A few times, I’ve come across companies where managers were reluctant to engage in discussions about their employees’ growth. Leadership tried to avoid it, and the managers never initiated those sorts of conversations. Digging further, the underlying issue is often that they know a significant portion of their employees will want to discuss different promotional opportunities, which the managers don’t know how to manage.
If you know that by “opening the door” to a growth discussion, you will likely be inviting an employee to say she wants to become a manager—and no such position will be available any time soon—you are prone to steer clear of doing just that. This avoidance doesn’t actually do anything to fix the problem, though. Would you avoid going to the doctor if you think that lump you found might be bad news? Not addressing the needs and aspirations of your team is merely letting them get slowly annoyed and anxious. Things will eventually blow up.
To help you tackle this problem headlong, let’s go over the likely causes, common mistakes, and ways to move forward.
Reasons for the Imbalance
Let’s start with the bright side. If you have way more people asking to fill every promotional opportunity, some of which capable of doing so, then you have a good problem on your hands. The alternative is often much worse.
Nevertheless, it’s essential to realize what might be causing this imbalance so you can take action. First, some issues are environmental and not local to your company. For example, employees might be comparing themselves to their friends in other similar companies. If the market around you is behaving in a certain way, your company is bound to be contrasted with the alternatives.
Other factors are cultural: consider Patrick McKenzie, who described a culture in Japan where promotions were rare, and people were expected to work hard for many years before getting any bumps. Compare that to the vibe people get from elite tech units in the Israeli army: you literally get a rank promotion every year, a good chunk of the people end up becoming officers within two years, and average terms for a role are about 18-30 months. That causes a distorted acceleration that those people then bring with them to their next jobs.
Sometimes people want to get promoted because that seems like the only path your company is offering. If you do not have a clear career ladder for the IC path, people will assume management is the only way to grow. They could be looking for more self-actualization, more responsibility, a change of scenery, or merely a salary bump. Each of those factors might be adding more people to the “promotional pile” if no other options are made available to them.
Handling It Wrong
As in the example we started with, the first and most typical mistake is to stick your head in the sand and avoid these discussions altogether. Just because you’re not looking doesn’t mean that the problem isn’t there.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those that handle this by conjuring new titles, roles, and responsibilities to anyone that asks. This eventually results in a cluttered org chart, too many cooks required for making any progress, and a continuous toe-stepping ballet. Premature Organization is undoubtedly not the way to go.
Don’t rush into decisions and promises just because you’re suffering from loss aversion and fearing an employee might end up leaving. Here’s a quick assessment to determine how to address the issue:
- What is best for the employee? Think objectively, are you trying to make someone stay that truly is better off somewhere else?
- What are their underlying needs and thinking here? Get to the bottom of the request to supply a solution that doesn’t merely treat the symptoms. Are they looking for a salary bump? Managing people? Stepping stone to their next job?
- Would you consider this person next in line for a promotion even without them asking for it right now?
- How big of a risk is this? Will they walk away without a promotion or a promise for one? Will that significantly harm your team in the short or long term?
- Would your organization be at a better point a few months after this promotion? If not, is the cost of doing this just to retain an employee genuinely worth it?
Furthermore, there’s also the issue of making changes to address their needs, but without any formalization. That creates ambiguity that makes future changes harder, frequently comes with bad expectation setting, and rarely solves the matter in the long term.
Options to Move Forward
The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to find something that would be a win-win: the organization should be improved due to the change, as well as the employee’s condition. There are a lot of options, and I think listing them all is outside the scope of this article (but do let me know in the comments if you’d like to hear more). However, let’s consider some guidelines.
First, be candid. Do not tell Joe he will become a manager in a few months, so that he sticks around for longer. While you may avert a short-term issue, you do that at the expense of creating a long-term one: your word will no longer mean anything. Similarly, candor requires you to tell them what still stands in the way of them being considered for a promotion—which should be the case regularly.
Remember that the fact many inquire about management doesn’t mean that’s what they would really rather be doing. Discuss options to gain more responsibility and impact as an IC.
Lastly, try and think of a replicable solution. If you create a tailored role for that person, you have solved a single problem. On the other hand, if you define a career ladder, define responsibilities for leads, and so forth, you will solve a type of problem completely.
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