The Problem with Promotions

By , Contributor

Consider this scenario: you find a company that you love working for, one that provides you the opportunity to work on projects that you truly believe in. You’re so happy in that company that you resolve to do your best at every task they assign to you, and you end up being one of their best employees. Then the powers that be decide to reward you by promoting you to a new role — project manager. And because this new role includes a pay raise and better recognition within the organization, you accept.

It’s all good…until you realize that you’re really not cut out for leadership. But it’s already too late; you’ve accepted the position and now you’re well on your way towards destroying the great reputation you once had in the company. The worst part is that it’s hard to let the station go once you’ve had it.

The Peter Principle

In 1969, Dr. Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull published a book called The Peter Principle. In it, they posited that there comes a point in any hierarchy-based system in which some people are promoted to the point of incompetence. This is all based on the observation that anyone (or anything) that proves themselves effective is given increasingly challenging tasks until they stop being effective. Basically, many organizations have gotten into the habit of rewarding great work with even more work. More often than not, this involves work that’s VASTLY DIFFERENT from the kind a person does well.

Why This Is Still Relevant

The thing is that we’re still trained to not think about something like actual qualifications in the context of qualifications. More often than not, we’re expected to believe that promotions are rewards and thus are goals that we must aspire to. We don’t think it’s something we need to train for, or have an aptitude for. Instead, we pretend that those shortcomings don’t exist or that they can be addressed with advanced technology like advanced business VoIP and management software.

This is further reinforced by the fact that a pay raise is often attached to the promotion, and not the actual performance of a person. In many companies, being something like an excellent copywriter is not enough to warrant a significant bump in your salary. But things are different when you’re elevated to the position of, say, creative director. So of course you’ll go for that new role without even considering the fact that you’re terrible at people management. The worst part is that few employers consider that too. They forget that being able to manage tasks doesn’t mean a person can manage teams.

Ultimately, both the organization and the person promoted suffer for this — morale goes down, operations become inefficient, and the new manager will get the brunt of the blame.

Making Management Less Problematic

Ensuring that the Peter Principle doesn’t apply to your organization requires that everyone involved shift their expectations. This involves a willingness to recognize that each person has natural strengths that need to be rewarded without forcing them to work on their weaknesses before they’re ready.

As author Marcus Buckingham points out in his many books on management, cultivating the strengths—and not compensating for the shortcomings—is the key to excellence. This means that we need to restructure reward mechanisms in a way that lets us pay top performers higher salaries without promoting them as well as find people who are well-suited for management roles. This may involve having to become a relatively flat organization, or finding alternative positions for people. You can, theoretically, still train to become a manager; but training is only effective with natural aptitude.

We have to find ways to make organizations and workers alike stop feeling as if the only way to feel fulfilled or rewarded is to progress through ever-higher positions in the organization.

In the End

What we all really want is to feel happy and fulfilled in our lives. It’s very difficult to do that when the measure of our success is based on how high we can go in the organization, and how well we can do in positions of power. At a certain point, being promoted alienates you from what you do best. That, in turn, reinforces feelings of insecurity or failure when you find yourself unable to handle the new job.

You either need to find a company who is open to the idea of paying you well for what you do well, or be brave enough to say no to that promotion. Else, you have to live with a job that makes you and the people around you miserable.

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Nancy Perkins, a full-time mommy wannabe, has been a freelance online writer for two years now. She loves sharing information on health, business, technology, fashion, women's issues and motherhood. Nancy lives life to its fullest each day and is dreaming of retiring on an island she will someday own.

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