360 Answers: Is a Promotion Always Good News?

Mar 4, 2013
13 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I have been at my current workplace for 2.5 years, and I've had 3 raises and 2 promotions during that time. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, the thing is, I worry that these promotions are largely circumstantial and that taking them on might cause me problems in the long run. The first promotion was caused by a colleague who quit at a crucial time, and I inherited her job because I had worked on all of our department's projects with her. The second promotion (last week) is caused by a general restructuring of the company. I was the most convenient employee to move into this new role because it overlaps a bit with my current role, so presto change -- another promotion.

Both promotions created sudden changes in my job description with new responsibilities, just at the moment when I had started to feel comfortable in the old position. I was not even asked if I wanted the new mandates-- both times, it was a fait accompli (which I find really strange).

My concern is that I might not have gained the experience necessary to succeed in my current role, which will now include partial managerial responsibility. I only worked for a little over a year in both my previous positions. I don't feel that's given me enough experience to be able to handle all the different variables that can arise in my line of work. In so many ways, I feel like I am being asked to run before I finished even learning to crawl.

How do I make sure that I don't fail at my new position? I'm really excited about the potential I see with this job, but I also feel overwhelmed with all this new responsibility that I never even asked for and frankly would not have asked for until a few more years had passed. When people are promoted to quasi-managerial roles, how much experience is it common to have?

Alison Green says:

Believe it or not, this is actually pretty normal. Promotions usually are a bit of a stretch at first. Particularly in smaller companies, it’s not unusual to turn to someone known to be competent and a quick learner when there’s a crucial job that needs to be done.

But consider coming clean with your manager about your worries. It’s fine to say something like, “I’m excited for the opportunity, but I’m also concerned that I don’t have a ton of experience in X and won’t be able to hit the ground running the way someone with a decade of work in X could do. How can we adapt the expectations for this role as I’m learning it and becoming comfortable with it?” (I wouldn’t suggest saying this for a promotion you were actively vying for, but when you’re being essentially assigned to a new role out of the company’s need, it’s reasonable to have this discussion.)

One more thing: If the new role involves managing people, the stakes are a lot higher. That means that you should do everything that you can to educate yourself about how to managing effectively – reading books and blogs about how to manage well, and talking to experienced managers for advice. You don’t want to just wing it when you’re managing other people; you’re now having a direct impact on other people’s careers, so this is an area where you want to seek out training and advice, and proceed thoughtfully and with an understanding of the real challenges of the role.

Anita Bruzzese says:

First, congratulations on your promotions. While you may feel a bit unsettled by them, never discount they are a testimony from leadership that they have confidence in you and believe in your potential.

Second, you're not alone in wondering why you're not receiving more management training. With the poor economy and cutbacks in staff, it's not unusual that training has fallen by the wayside and many people find themselves thrust into positions of authority they may not have imagined five years ago.

Still, even if you had received some training, I would advise you to take matters into your own hands. Start taking management classes – either online or in person. Attend industry events that offer leadership sessions, or even join local business groups that can offer you leadership mentoring. These conferences will also keep you up on industry trends and expose you to cutting-edge ideas.

In addition, there are so many good leadership books on the market it's often difficult to pick among them, but I'd start with someone like Marshall Goldsmith who offers great advice in a clear, common-sense way.

I also would advise reaching out to people in your industry via LinkedIn. Look for someone who is in a job similar to yours and use mutual contacts to connect. Start communicating and explore whether the person is open to offering advice or helping you navigate some difficult areas. It may take some time, but adding these people to your network will be critical in the short- and long-term.

Finally, don't forget to have clear-cut goals from senior leaders and meet at least once a month with your direct supervisor to make sure you're on track.

Alexandra Levit says:

First of all, realize that you are not alone.

A person who excels at his position is often rewarded with a higher position and eventually reaches a level that exceeds the employee's field of expertise.  This is called the Peter Principle, a concept that was put forth in the 1960s by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, a psychologist and professor of education.

Why does this happen?  Well, as in your case, most companies prefer to hire from within because internal candidates are considered to be more trustworthy and have a better understanding of how their organizations work.  For the same reason, qualified internal candidates keep getting promoted until they aren’t qualified anymore, and at that point will be stuck in a situation where they feel insecure about their abilities and produce work of less value to their companies.

It is possible to turn down the promotion without losing your reputation.  Start by graciously thanking the person in charge for the opportunity and telling him how much you appreciate his faith in you.  Then, explain why you feel it’s best for the organization if you stay in your current position.  You might say, for example, that you really love your job and still feel like you could add a lot of value to the role and learn more within it.

Remember that by turning down the promotion, you are creating a problem for management – now they must fill that job some other way.  So as best you can, try to compromise and perhaps even come up with an alternative solution.  For instance, maybe you can volunteer to assist in hiring a more senior individual and take on more responsibility until that person can get up and running.

All in all, this is a good problem to have, and you're handling it in just the right way.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

It is quite common to be “thrown in.” Research by Development Dimensions International (DDI) of 1,130 newly promoted managers found that:

  • 11% were prepared for the leadership role by their organization.
  • 57% were learning their jobs through trial and error.
  • 44% had no clear idea of what was expected of them, or what success in their new position would look like.

It is a common concern to not feel ready for your first position of managerial responsibility and I would argue that apprehension is actually a good sign that you can handle the challenge. Many new leaders overestimate their skills and have glaring blind spots. You, on the other hand, are more likely to solicit feedback and advice on making this transition, making it more likely that you will be successful. Here are my quick-start tips for you new role:

  1. Ask for and capture all feedback that comes your way, even if you don’t agree with it.
  2. Be open to doing things differently; be willing to step outside of your comfort zone.
  3. Acknowledge mistakes and don’t equate mistakes with failure. Failure only comes after making the same mistake over and over.
  4. Take at least 5 minutes each day and 15 minutes each week to think about your work from a big picture, strategic level. Ask yourself: Am I doing the right things? What could I do better?
  5. Read a few management and leadership books to get ideas and get into the right mindset.
  6. Learn from your past managers; don’t make the mistakes of those who have come before you.

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