In 1969, in his book, The Peter Principle, Laurence Peter warned us that if we followed this path without question, we would wind up promoting each person to his level of incompetence. It was true then. It is true now. But, unfortunately, in the intervening years, we haven’t succeeded in changing very much. We still think that the most creative way to reward excellence in a role is to promote the person out of it. We still tie pay, perks and titles to a rung on the ladder: the higher the rung, the greater the pay, the better the perks, the grander the title. Every signal we send tells the employee to look onward and upward. “Don’t stay in your current role for too long,” we advise. “It looks bad on the resume. Keep pressing, pushing, stretching to take that next step. It’s the only way to get ahead. It’s the only way to get respect.”
These signals, although well intended, place every employee in an extremely precarious position. To earn respect, he knows he must climb. And as he takes each step, he sees that the company is burning the rungs behind him. He cannot retrace his steps, not without being tarred with the failure brush. So he continues his blind, breathless climb to the top, and, sooner or later, he overreaches. Sooner or later, he steps into the wrong role. And there he is trapped. Unwilling to go back, unable to climb up, he clings onto his rung until, finally, the company pushes him off.