It could be argued that the world does not need a new science, but Laurence J. Peter, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, has invented one. He calls it hierarchiology, or the study of hierarchies in modern organizations. According to a satiric new book called The Peter Principle (Morrow; $4.95), which he wrote with the help of Canadian Freelancer Raymond Hull, the basic premise of hierarchiology is that "with few exceptions men bungle their affairs." The proof? Look at any large bureaucracy.
The "Peter Principle" states that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence; the cream rises until it sours." People who show competence are promoted whether or not they are qualified to perform competently at the next level. Eventually they go beyond their limits, become incompetent, and stop getting promoted. Macbeth, a success as a military commander, rose to become an incompetent king. Which is to say, "nothing fails like success."
As Peter points out, hierarchies have several well-tested techniques to deal with men who have clearly been promoted beyond their level of competence. One method is:
The Lateral Arabesque, which is used by many managers in place of firing a misplaced employee. If an office supervisor fumbles frequently, he is made "coordinator of interdepartmental communications, supervising the filing of second copies of interoffice memos." This is similar to:
Percussive Sublimation, the pseudo-promotion commonly known as kicking a man upstairs. Because it appears to be yet another promotion for merit, percussive sublimation has the added benefit of justifying the executive who promoted the man to his level of incompetence in the first place. Both this principle and the lateral arabesque point up an inadequacy in C. Northcote Parkinson's well-known law. Work not only expands to fit the time allotted but, says Author Peter, "it can expand far beyond that."
Final Placement Syndrome is "what the ordinary sociologist calls 'success.' " Freud's theory that frustration arises from foibles such as penis envy, the Oedipus complex or the castration complex is nonsense, says Peter, who cheerfully regards Freud as a "satirist at heart." On the contrary, "frustration occurs as a result of promotion," because most people who are promoted genuinely wish to be productive.
A frequent symptom is Abnormal Tabulology, which is any unusual arrangement of the desk, such as Phonophilia (installing a panoply of telephones, pushbuttons, flashing lights and loudspeakers) or Papyrophobia (the "clean desk" syndrome, indulged in because "every piece of paper is a reminder of the work the papyrophobe cannot do"). Other signs of the syndrome include Cachinatory Inertia, "the habit of telling jokes instead of getting on with business," as well as Side-Issue Specialization, a commonplace substitute for competence characterized by the motto: "Look after the molehills and the mountains will look after themselves."
Staticmanship is the way to avoid the disastrous final promotion. It is a stratagem summed up by the classic injunction: "Cobbler, stick to your last." Peter himself, author of two serious books on disturbed children, thinks that one way he has avoided rising to final placement himself is by turning down lucrative consulting offers. This is known as Peter's Parry, and he admits that if most people employed it they would be nagged to distraction by their wives. A more practical technique is Creative Incompetence, or "creating the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence." Peter says that "for a clerical worker, leaving one's desk drawers open at the end of the working day will, in some hierarchies, have the desired effect." Other workers may have to shun the official coffee break or park in the boss's parking place occasionally. For women, "overly strong perfume works well in many cases." Should instant promotion threaten, more extreme action can be taken. Creating the impression of a sordid personal life is an excellent ploy. Arrange for a friend to telephone at the office, suggests Peter, and then within earshot of several co-workers cry out, "Don't tell my wife. If she finds out this will kill her." The hint of scandal ought to scotch any chance of promotion.
Peter ends his book with the hope that a philanthropist will soon endow a chair of hierarchiology at a major university. "I am ready for the post," he says, "having proven myself capable in my present endeavors."