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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why You Shouldn't Necessarily Go for That Promotion

Getting a promotion is one of the holy grails of modern careers. It’s the post-college report card. It gives employees a goal and reason to work harder. It confers prestige and respect. It comes with more responsibility—and more money.

But pursuing promotions has its negative effects as well. In fact, there are enough downsides that you should consider not pursuing them at all.

Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t pursue a promotion—and how you can keep moving your career forward anyway.

1. Promotions Aren’t Within Your Control

Companies offer promotions to employees in order to get them to work harder. They can’t advance everybody, but that doesn’t matter. The promise of a raise and a more prestigious title will get everyone to work harder (in theory), even if they only have the funds to promote a few people. It’s not a sadistic productivity plot conceived by the senior staff—it’s just the way it is. Not everyone can be a VP.

What this means for you is that receiving a promotion is not totally within your control. It is within your influence, certainly. You can make sure your work is top-notch, show up more than your peers, play the office politics game, and do whatever else it takes.

But ultimately, your ability to get a promotion is restricted by the supply of open positions and someone else’s opinion. And if you don’t receive the promotion, you will be disappointed. You will have expended a ton of energy that could have been spent on something more worthwhile, something within your control.

What You Should Do Instead

Don’t do things just to get a promotion. Instead, focus on the positive, career-building activities that you can control. Develop your professional relationships. Develop your skills. Be a good friend and co-worker.

Though these sound like things you’d do to get a promotion, the difference is in your mindset. You will find these activities are inherently rewarding, and more importantly, within your control. If those things happen to lead to a promotion, great! If not, you’re still better off professionally and psychologically.

2. Pursuing Promotions Decreases Your Motivation

In 1973, psychologists Mark Lepper and David Greene wanted to test the effects of rewards on motivation. They selected 3-5 year olds who were interested in drawing and randomly assigned them to three groups. The children in group A were told they would receive a certificate if they participate in the drawing activity; the children in group B would receive a reward for participating, but they weren’t told about it, so it was a surprise; and the children in group C did not receive any rewards for participating. They were then invited into a separate room and were asked to draw over a six-minute period.

Guess which group spent the least amount of time drawing? Group A, the children who were told they would receive a reward.

Most companies put their employees in group A. They rely on external rewards to motivate employees, the most significant being the promise of a promotion. Once you start doing things for the rewards, however, your motivation and enjoyment of the work will decrease. Meaning, you will be less productive and less inclined to put time and energy into building the skills you need to be successful in the long term.

Paradoxically, pursuing promotions may actually make you less qualified to receive one!

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of focusing on external rewards for your work, focus on genuinely enjoying the work you do. Figure out what you’re good at, what you like to do, and what work feels meaningful to you. If it’s not what you’re currently doing, think about whether you can pick up projects that excite you more, or whether a career change is in order.

If you love what you’re currently doing, think of ways you can do more of it or become better at it. If you are a writer, focus on becoming a better writer. If you are a consultant, perfect the delicate art of client management. If you are a data analyst, become an Excel and database whiz. Find something that seems interesting, and master it.

Focus your efforts on actively enjoying the work you do and developing your craft, not on that shiny new job title. If you get skipped over for a promotion, you’ll still be more valuable in the marketplace and—more importantly—you’ll be actually excited about the work you do.

3. You May Have to Change Yourself to Get a Promotion

I had my mid-year review the other week. My manager told that me that while my work is good, I need to develop more “political savvy.” This means I need to learn what my colleague’s interests are, be less blunt in my emails, and learn how to not step on people’s toes.

The problem is, I have no interest in becoming politically savvy. Those “challenge areas” my boss described to me are character traits I value. I like being blunt and to the point. I like that I don’t spend all my time thinking about how someone will perceive my ideas. It’s my nature to be this way. In order to win a promotion, however, I will have to become politically savvy.

Pursuing a promotion can sometimes force you to work against your nature. If you’re a creative type but your company is inherently conservative, you will have to learn to keep your “crazy” ideas to yourself. Or, if you work best alone and your company is all about collaboration, you’re going to have to dive headfirst into teamwork, despite your natural inclinations.

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of forcing yourself into the mold of what your company wants, really think about whether this is the place for you long-term. Do you really want to change yourself to get promoted within your company? Or are there other places and companies where you could advance your career while staying true to who you are, what you believe in, and your working style? It might make sense to see where other people like you have been successful, and consider the alternatives out there.

If you change yourself in order to move up the ladder, it’s unlikely you’ll feel great about the success. But if you find a workplace where the things that make you unique are desired—and even rewarded? There’s a good chance you’ll ultimately get promoted there anyway, and you’ll be happier with your work.

Remember, giving up the pursuit of promotions doesn’t mean you won’t have a successful career. By focusing on things other than promotions, you will have a more satisfying, interesting, and happy career.

Photo of fish courtesy of Shutterstock.