

This insidious process, this pact with the organizational devil, takes place every day in organizations around the world:

Old Harry isn’t (Fill in the blank)
A.     Building a strong team.
B.     Delivering long-term expectations.
C.     Thinking strategically.

He is (Fill in the blank)                        A.    A steadying influence.
                                                            B.    Good at handling temporary workers.
                                                            C.    A long-time employee. 

As you think about your own organization in the context of this topic, if you can honestly tell yourself that it has not been infected with this phenomenon, pat yourself on the back, for you have attained a level achievement attained by few.

For the rest of us, I modestly introduce:

 The Weissman Principle, which asserts that:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his or her level of mediocrity…in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is precluding the opportunity to hire a more productive (better) person to that post.”

It is the Human Resources equivalent of Gresham’s Law, where weak money drives out strong money, only in this case weak talent drives out or denies a place for strong talent.

It starts silently, it grows slowly at first, but it spreads widely and it saps your organizational competitiveness, energy and capability.

Beware of the Weissman Principle

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know. 


  1. Consider making all promotions temporary. Possibly 12, 18 or 24 months and then you automatically return to your previous level unless it is believed you can be promoted further.

    Ed Cusati

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ed. That is definitely one solution. The other is to make sure there is training and development that takes place to ensure people are competent for their position. If you don't, you will always have to hire qualified people from the outside. However, eventually those outsiders will rise to their level of incompetence if they are not trained and developed.

  2. Yes Ted, the Peter Principal has always had a negative connotation to me. I agree with your proposition that people really need training, rather than assuming that if they are good at this or that they will be good at everything. As humans we all come with our particular weaknesses and it does not mean that we are incompetent, it just needs that our consciousness level needs to be raised a bit. Good post, an interesting read. Thanks
    Tony Puckerin

    1. Thanks, Tony. You have a very rich perspective. Company training can be analogous to an athlete changing sports, like Michael Jordan to baseball. While he was an extraordinary basketball player, it was not so easy to be extraordinary in baseball. The change required a different kind of training, even though both required athletic ability. As you implied, a lack of training does not make us incompetent. Natural ability only takes us so far. To get to the next level, requires development of skills and mindset.

      I look forward to more comments from you in the future.