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The Unpopular Promotion January 18, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I think just about everyone likes the idea of “promoting from within,” filling an open management or leadership position by promoting a person who is already part of the team. It sends an important message to all employees: this is an organization that values its internal resources, and there is a possibility of upward mobility for those who have demonstrated the talents and capabilities to do so. Another plus: a person promoted internally should already have a good understanding of the issues facing the team and the larger business context, so they don’t need a lengthy transtional period in order to become effective in the new role.

Unfortunately this rarely seems to go well. Unless the decision is universally recognized as the obvious choice, other members of the team may become quietly jealous, passive-aggressive, or openly hostile toward the recently-promoted person, creating a lot of turmoil in the workplace.

In my last job in China I managed two examples of unpopular promotions. In the first case, a manager reporting to me wanted to promote a hard-working and detail-oriented junior engineer to a newly-created lead position with responsibility for managing schedules, resource planning, and customer communication. The junior engineer definitely had the skills to do the assigned job, and I gave my full support to the manager’s recommendation. The trouble started almost immediately when the other leads in the team resisted the junior engineer’s efforts to introduce new processes, and never gave that person the support they needed to be effective. Over the next several months the manager worked with the junior engineer and the other leads to try to make it work, but ultimately he had to surrender and reverse his promotion decision, which was obviously a disappointing outcome for the junior engineer, but necessary to get the team back on-track.

The manager and I struggled to understand why this didn’t succeed. Unfortunately neither of us spoke Mandarin, so we probably never got to the real reasons why the other leads didn’t support the internal promotion. We suspected that the junior engineer was a victim of sexism and cronyism. She possessed the capabilities to do the job, but she didn’t have enough self-confidence and social skills to break through the resistance from the other leads. Everybody involved took hard-line positions, and the situation deteriorated from there. The manager felt he had made a justifiable, merit-based decision, the junior engineer was working according to a mandate from the manager, and the other leads figured they could make enough trouble to eventually undermine the whole thing and get back to the way things were.

The other example was similar, but turned out a little better. I promoted a lead engineer to a recently-vacated management position, and before finalizing the decision I discussed it with my peers in other departments to get their assessment and buy-in. I was already convinced that this person had the right skills and temperment, but I wanted to estimate their chance for success. This new manager would be taking over an under-performing team, and I needed their help to drive some necessary-but-potentially-unpopular changes. I wasn’t entirely surprised when I heard there was some resistance to the new manager and his assertive style, and eventually I was invited to join an urgent meeting with several members of the team who presented a signed document (in English) threatening to resign. I have to admit I was stubborn about the decision to promote the lead engineer, and I decided I could risk the possibility of losing some people as part of a needed organizational transformation. At the same time, I worked with the new manager and coached him to reach out to the resisters to understand their concerns, instead of using his new authority to silence them. He was able to convince some of them to stay in the group, and we didn’t miss the ones who left.

What I learned is that when considering an internal candidate for promotion you have to assess their social skills and emotional intelligence to determine how well-equipped they are to overcome resistance from their former peers. Oddly, an external candidate typically doesn’t face this; maybe familiarity really does breed contempt. You also have to understand and anticipate the kind of resistance they are likely to encounter, for example if you’re asking them to take a lead role in change management. And, you have to line up allies and supporters from among the rest of the organization; people who support your decision and, more importantly, support the new person (or at least not actively undermine them).

I can imagine few things more discouraging to a person’s career than to be promoted to a position of leadership and to fail completely because of a mutiny from the team. I’ve learned that it’s not enough for the manager to make the “right” hiring decision and announce it to the team; the manager must also provide ongoing coaching and support to ensure the decision is successfully implemented.

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