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Why Promoting Your Best Employees Might Be a Mistake

icon3 min read


Get hired, learn your job and prove yourself, get promoted, prove yourself in that role, get promoted again, and so on. Sound familiar? In broad strokes, this represents the career path most people expect for themselves. But what if this cycle doesn’t create a sustainable, successful workplace? Could it be preventing companies and their employees from achieving their full potential?

In an ideal workforce, everyone is thoroughly engaged in a job that’s suited to their skills, and they’re challenged to refine those skills for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Employees freely share their knowledge with one another, and colleagues push and inspire each other to continually improve their performance.

Instead, what happens in many offices looks more like this: the people who are most promising in their roles are promoted a tier above their former coworkers, where they’re suddenly expected to manage the performance of the people they used to work alongside.

There are several glaring problems with this scenario.

It reduces overall team productivity

Successful companies require a large pool of talented, motivated employees who are good at doing what they were hired to do. Without that base of expertise, company operations suffer or stagnate. Constantly promoting top performers out of positions where they’re adding value creates a void, and until new employees are hired and trained, overall productivity will lag.

It creates a negative corporate culture

In the ideal workforce we imagined above, collaboration is key. Colleagues share their knowledge and skills to help everyone become better, and everyone feels valuable and integral to the overall success of the company.

But in workplaces where successful performance is rewarded only with promotions– and higher positions are limited— a culture of scarcity takes over, and coworkers become competitive with one another. It puts employees in a position of having to one-up each other to prove their value, making them less likely to share skills that will make their coworkers as productive and engaged as possible.

It doesn’t consider the employee’s individual strengths

Managing people is a unique skillset. Just because an employee is good at their job, it does not necessarily mean they’ll be good at managing other people who do that job. Promoting strong individual contributors out of the role where they thrive not only deprives the company of employees at their best, but it results in ill-prepared managers. It also doesn’t take employees’ career goals into consideration, instead applying a one-size-fits-all approach to recognizing successful performance.

A different approach

Theoretically, the wisest course of action is to keep your most productive contributors engaged in what they do best, while increasing their knowledge base and sharing best practices with colleagues. With that said, it’s still important to recognize and reward employees for their contributions. If promoting your strongest contributors into management positions is no longer the default, what other options are available?

Moz is one company that has been addressing this problem. In an article on this topic several years ago, Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin described how they viewed the difference between Individual Contributors (ICs) and People Wranglers (PWs):

"Basically, if you love getting stuff done and doing a great job at it, you should be an IC. If you love empowering others, and helping them grow and succeed (and you’re great at it), you should be a people wrangler."

Fishkin shares how the culture at Moz has attempted to shift employees away from viewing management (“people wrangler”) positions as the only way to move forward in their careers. Instead, “individual contributors have responsibility for themselves and their work. As they get more senior on an IC track, their influence becomes more wide-ranging.”

Instead of creating an arbitrary “up or out” career path for everyone at your company, this approach allows the strongest individual contributors to increase their depth of skill and the breadth of their sharing with colleagues. Building a clear distinction between employees who are good people managers and people who are strong contributors should ideally result in a more productive, collaborative work culture.