The Corporate Ladder

Microsoft uses a system to evaluate its employees, commonly referred to as stack ranking. To quote the article:

“The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor. …”

It then goes on to express the views of an employee:

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.

Reading through this article, reminded me of a Pink Floyd track – Dogs.
In particular this verse struck a chord

“You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you
You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.”

Steve Ballmer somewhat defends this system:

“…I think everybody wants to work in a high-performance culture where we reward people who are doing fantastic work, and we help people who are having a hard time find something else to do”

but he does point out that it might need some tweaking. The problem is, tweaking is not going to fix this.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

In today’s society, we have been led to believe that the key to success is climbing the corporate ladder.

Everyone starts at the level of their competence and works their way up, ultimately stagnating once they’ve reached their level of incompetence, resulting in some, spending the rest of their corporate life covering their own deficiencies.

This system does have its benefits. Employers are identifying those that shine, the leaders, the innovators, the ones with passion and ambition. The employees in turn, know that if they do well, they’ll be recognized. They’ll get a better position. They’ll have more money. They’ll be looked up to.

There is nothing wrong with having drive, ambition, aspiring to lead. Much like there is nothing wrong in recognizing those that do. People need to be appreciated. They need to know they’re doing a good job.

However, the ends do not justify the means. Becoming a manager at any cost, does not make one a leader. Leadership is something that one earns from the respect of their peers, not handed down to them by a supervisor.

When people are ranked using systems such as the ones Microsoft (and unfortunately many other companies) use, it leads to hostile and unhealthy atmosphere.  It leads to individualism over collectivism, with all the consequences that this entails. While in the short term this system might seem like a good idea, in the long run, it only benefits a few, and along the way, leaves a lot of collateral damage.

A Career Path is not about Promotions

This idea of the corporate ladder is so deeply rooted in our society that we have come to believe that by and large, the only real way for us to accomplish a successful and happy career is by being promoted.

I’d like to think however that as humans we are not so shallow in our ambitions. I’d like to believe that it is not only about what title we hold, but what it is that we do, and how what we do touches other peoples lives. It doesn’t matter what profession we have, someway or another we should make what we do matter, and do it in a selfless way.

Because if it is only about seeing how high we climb that ladder, once we reach the top, what will be the next step? I’ll leave you with another fragment from Dogs:

And in the end you’ll pack up, fly down south
Hide your head in the sand
Just another sad old man
All alone and dying of cancer.

6 thoughts on “The Corporate Ladder

  1. Pingback: Software of Coming Years (and MS) | Two cents of software value

  2. Chris Johnson

    The idea that employees should be evaluated on a Bell curve is flawed at the outset. Think about it. Who do you hire? The best people you can find. So why then, one year after you hired the “best of the best” would you insist on calling some large fraction (normal Bell curve would be 15.8% at least 1 standard deviation below average) unworthy? Did you hire the wrong people? Then maybe the hiring person should find another job, not the underperformers.

    I agree with the author — most corporate evaluation systems are deeply flawed, and counter-productive.

  3. Michael

    I think everybody wants to work in a high-performance culture … that’s a myth.

    Stack ranking worked ‘well’ for GE, that’s why most of the Fortune n-hundred introduced it. They kicked ass a tremendous ‘lazy’/sleepy crowd that rested on their oars. In case MS there is no glory no oars to rest upon.

    Maybe it worked at GE where experience does count a lot more than in a fashion driven IT industry that has almost nothing to sell but promises never fulfilled hoping that no one remembers when you sell the same thing over and over again. Old wine in new bottles. At the moment there is a big pushing with a good chance to see real innovations but over a period of 20 years there was no big move forward into something ‘better’.

    Stack ranking acts as a sieve. If you just go to work want to have your piece and provide valuable input … everyone can but at ones own speed. Lazy people have the best product ideas. Kick a running person … no good idea. The one will stumble. Stack ranking is not the best idea at all, imo. You cannot convince to individual to kick one own ass. That’s the other side of the medal.


    If you want to climb the corporate ladder you can’t just sit and demand it. You should act, however you should take into account not only professional skills of others but their own psychology as well. In other words, you should be always one step ahead!


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