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Lessons Learned

Why You Should Think Twice Before Promoting Your Next Employee

It usually isn't clear someone's out of their depth until they've already stumbled.

Why You Should Think Twice Before Promoting Your Next Employee
[Photo: Flickr user Nathan Cullitan]

There’s a special class of maneuvers in a rock climber’s repertoire called a "dyno." The term is an abbreviation of "dynamic" and refers to a point in a climber’s ascent where, instead of moving methodically to the next obvious foothold or hand position, the climber launches upward—springing toward a location that would otherwise be out of reach. Of course, executing a dyno is risky. But sometimes a climber has no other choice.

Many growing businesses face similar predicaments when it comes to their talent. You're hiring fast. Loads of new employees are entering your ranks, and veterans are swiftly taking on new challenges and job titles. The experience is thrilling, anxiety-inducing, and (yes) dynamic.

In such environments, managers looking to promote their employees should think of them as climbers scaling a rock face: How can they get to that next spot from their current position? What sort of maneuver will it take, and what are the risks?

Size Up The Promotion, Not Just The Employee

Shouldering someone with responsibilities clearly outside their experience is usually a mistake. A manager will sometimes promote a team member who shows potential, believing that the new role will be the equivalent of a dyno—a challenge that, while difficult, the employee is capable of pulling off. But those "stretch" promotions can sometimes push people off their secure footing, creating the needless risk of a fast plummet.

Don't just consider the candidate's skill set. Make sure those skills are up to the task of making the transition into the new role. Your employee's potential is only as good as their chances of actually realizing it under new and difficult conditions.

Of course, the ideal situation, where an employee's existing skills already suit them for a role that's opened up, is pretty rare. The more common reality is known in management circles as the Peter principle, which neatly articulates what so many of us have observed: Since an employee’s promotion is almost always predicated on their performance in his or her current role—not on whether they possess the skills needed for the new one—the cart often gets put before the horse. It won’t be clear that the employee is mismatched or underprepared until they've already proved themselves out of their depth.

In practice, an employee's progress once they've been promoted looks more like a staircase than a slope. In the illustration above, the central arrow represents the steady growth of an employee’s skills and responsibilities and how those match (or, in this case, don't match) a possible promotion.

Build On Accomplishments

Fortunately, there's a better way. As an employee picks up new skills and duties in their existing role, their confidence and security grows. In this case, managers shouldn't overlook the opportunity to allow that employee to ascend naturally on their own before eventually coronating them with a new job title and official list of responsibilities.

The distinction between these scenarios is crucial, even if it seems small: People work better when they feel good about the work they’re doing, are certain of their ability to do it, and confident that their performance is improving.

By the same token, when employees are forced to work out of their depth, they're more likely to panic, stunting the growth they might otherwise have benefitted from. They may even try to cut corners or cover up their inexperience, which can harm their entire team in the long run. It's unfair to fully blame the individual when that happens, even though that's what companies and managers tend to do.

In rock climbing, you occasionally come upon routes that are simply impossible to pursue without throwing in a faith-based dyno or two. But even at the most dynamic organizations, good managers try to avoid putting their team members into similar situations. No matter how fast your company is growing, employees' roles should be aspirational, allowing room for growth as opposed to being quickly outgrown.

The reward when it all comes together correctly? Ascent, ascent, ascent.

Baron Schwartz is the founder and CEO of VividCortex. He is one of the world’s leading experts on MySQL and has helped build and scale some of the largest web, social, gaming, and mobile properties. Follow him on Twitter at @xaprb.

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