The promotion curse

IS YOUR promotion really necessary? Many workers focus their hopes on climbing the hierarchy of their organisations. The prospect of higher pay helps to explain their ambition, but so does the greater status that comes with each successive title.

This scramble can often end in disappointment. The Peter principle, developed by Laurence Peter for a book published in 1969, states that workers get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. It makes perfect sense. If you are good at your job, you rise up the career ladder. Eventually, there will be a job you are not good at and at that point your career will stall. The logical corollary is that any senior staff members who have been in their job for an extended period are incompetent.

There is another problem with chasing the promotion chimera. In a recent article for VoxEU, the records of almost 40,000 salespeople across 131 firms were studied by Alan Benson, Danielle Li and Kelly Shue. They found that companies have a strong tendency to promote the best sales people. Convincing people to buy goods and services is a useful skill, requiring charisma and persistence. But, as the authors point out, these are not the same capabilities as the strategic planning and administrative competence needed to lead a sales team.

The research then looked at what happened after these super-salespeople were promoted. Their previous sales performance was actually a negative indicator of managerial success. The sales growth of workers assigned to the star sellers was 7.5 percentage points lower than for those whose managers were previously weaker performers.

Scott Adams, the cartoonist, described this problem in his book, the “The Dilbert Principle”. In his world, the least competent people get promoted because these are the people you don’t want to do the actual work. It is foolish to promote the best salesperson or computer programmer to a management role, since the company will then be deprived of unique skills. That’s how the workers in the Dilbert cartoon strip end up being managed by the clueless “pointy-haired boss”.

Bartleby is not an expert at climbing the greasy pole. When he was last promoted, Iraq had yet to be invaded. In part, that is because he has observed a variant on the Peter and Dilbert principles; what might be dubbed the Bartleby curse. People get promoted until they reach a level when they stop enjoying their jobs. At this point, it is not just their competence that is
affected; it is their happiness as well. The trick to avoiding this curse is to stick to what you like doing. If you enjoy teaching, don’t be a headmaster or college principal. If you like writing articles and columns, editing other people’s work may not give you the same degree of satisfaction (let alone conducting career reviews).

Another problem with pursuing frequent promotions is that it turns you into a supplicant, endlessly in search of favourable feedback from the higher corporate ranks. This can mean that you lose control of your work-life balance. In Charles Handy’s new book, “21 Letters On Life And Its Challenges”, the veteran management theorist recalls a moment of epiphany when working for Shell, an oil giant. “In exchange for the promise of financial security and guaranteed work, I had sold my time to complete strangers with my permission for them to use that time for their own purposes,” he writes.

The higher up the ladder you go, the greater the demands are likely to be on your time. The chief executive will expect you to be available on weekends; after all, that is why you get paid the big bucks. Subordinates will also feel that they are able to ask you tricky questions whenever they arise; they don’t want to take decisions that are above their pay grade. If you are in charge of a geographical region, you may spend much of your time on planes, visiting the corporate troops. And when you are not travelling, your day will be filled with meetings. At the end of the day, you will have been extremely busy, but with a nagging feeling that you have achieved nothing of substance.

So that shiny promotion may not be for everyone. Beware the curse of overwork and dissatisfaction. Some people like to devote their whole lives to their job and be at the centre of events. It is best to let them get on with it.

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/06/16/the-promotion-curse.

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