Victim of one’s own success: too valuable to get promoted? Not everyone can be a manager but companies neglect to recognise and reward their key talent do so at their peril.

September 13, 2022


We don’t live in a perfect world nor a perfect meritocracy, but – generally – aren’t people who miss a promotion simply not up to scratch? Thanks to ruthless market forces, a company has a strong incentive to select only the best (barring any nepotism) since empowering low-performers should promptly acquaint a company with its end.

Well, maybe not. If you spend much time on forums discussing the workplace, you may have come across complaints or advice requests from those for whom – despite their performance – the luscious isles of career-advancement rest ever beyond the horizon.

The following are but a few examples among many personal anecdotes shared on reddit.com:

“The only problem is that when [my boss] mentioned this possibility of me moving departments to the president/owner he responded with a flat no, saying that I am too valuable to the department that I am currently in.”

“[My bosses] mentioned that I was the most qualified candidate for the position and the obvious choice; however I am simply too valuable where I currently am and they can’t afford to lose me at this time. They had a hard time filling my position prior to hiring me and have exclaimed that my division and employees have never performed so well.”

“My immediate manager announced a month ago that he got a promotion to a different office in the group. Cue congratulations but also excitement as I also saw this as a great opportunity. I know the job inside out, have great relationships with my colleagues and have the top client earnings by far of anyone … 2 weeks later we’re called into the conference room, and introduced to the new manager … Afterwards I approached my manager, he says he wasn’t even asked for his opinion on his replacement and sometimes it’s just down to the whim of the partners and the relationships that have been cultivated with them.”

It is hardly necessary to ask why this is a problem for employers. It is likely that many employees will have their own experience of being overlooked, and of how this feels.

That may explain why there are numbers of HR textbooks containing a range of models on motivation, which often name status, respect, and recognition as factors essential for the development of an employee’s satisfaction and motivation.

But, do the theories match reality? Recent surveys reflect how only a small section of the workforce – thanks to a poor advancement outlook – has an eye on the door:

Edenred’s 2022 survey of UK workers found 11% quit because there was no room to progress.

Ipsos Mori 2022 survey of UK workers found 17% were dissatisfied due a lack of opportunities to progress their career/get promoted.

CIPD 2022 survey of UK workers found 12% are likely to leave their job in search of better opportunities for promotion.

Firms, now more than ever, cannot be complacent in retaining talent. Job vacancies are at record highs, with recent figures at 1.3 million. This is on top of reports from Ipsos mori that 29% of workers have looked for another job; and from Edenred that 35% wanted to resign during the pandemic.

Moreover, the higher the required skill of the job, the harder it will be to replace staff – by definition. Resignations can be costly for businesses in time, search fees, and productivity.

The data suggest that it’s an employee’s market. Given the wide discussion about the “Great resignation”, the chances are that employees know this too.

Yet, great skill on the front lines does not always mean great leadership.

The Peter Principle, which states that people will continue performing and being promoted, until their rank’s work is out of their depth and they plateau, illustrates this. Fans of the TV show The Office may have seen this, where hapless office manager Michael Scott is shown to have been an exceptional salesman prior to becoming a not-so-exceptional manager.

Whilst the idea – that most people end up in a job they are not suited to – is harsh and simplistic, it illustrates how leadership is a skill of its own and does not come “batteries included” with everyone who is good at their present job. .

The proposition that not everyone will have the talent, or may not wish, to become an effective leader was explored by MM&K’s Margarita Skripina.

Organisations that would benefit from the contribution of skilled specialists, who do not seek or, perhaps, are not suited to, a management role, need people and reward strategies to retain and develop such talent, whilst, at the same time, identifying and nurturing their potential leaders when they appear. A challenge will be, having identified an individual’s aspirations, aptitudes and talents, to help those who believe their path is to follow the management route to realise that they have a rewarding future, albeit along a different path

An additional challenge is that it might not be feasible to promote even an incumbent high-performer with management potential, whose loss would be a blow to the business.  Particularly at times of high inflation and recession, an increase in cash remuneration might not be an option. A more imaginative approach may be needed. Communication and trust are also essential to the successful management of those situations. A succession plan, which identifies a potential replacement, would help to mitigate the effect on the business of losing a talented incumbent.

MM&K has decades of experience consulting with firms of all forms and sizes on retention and reward strategies for talented employees. For further information about this article or about how MM&K can help you, please contact James Sharp.

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