Why most promotions fail

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Every two weeks I sit down, most often without a topic in mind, and peruse Business Insider or the New York Times or one of the many other publications that reports on business.

It never fails: Within minutes I come across an article reporting on some company, some manager doing something that I have a hard time imagining they couldn’t have avoided. A small bit of research, just a teeny tiny amount, would lead the perpetrator of the mistake to recognize that many, tens, likely hundreds of managers or employers have made this mistake before them and there is a way to avoid the costs they incurred.

Fortunately for me, when it comes to employee management and development we are slow learners. There will always be a topic!

Let’s take promotions. I ran across a Gallup figure a couple of years back that quoted a figure of 84 percent of promotions failing to pan out successfully. Mel Kleiman, who founded a company that helps other companies make better hiring decisions, in a blog posting on his site in 2014, offered a figure of 60 percent promotional failure within 18 months. The statistics vary, but the message is clear, American businesses have a dismal record when it comes to promotions.

You know this from your own experience, too, but you probably didn’t imagine that the record was this bad.

Do I think I have an answer that others before me with better resources and more experience somehow didn’t think of? Not hardly, but I do have something that I want to offer into the dialogue. The first is to burn into your minds the statistics: the majority — and some say as many as 84 percent — of promotions fail, across the board. Promotions are risky business, far riskier than simple new employee hires. Second, with a failure rate like that, and slim evidence of getting much better at it, maybe an entirely different approach would be well advised.

How about this? In my experience, what I have seen is managers or employers making a decision to promote someone and then leaving them on an island to sink or swim.

Never mind for the moment the process you went through to reach the final decision, I believe that even though we know there is considerable risk in making a promotion, somewhere in the back of our mind, buried in our subconscious, we, the manager or employer, believe we are doing the person being promoted a favor.

This is a gift, more money, more visibility, different status etc. We, the grantor of all that is good, bestow on this person this opportunity — and they better not let us down!

I am not saying that you are guilty of this type of unconscious belief, but consider the possibility. Watch your response to someone recently promoted seemingly struggling in the role. What is your emotional response? Are you annoyed, feeling disappointed in the person? These would be the signs that somehow you are in the process of being let down.

In the blog post I cited earlier from Kleiman, he would suggest that you ask yourself these questions:

  1. “Why do we want to promote this person?” The only good reason because they’d be great at the job. Just because the person has earned a promotion is not a good reason. And just because they’re great in their present position does not mean they’d do just as well in another. (In fact, the reverse is more often true.)

  2. Is this really a good career move for this person?

  3. Would we be setting this person up for failure or success?

Since even being able to have the right answers to these questions does not guarantee success I have one more procedural suggestion.

How about building a safety net into the process, a safety net that is designed to protect you, as the manager/employer and the employee as well? A six- month trial period might be a good idea. At any point during this period, either you or the newly promoted employee can decide that the promotion is not working out. In such case the employee has the option of returning to a position as close as possible to the one they vacated. Remembering, and being honest about the likelihood of success, this seems like a wise precaution. You get to see the employee perform; they get a real job preview. And in the event things don’t work out, you don’t lose the services of a proven asset to your company.

I know there are barriers to this approach but they are mainly emotional or psychological. Given practical planning in setting up the transition it is likely you can improve on what has proven to be one of the great crapshoots in organizational life.

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