Good is up

A mailing list recently reminded me of the so-called “Peter principle”, which avers rather sarcastically that in terms of careers, everyone rises to the level of his incompetence. While I was trying to figure out whether this makes any sense, I realised that there’s a huge assumption built into the principle: Good is up.

Somehow, furtherance of one’s career is mapped to “higher”. Is that because most organisations are viewed hierarchically, or is it why most organisations are hierachical? Which came first, I wonder — the shape of our organisations, or the metaphors we use to describe them? We use phrases such as “at the top of the tree”, “top brass”, “a long way to fall”, “social climber”, “high flyer” — all of which reinforce the metaphor that success is “up” and lack of success is “down”. Little wonder that so few organisations escape from this and use non-hierarchical structures.


So the Peter principle says that, as our careers evolve, we climb the corporate ladder until we reach a level that’s too high for our abilities. Again, making the assumption that there’s some kind of linear mapping between “height” in the hierarchy and “ability”. Presumably this is the ability to be “high up” and to have more people and things “under” you? Which also seems to assume that all other kinds of ability are useless or irrelevant. In which case, I think the Peter principle is correct: people tend not to be given more of the kind of work they have shown they are not good at. And in a hierarchical organisation, that means people will stop rising when they get too high.

Sad, though, that multi-dimensional, multi-talented people can be categorised in such a one-dimensional way.

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