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The Peter Principle: A Theory of Decline


  • Lazear, Edward

    () (Stanford University)


Some have observed that individuals perform worse after being promoted. The Peter Principle, which states that people are promoted to their level of incompetence, suggests that something is fundamentally misaligned in the promotion process. This view is unnecessary and inconsistent with the data. Below, it is argued that ability appears lower after promotion purely as a statistical matter. Being promoted is evidence that a standard has been met. Regression to the mean implies that future ability will be lower, on average. Firms optimally account for the regression bias in making promotion decisions, but the effect is never eliminated. Rather than evidence of a mistake, the Peter Principle is a necessary consequence of any promotion rule. Furthermore, firms that take it into account appropriately adopt an optimal strategy. Usually, firms inflate the promotion criterion to offset the Peter Principle effect, and the more important is the transitory component relative to total variation in ability, the larger the amount that the standard is inflated. The same logic applies to other situations. For example, it explains why movie sequels are worse than the original film on which they are based and why second visits to restaurants are less rewarding than the first.

Suggested Citation

  • Lazear, Edward, 2003. "The Peter Principle: A Theory of Decline," IZA Discussion Papers 759, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  • Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp759

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Lazear, Edward P & Rosen, Sherwin, 1981. "Rank-Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 89(5), pages 841-864, October.
    2. James A. Fairburn & James M. Malcomson, 2001. "Performance, Promotion, and the Peter Principle," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 68(1), pages 45-66.
    3. Edward P. Lazear, 1984. "Raids and Offermatching," NBER Working Papers 1419, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. George Baker & Michael Gibbs & Bengt Holmstrom, 1994. "The Internal Economics of the Firm: Evidence from Personnel Data," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(4), pages 881-919.
    5. Joao Ricardo Faria, 2000. "An Economic Analysis of the Peter and Dilbert Principles," Working Paper Series 101, Finance Discipline Group, UTS Business School, University of Technology, Sydney.
    6. Gibbons, Robert & Waldman, Michael, 1999. "Careers in organizations: Theory and evidence," Handbook of Labor Economics,in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 36, pages 2373-2437 Elsevier.
    7. Anderson, Ralph E. & Dubinsky, Alan J. & Mehta, Rajiv, 1999. "Sales managers: Marketing's best example of the peter principle?," Business Horizons, Elsevier, vol. 42(1), pages 19-26.
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    Cited by:

    1. Tom Coupé & Valérie Smeets & Frédéric Warzynski, 2006. "Incentives, Sorting and Productivity along the Career: Evidence from a Sample of Top Economists," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 22(1), pages 137-167, April.
    2. Henneberger, Fred & Sousa-Poza, Alfonso & Ziegler, Alexandre, 2007. "Performance Pay, Sorting, and Outsourcing," IZA Discussion Papers 3019, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).

    More about this item


    Peter principle; regression to the mean; stochastic;

    JEL classification:

    • J00 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General - - - General
    • J6 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Mobility, Unemployment, Vacancies, and Immigrant Workers

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