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

Most workers don’t aspire to leadership roles.

That’s the key finding of a study conducted earlier this year by CareerBuilder and Harris Poll. Based upon the responses of more the 3500 workers across the United States, only about one-third (34%) aspire to leadership positions.

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. 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 66% of employees who are disinterested in leadership positions will pursue them anyway.  That’s because in too many organizations, ‘up’ is the only way to develop. So those without a genuine appetite to lead will chase down promotions because it’s their only chance to grow.

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

  • Distinguish between the 34% and 66%.  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 66% 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, many of the 66% are pursuing leadership because it comes with a pay bump.)
  • 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 CareerBuilder study can be a powerful tool for organizations to look differently at leadership, who wants it, and why.  It also helps organizations produce better results by ensuring that 100% of employees are doing the work they want to do most.

Image: © Dpvue | Dreamstime.com – Individual Fish Success Winner Outsider Boss Photo


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