Company Culture

Promotions shouldn’t be a reward

Don’t promote someone because they excel at their current job. Promote them because they’d excel at the new job.

Samuel Pepys.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.


Samuel Pepys could be the patron saint of aggrieved middle managers.

Pepys was a London civil servant made famous for a detailed personal diary he meticulously maintained for the entire decade of the 1660s. Historians consider it important first-person source material of 17th-century urban English life. Those interested in organizational dynamics take great interest, too.

Within the relative obscurity of naval bureaucracy, Pepys may have been the first professional promoted for merit. Born of modest means, he was bright, ambitious and likely a thorn in the side of leaders. In his diary, Pepys routinely criticized the incompetence of leaders who inherited their stature — a standard practice in Old Europe.

“Positions were possessions,” in the words of sociologist Richard Sennett.

Something began to change, accelerated by the Enlightenment, that shapes workplace expectations today. We now believe the person best suited for the job — rather than the person whose father had the job before them — should get the job.

Pepys and a wave of his contemporaries started that push. It began within European military academies, mainly because the stakes of war were so high and soldiers don’t follow generals who inherited their rank. Political theorist Max Weber was among the first to prominently link the rise of highly complex modern militaries with the establishment of bureaucracy that preferred merit over patronage.

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Promotions remain a major part of developing organizational success today. A brutal hiring climate has fueled the pandemic game of workplace musical chairs. When salaries couldn’t go any higher, employers turned to so-called “pandemic promotions” to retain core employees.

How do we keep someone? Let’s give them a promotion. These promotions were rewards. That kind of promotion is all wrong and falls short of what a modern Pepys might pursue.

The word “meritocracy” came to us from a 1958 satirical book written by Micahel Young, another Englishman with opinions on organizational dynamics. Today the word has lost the pejorative tone he intended it to have, predicting the animosity between a self-satisfied elite and the rest of us. But the spirit of leaders with merit follows a straightforward philosophy: a society is stronger when it allows for its best and brightest to rise. Given the high stakes of European military conquest in the 16th and 17th centuries, this argument was a major innovation. Today, “rising through the ranks” remains both a military metaphor and a celebrated part of workplace success.

Especially in a hiring climate like today, companies can promote for the wrong reasons. A true promotion constitutes a new job. A new job requires new skills. A great soldier can make a rotten general — and vice versa.

Two of the most common reasons to promote an employee is because of the length of tenure and, relatedly, success in a non-managerial role. According to Gallup research, those are both ineffective reasons to give someone a bigger job.

Don’t promote an employee because they excel at their current job. Promote an employee because they’d excel at the new job.

Companies can get this wrong the other way, too: by overlooking internal candidates for big roles. What a missed opportunity. Internal promotions on average outperform those hired from outside a firm, according to Booz Allen research. That only works, though, if someone is being promoted into a role they want and can thrive in.

How do you reward someone without a promotion? Dole out money, authority and influence without the title change.

More generally, this is why companies must build an individual contributor track. Think of it as the career jungle gym, rather than the career ladder. Otherwise, you risk promoting people to their own level of incompetence, as the old Peter principle goes — and enraging a new generation of Samuel Pepys.

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