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The Peter Principle In Action In The Public Spotlight: Theresa May

At the time of writing, Theresa May is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Rarely has the Peter Principle been so visible, so clear to everyone around.

What Is The Peter Principle?

This is the gloomy but often accurate prediction that people are promoted to promoted to their own personal level of incompetence.

Then they are stuck…doing a job badly.

How Does It Work?

A person is recruited into a lowly position. He (or she but I’m going to keep saying he to stop this becoming irritating) works hard and is considered to do a good job. he understands the role and it suits his skills.

An opening arises in the position above. The organisation looks around and wants to reward people for doing a good job and, will often be unaware of the Peter Principle, and promote the person who is doing the best job at the level below.

The new job has new responsibilities and needs new skills. These may be skills the person has already or they may be skills he can learn quickly. Alternatively they may be skills that will present a struggle to master.

If he does a good job, in time he will be promoted again. If he struggles, he’ll likely stay at that level, having found his level of personal incompetence.

And so it goes on. Every time the job changes, different skills and abilities are needed.

The Case of Theresa May As The British Prime Minister Responsible For Brexit

You can see the personal history of Theresa Mat at Wikipedia.

On 13th July 2016, Theresa May became Prime Minister. The vacancy had arisen because David Cameron had bolted after the Brexit referendum was announced.

She became an MP (member of parliament) in the 1997 election that saw power transferred from the Conservative government of John Major to the New Labour government of Tony Blair.

In 2010, when the Conservatives came back into power with the help of the Liberal Democrats, she was appointed as the Home Secretary, without any prior ministerial experience.

Yet she became the longest serving Home Secretary for more than 60 years in what is a notoriously difficult job. It wasn’t without controversy but David Cameron was clearly happy with her performance. She was reappointed in the new Conservative government of 2015.

How She Became Prime Minister

To elect a new leader, the Conservative MPs were supposed to vote amongst themselves to eliminate candidates until they were down to the final two and then go out to an election of party members to make the final choice.

May was the convincing leader in the first round of voting and had the vast majority of votes in the second round that narrowed the candidates down to two. Before an election amongst party members could be arranged, the other candidate, the relatively unknown Andrea Leadsom withdrew, leaving May to assume power.

Brexit – The Poisoned Chalice

This isn’t the place to go into the rights and wrongs of Brexit but I think the challenge as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party was impossible.


Because there were two conflicting priorities.

The first was to bring the country together behind a sensible strategy for Brexit. The referendum campaigns took British politics to a new low. Both sides used half-truths and blatant lies to try to win the argument.

In the end 52% voted to leave the EU, 48% voted to stay after an acrimonious campaign that caused trouble in families and friendships up and down the nation. Even worse, the leave campaign had never got themselves behind any plan for leaving the EU and there are a host of possibilities.

The analogy I’ve used in the past is to say it’s like a family deciding whether to go out for dinner or to stay in and have a quiet night. 2 people vote to stay in, 3 want to go out. But one person insists on going to an Italian restaurant, another insists on going to a Chinese restaurant and the third insists on going to an Indian restaurant. No compromises and the two people who wanted to have a quiet night in, still insist that’s their preference.

The result is stalemate but, if the choice had been to stay in or go out to a Chinese restaurant, staying in would have won by 4 to 1. As would the other options.

This is how it is for Brexit. Remainers want to remain in the EU, leavers have different views on how to leave and don’t like the other alternatives.

The role of Prime Minister should probably have been to find common ground, what’s generally referred to as a soft Brexit. But remainders don’t like it and hard-line leavers hate it too. Given a choice through, this soft Brexit is where the majority of MPs would have lined up, provided the result of the referendum was respected.

May’s role as party leader was to keep the Conservative party together. The relationship with the EU had threatened to splinter it for years and these differences were now magnified. Loyalty to party would probably lead to a Brexit solution that wouldn’t command a majority in Parliament.

Sadly, she seems to have struggled as Prime Minister putting the interests of the country first and as part leader, putting the party first. If either had been done well, then as a country we’d be closer to a Brexit deal that can get approval.

Britain’s Worst Prime Minister

History is not going to be kind to Theresa May, whatever the mitigating factors. She’s shown little leadership skill and seems to had little ability to listen to the opinions of others, other than a close inner circle.

Her humiliation is very much out in the open as she flounders around unsure what to do, rigidly refusing to accept reality.

Here are some of the arguments for her to be considered as one of the worst Prime Minsters if not the worst:

the Guardianagain and again

Financial Times


The Sun

Huffington Post

Washington Post

Avoiding The Peter Principle

When you stop to think about it, avoiding the Peter Principle isn’t that difficult or complicated.

Think about the role you are recruiting for and not the role from which you’re recruiting.

Be clear on the responsibilities and the key result areas. How will performance in the job be assessed? What are the skills and abilities needed to do well?

Now think about the job below and the skills needed to do it very well. Compare and contrast so you can see  where good performance on a level 1 job only doesn’t qualify someone for a level 2 job. But if the skill is shared across the two levels, then you should see evidence of ability. Use these skills and the relative merits of the people as justification for a decision to promote from within.

Of course, it does challenge your HR policies.

I believe excellence in a job should be rewarded but those rewards can’t come from being promoted to a role the person isn’t capable of performing. In the end, that’s cruel not kind.

You also need to think about how you can give people the chance to learn the skills needed for the next role and have the opportunity to show it. If it’s a first line management role, then appointing a temporary supervisor during holidays and sick leave is appropriate. Don’t appoint based on seniority but on possibilities for promotion.

This means being honest with people who are very good at what they do but who you don’t think can go a stage further. They may not like it but it’s your job as manager to persuade them it’s sensible. Excellence can be rewarded by an additional payment or by perks like extra days off.

If they resist and they are valuable employees, then give them the necessary training and let them experience it for a few days. Give them the support needed but also give them the proper feedback on what they’re doing well and what’s a problem.

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