The promotion tactic that’s backfiring on employee morale

April 26, 2016 Robin Camarote

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by consultant Robin Camarote, part of her series on modern leadership.

If you’re like me, leadership contempt is the undefinable, underlying something in your relationship with your leaders that you’ve felt or suspected for a long time. And as turns out, it’s quite common. For many ascending leaders, cultivating distain for employees in organizational levels beneath them is part of the growth process.

Here’s why. The typical, professional career starts in an entry-level position after college. After a few years learning the basics of the job and how to work in an organization, those entry-level workers get their first promotion. Instantly, they’re now a task leader. Soon after that, they’re managing a small project team, and then a larger project team, and then maybe a couple of project teams or an account. From this pool of middle managers, a few are periodically selected to take on organization-wide roles driving business growth or ensuring compliance with corporate policies. These chosen ones are promoted into titled leadership positions—senior partner, president, CXO, etc.

Often with promotions, future leaders are selected because of their technical strengths. They manage the numbers to the penny, are relentless in building the airtight case or mastermind a solution that saves millions. They’re technical strong financial analysts, lawyers and engineers, and the assumption is that they can and will grow their leadership skills.

And herein lies the problem. New leaders start from a fairly insecure position.

Unless promoted leaders have the confidence to set aside the skills that worked so well in the past and pursue learning and growth in an entirely new discipline, they’ll struggle. Leaders are made, not born. We’ve all observed instances that are nothing short of catastrophic when an excellent financial analyst is promoted and immediately attempts to transfer familiar skills to leading a team. It can be the very definition of misunderstanding and micromanagement.

Instead, great leaders must make themselves. They see leadership as an opportunity to create something greater than themselves and are devoted to diving deep within a new discipline to emerge with a fresh skill set. They’re committed to growing the technical skills of leadership and emotional competence that trigger people to do better than any one individual could do on his or her own.

People accept leadership positions because they come with more money, more decision-making power and more opportunities to set the agenda. Yet, none of these reasons really have anything to do with the discipline, hard work and privilege of leadership: inspiring and motivating other people to do their best.

And that’s how things got all messed up. We’ve built entire organizations that support and cause us to repeat mistake after mistake in promoting the wrong person to leadership positions. It’s one of the unintended consequences of our prized meritocracies. A meritocracy advances staff into leadership positions based on past performance or some demonstrated achievement. While this notion makes complete sense on the surface, it’s fundamentally flawed in two ways.

From the research, we know that past performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of future results. We also know that jobs inherently change as you ascend within an organization. So even with a great track record for performance, that top performer is good at getting results for an entirely different job.

Promoting people to do more of what they’ve been good at in the past would be one thing. Promoting people into an unfamiliar leadership role just because they’ve been good at something else is a leap—and a risky one. It is like saying, “Hey, you’re a really good marathoner. You have great form and speed. We’d now like you to focus on ice dancing.” Sure, the aerobic capacity of long-distance running will come in handy, but there is a lot more to spinning gracefully on the ice than simply not huffing and puffing because you’re out of breath.

Our meritocracies are broken in another way. Because we believe that the most talented and skilled should rise to senior positions, we look hard to see the leadership brilliance in the decisions coming down from the top. Some people are conditioned to take this guidance and not question it because “the best of the best” know best, and we should trust and follow them. Others might not follow so completely but they still largely respect the positions above them—or they get out.

The meritocracy-based organizations I’m talking about are typically medium- to large-sized and hierarchical. They can be for profit or nonprofit but typically share the practice of picking, grooming and promoting people based on a perceived skill—whether it’s observed or just has the hint of potential.

Promoting people into leadership roles because of their technical strengths and then presuming they’ll pick up what they need to know risks damage to morale, disengaging staff, and, ultimately, undermining sales and growth. Successful leaders from the previous marathon analogy will see ice dancing as something new and will devote the time and attention to learning the steps and the artistry of the new discipline. Too many others will try to run a race with skates on.

The alternative to this flawed promotional practice is identifying staff with leadership aptitude and doing so earlier in their careers—and then rewarding them with increased responsibility.

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