When should an employee be promoted? Over the years, I’ve often had this conversation both within my own companies and with owner-clients. An employee is handling responsibilities above his or her official job description. We naturally want to acknowledge the effort, and a new title sends a strong message of recognition. Why not bestow it as soon as possible?
There are a number of reasons to wait. As selfish as it sounds (and is…), as an owner I want to announce a new title when it causes the least grief for me. I’ve had middle managers ask why we hadn’t yet named a leader in a given department. My answer was “I’ll do it when I’m sure the reaction is “Of course” and a shoulder shrug from everyone who will report to her.” If I have to handle fallout following the announcement, it was probably premature.
Perhaps the team is working on a big project or under an exceptionally heavy workload. Even though one person is clearly coordinating and directing the efforts, the team feels that their accomplishment is a group effort. Singling out one person for recognition right at that moment might make the others feel undervalued, and upset the group’s chemistry.
If the employee-leader has only recently stepped up performance, I may want to let them season a bit before making a title change. Leadership is easier when things are going well. I like to see someone go through a few challenges, perhaps dealing with an uncooperative co-worker or a project that’s in trouble, before deciding they can handle it over the long term.
I consider whether the employee has raised his or her game on personal effort, or by coaching and helping others to succeed. I appreciate a hard worker as much as anyone, but individual production isn’t the same as improving the production of others.
Is the prospective promotee making decisions, or merely enforcing already existing processes? Is she solving problems, or referring to higher authority for all the answers? Middle managers love to promote leads or supervisors who come to them for every decision, but that does little to strengthen the organization.
Finally, there is one argument that will always make me postpone a promotion. It’s “He needs the title to get others to do what he says.” For a leadership role (which includes any manager, regardless of level or responsibility), you have to get people to accept your decisions because they want to, not because they have to.
I understand that assigning someone responsibility includes giving them the authority to make things happen. The best leaders, however, take on responsibility first. They evidence a natural authority by figuring out how to get others to cooperate willingly, and to accept direction as being in their own self-interest. Those who need the crutch of titular authority before they accept responsibility seldom advance more than one rung up the ladder.
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