The Problem With Promotions

People in a hierarchy tend to rise to the level of their incompetence.

-The Peter Principle

People need to feel valued. And there’s one traditional way workplaces communicate value to workers: they promote them. In fact, a 2016 Deloitte study on what Millennials want out of their workplace found “opportunities to progress and be leaders” as the second highest priority item. But are promotions really the most effective way to provide meaningful career progression and leadership opportunity? What if the Career Ladder is Limiting Growth?

Promotion Pitfalls

There are a few problems with the traditional promotion model. 

Pitfall #1: Dealing with Corporate Disruption

The organizational disruption caused by promotions can require a lot of bandwidth to successfully navigate:  

  • The person who was promoted needs to renegotiate relationships with peers, former supervisor(s), and new supervisor(s). 
  • They need to establish a new identity within the organization
  • Those who were passed over for promotion have to manage their feelings and may reconsider their future with the company

Pitfall #2: Who Reaps Rewards?

Promotions tend to reward employees who are comfortable taking chances, like to work quickly, dream big, and think creatively. They play to win. And organizations need those people. But they also need employees that support those big dreamers by working slowly, with great attention to detail and granular problem-solving skills. Those people make big ideas possible, but are easy to overlook when it comes time for promotions. 

Pitfall #3: The Peter Principle

Dr. Laurence J. Peter’s research way back in 1968 is responsible for the corporate truism that, in a hierarchical organization, employees will rise to the level of their incompetence. Critically, this is not because people are generally incompetent or poor employees, but rather an observation that

we often promote people right out of what they are best at.

An amazing designer may lack the management skills to be an effective art director, much as an outstanding classroom teacher may make a poor administrator. So where does that leave employees seeking a rich, challenging career and employers wanting to get the most out of their workforce?

A Career Path, Not a Corporate Ladder

Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp, runs a flat company. Instead of the corporate ladder, he encourages horizontal ambition. As he explains it,

”employees who love what they do are encouraged to dig deeper, expand their knowledge, and become better at it. We always try to hire people who yearn to be master craftspeople, that is, designers who want to be great designers, not managers of designers; developers who want to master the art of programming, not management.”

And he’s not the only one. Other tech companies, like video game producer ValveCorp, espouse a similar philosophy, and even way back in 1958 the founder of GoreTex embraced a corporate structure based on gaining peers’ respect, not advancing to management. 

Motivation Without Promotion

We said it before: people need to feel valued at work. But without the tangible advancement that new titles and roles offer, how can employers ensure their workers feel they’re progressing in their careers? A few best practices jump out:

    • Invest in employee skills by actively fostering a culture of professional development
    • Provide mentorship! Personal relationships can be very meaningful and cultivate deeper engagement with the company
    • Let the work be the reward. Master-level employees should feel real ownership over their projects and have the freedom to choose endeavors that nourish them
    • And, of course, compensate people according to their skill level, not their position in a hierarchy

Rather than offering a clearly-defined ladder up the hierarchy, an environment that truly nurtures employee growth would allow for flexible roles that are responsive to the needs of the organization and the interests and talents of the employee. Deep dives would be prioritized, and the true measure of employee success would be the employee’s engagement in the company and continuing feeling of fulfillment as they grow within their flexible role, rather than chasing a new title.  

What We Believe

At Jute, we believe in managing the work, not the people. What do we have to show for it? A roster full of senior talent with low turnover, high client satisfaction and retention rates, and a portfolio of amazing work. So, what might you have to gain if you threw out the corporate ladder?

Ava loves leveraging research to influence conscious, empirically-based growth for organizations and the community at large. Her background in education inspires her to develop high-impact messaging and meaningful storytelling. Her project management philosophy stems from a commitment to supporting creativity and a belief in the power of the right medium meeting the right message. 


Tagged in:
Career development, Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Personal development

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