If you’re a manager or leader, you likely feel caught between a rock and a hard place on a daily basis. Meeting escalating customer demands with de-escalating resources. Fostering future innovation while operating within today’s limiting policies and practices. Balancing organizational needs with evolving employee demands. And engaging in career conversations based upon expectations that are attainable for very few employees.
Daily I speak with managers who share a consistent workplace concern. They know that one of their primary responsibilities is to help their employees grow – and they fundamentally want to make this happen. Their organizations encourage them to develop employees’ careers – and even enable this with programs and pathways that lead people toward their next promotion or position.
The problem isn’t motivation, tools, or organizational support. The problem is that career development remains inextricably linked to new roles, titles, and moves. It’s shorthand for the promotions, pay, and perks that have become synonymous with development. And so, managers find themselves between the rock (of needing to have these conversations) and the hard place (of unintentionally reinforcing expectations they may not be able to meet) because it’s mathematically impossible to offer a promotion or new position to everyone interested in career development.
Understanding Our ‘Climb’ Culture
For some time now, we’ve conflated the ideas of career development and promotions. And there are many reasons for the confusion as well as the motivation to aspire to next-level positions.
- Conditioning: From the time we’re children, we’re trained to equate success at work with specific roles. Each time we answered the question, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ the idea of attaining titles and positions as the endgame at work, became more cemented in our minds.
- Habit: Many people look up the corporate ladder for growth because it’s the only pattern they know. Without alternative definitions or growth, they stick to what’s familiar.
- Culture: Organizations reinforce this association when they openly embrace an “up or out” culture. Or disproportionately recognize and revere those who climb the corporate ladder.
- Family: Familial pressure can inspire a myopic focus on moving up as well. A Ph.D. chemist recently shared how extended family members with limited education questioned why he’d not published a paper recently or come home with a new business card.
- Power: Some employees confuse the ability to influence with organizational status. They believe that making a difference requires an elevated title.
- Control: One of the biggest misconceptions employees have is that when they reach a higher level in the organization, they’ll enjoy greater flexibility and control over their lives. Of course, anyone in leadership understands the fallacy of this thinking.
- Pay and perks: Finally, the motivation for promotions in many cases is linked less to authentic aspirations or the nature of the new work; rather, it’s rooted in the reality that within most organizations, promotions are the quickest (and sometimes only) path to greater compensation.
Escaping the Squeeze
Understanding the range of motivations for employee interest in climbing the corporate ladder (which, let’s face it, has become pretty rickety and increasingly limited) is the first step toward unraveling the confusion and misplaced expectations. But managers must translate this understanding into action if they want to escape that tight space between the rock and the hard place they find themselves in. You can stop (or at least lessen) the squeeze with these three strategies for moving forward.
Which of the motivators above are animating your employees’ interest in promotions? What about the new role interests them most? Which responsibilities do they look forward to executing? How will they see themselves differently as a result? What do they hope to accomplish when they get there? These are curious questions that will help managers develop a more complete picture of the person, their motivations, aspirations, and images of success. Curious question-based conversations keep assumptions at bay. And even if you’re unable to deliver the promotion or position someone wants, the attention, connection, and care you demonstrate will enhance your relationship, trust, and perhaps loyalty.
In addition to curiosity, candor is non-negotiable. Let people know what’s possible – and what’s not. Your credibility and their receptivity are directly proportionate to your commitment to transparency and authenticity. So, tell the truth as you know it is related to what’s available and the employee’s readiness to move up. Don’t sugar-coat your feedback or assessment of the situation. And refrain from writing future checks you and they won’t be able to cash.
When it comes to promotions and new positions, managers find themselves frequently saying ‘no’. So, find what you can say ‘yes’ to instead. Maybe you can’t offer a promotion, but what about visibility to the C-suite? A title might not be available, but there are likely passion projects that can enhance engagement, meaning, and skills. You may not have a new role to offer, but could you explore greater flexibility that might improve balance and allow time for employees to volunteer for projects that are important to them? Growth and engagement are possible and are completely within the control of managers and employees when together they proactively seek out new opportunities.
These alternate ways to help people grow may not appeal to everyone. You will likely get push-back from some. And you may lose talent to other organizations that can deliver the titles that are important to certain individuals. But other employees will welcome a new kind of career conversation. They’ll embrace ways to grow in place. Shifting the focus away from promotions. When you look at what’s possible space is created for a lot more ‘yeses’ and a lot more growth.
A whole host of organizational pressures and individual motivations conspire to put today’s managers and leaders in the untenable position of trying to develop their employees’ careers within a limited playing field. But you can get out of that space between the rock and hard place you find yourselves in. You can turn disappointment into development through curiosity, honesty, and expanding the possibilities for growth far beyond the limitations of promotions.
Get a sneak peek of Promotions Are So Yesterday by downloading a preview that will introduce you to how career development has changed – and why managers must approach it differently.
This post originally appeared on ExecuNet.
As usual, Julie, you pack so many good ideas in short column. Thanks!
So kind of you, Mark. Thanks a bunch!
This is a great read and reassuring at the same time.
Managers’ feelings of guilt and challenges have been articulated in a way that gives a sense of hope. This is essential reading for managers.
Thank you Julie.
Thanks, Kenye. We’ve been setting managers (and employees for that matter) up for too long around the issue of career development. Expanding the definition and experience of development beyond that classic climb up the corporate ladder unburdens the process, introduces infinitely more opportunities, and offers the kind of growth employees are looking for!