When we're growing our careers, the most common path we plan for is up. We want that promotion. But when it comes to having a fulfilling career, moving up may drive your happiness down. For leaders, this is even more vital. Not all of your people want to move up and, for some of those who do, it may be the wrong decision.

I recently interviewed Scott Mautz, a former executive at Proctor & Gamble and author of the book Make it Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning. Mautz describes this odd finding as the promotion paradox: "When there is a hierarchy, our natural desire is to climb up it, and yet that might not be what actually creates a meaningful job and meaningful work," Mautz said. "You work hard; you spend way too many hours away from your loved ones; you get that promotion, and then you find out within about 3 days, 'My gosh, this isn't it. I still have this nagging feeling that there's got to be something more to what really could sustain and motivate me over the long haul.'"

Of course, that "something more" can easily be misinterpreted as moving up again.

Mautz describes the promotion paradox as a common source of burnout, not just for yourself but for the whole organization. If hard work is incentivized by moving up, but moving up doesn't get any better, the result can be a treadmill effect where people feel like the only way to win is to keep increasing the speed. That's not sustainable.

And it's a widespread occurrence, "On average 75% of people will say they've experienced some essence of this promotion paradox," Mautz said. "They get to that next level hoping it's going to produce more than it actually does for their fulfillment and their happiness and they actually discover it has somehow moved them one step farther away from things that truly make them happy in life."

Mautz argues that the best solution, the best way to fight the promotion paradox, is to stop reinforcing the idea that promotions bring with them more meaningful work. Instead, emphasize the meaning and purpose behind, as well as the value created by, every single job in the organization. "I actually did a set of focus groups with parking lot attendants and found out that even amongst something that seems incredibly boring and mind numbing as parking attendants, I discovered a couple of them that really felt like, 'Look, my job and my purpose on this planet is to take something menial [..] and bring an unexpected smile and a little bit of a lilt to someones step during the day,'" Mautz explained. "They had reframed their own work to make it matter more and have more purpose."

Purpose wins the fight against the promotion paradox.

Published on: Mar 20, 2017
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