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To Lead or Not to Lead: Most Employees Say “Not”… but Many Go For It Anyway

fish image representing rejecting leadership roles

Most workers don’t aspire to leadership roles.

That’s the key finding of The 2022 Everywhere Workplace Report by Invanti. In fact, well over the majority at 71% of employees are saying no to a promotion preferring working from anywhere instead.

This is interesting data for organizations and leaders everywhere.

First, it might settle the nerves of managers and supervisors because it confirms that not every employee is looking to rise up through the ranks. My research with Beverly Kaye found that one of the key reasons managers don’t engage in career conversations with their employees is fear. Fear that everyone will want a promotion. Fear that they can’t deliver on those expectations. And fear of the disappointment and disengagement that will ensue when these two conditions collide. But the good news is that two out of three employees aren’t coveting the manager’s – or any other leaders’ – job.

At the same time, this data is also unsettling because it demonstrates a fundamental challenge with the way organizations are structured. Unfortunately, some of that 71% of employees who are disinterested in leadership positions will be encouraged to pursue them anyway.  That’s because in too many organizations, ‘up’ is the only way to develop. And in today’s hiring market, talent pipelines are running dry. So those without a genuine appetite to lead will be encouraged into these roles anyways.

So, what’s an organization to do?  Plenty!

  • Get clear about what your employees really want. Ensuring job satisfaction, engagement, and, ultimately, results demands that you understand employees, their motivations, and their aspirations.
  • Work with those who possess an authentic desire to lead, finding ways to cultivate these skills and talents – even before opportunities for promotion open up. Leadership isn’t reserved for certain levels. It’s a state of mind and a set of skills that can be practiced regardless of role.
  • Don’t assume that just because people don’t aspire to leadership, they’re happy where they are. Many aren’t. Many of your 71% are bored, going through the motions, and not contributing to their greatest capacity. Figure out what interests them, where their passions lie, and what they would like to accomplish. Then work collaboratively to help facilitate opportunities for development and growth in their current roles.
  • Find ways to reward employees for deepening their knowledge and skills… without changing roles. (Let’s be honest, most people who pursue promotions do so because of the potential pay raise.)
  • Consider treating leadership as a discipline rather than a level. What if advancing to leadership was a lateral rather than vertical move? What if it didn’t come with an automatic raise? What if people moved into leadership because they really wanted to do that kind of work?

Information like that generated in the Invanti study can be a powerful tool for organizations to look differently at leadership roles, who want them, and why.  It also helps organizations produce better results by ensuring that 100% of employees are doing the work they want to do most.

Updated September 2022

4 comments on “To Lead or Not to Lead: Most Employees Say “Not”… but Many Go For It Anyway

  1. Tim Bowman on

    Leaders need to get to know their people early on and help them achieve their expectations and desires. As they observe talent and ability for leadership, they need to encourage and nurture it by giving assignments to assess and develop leadership ability. All aspiring leaders should then receive leadership training and one or more temporary assignments in a direct supervisory position to hone and further assess their skills.

    • Julie Winkle Giulioni on

      Thanks, Tim… I couldn’t agree more. Leaders who understand their teams are in a powerful position to support the development that will be most relevant to each individual. And I LOVE that you included temporary assignments in what should be considered for development. So frequently we default to training (which is extremely helpful in many cases) – but it’s just the tip of the development iceberg. Organic, in-role development offers value to the employees and the organization – and is completely within a leaders control! Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. jim stevens on

    In my experience Managers are the first to be layed off. It is a position where you get a higher salary which is very easy to identify you as a cut. I was told by one company I worked for “you can be replaced by 3 individuals which is a greater benefit to the company.” So yes, I have held management positions and thought I was providing value to the company until they got into financial problems and then you were the first to go. So, I have stayed as a working contributor and avoided management in my later career.

    • Julie Winkle Giulioni on

      Thanks, Jim, for sharing your observation and experience. I’ve seen the same in some organizations and can appreciate your strategy. Interestingly, I’ve also spoken with so many professionals who, later in their careers, have avoided management for another reason. They love their craft… and found that when holding down former leadership roles, they got to do far less of what they loved at work. A limited horizon and passion around the technical dimensions of one’s work might be another reason to pursue individual contribution vs. management.


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