Hierarchiology: A Fun Way to Understand Complaints About Work

Someone I know keeps complaining about the hierarchy at their work and how people higher up the chain do not work as hard as everybody lower down the ranks. In this person’s eyes this is a fact that is irrefutable. It is a point of view I am very familiar with as I’ve heard it often. It makes me think of a friend of mine who years ago told me that people are promoted to the highest level of their incompetence. This is otherwise known as the Peter Principle, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s satirical view of organisations, as laid out in their 1969 book of the same name. Or as this comic explains, The Dilbert Principle, works just as well.

This 1969 Time Magazine review describes the Peter Principle through the theory of hierarchiology, which is the ‘the study of hierarchies in modern organisations’. The last tenet is: ‘Final Placement Syndrome… [or] what the ordinary sociologist calls “success”‘. Funny stuff.

Credit: The Dilbert Principle (1995)

The Peter Principle and Sociology

The Peter Principle (PP) has longevity. The video below explains how this humorous principle has more serious applications for American governance. The PP is apparently relevant to the modern day business world and in management. It’s been used to critique the Former USA Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Physicists have created computational models to study the PP.

Though it was conceived as a satirical application of social scientific analysis over four decades ago, the Peter Principle continues to have useful resonance to serious critiques of organisational hierarchies. The PP simplifies bureaucracy, organisational structures and status in a way that Karl Marx, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Peter Blau and most other social stratification and organisational sociologists may object. Nevertheless, the PP offers an engaging starting point from which to begin unravelling public dissatisfaction – and misunderstanding – of organisational structures.

My opening anecdote was about my friend being frustrated over what they perceive is an unfair, non-merit-based system of promotions in their workplace. This frustration stems from a subjective perception about what knowledge, skills, experience and leadership traits should be rewarded. Subjective perceptions about what is fair, what makes a good leader, and what types of professional competencies are necessary in middle and upper management are going to vary from one organisation to the next, from one society to another, and in different points in time.

Satire and Sociology

The examples I provided about the PP being applied to governance, businesses, natural disaster responses and even computational models by physicists show that the PP provides a way to frame critical analyses of organisational hierarchies. In an earlier post, I reflected on Duncan Watts‘ point that sociologists need to show society our disciplinary strengths – one of which is that we are trained to go beyond ‘common sense’ understandings of the world. My argument was that sociologists still have a long way to go in showing the utility of sociology to wider publics. In the case of the PP, I’m all for starting off with satire and drilling in deeper.

I see that applied sociology is about making sociological insights useful in achieving practical outcomes for particular groups in society. I also believe that we need to do this in easy to understand language rather than relying on sociological jargon. Using comedy, satire and examples that people can relate to are all useful tools to this end. So I say:  viva la PP!

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