If there’s one thing I’ve noticed working for Government*, it is there’s an endemic promotions culture here, far worse than anything I’ve seen anywhere else.
A promotions culture is what you get when the main objective of everything you do at work is to get to the next grade level. For some people, that’s a financial incentive more than anything else. Others want that promotion for the status and power that goes with it. A few, very few, want to be at the next level so they have an opportunity to make a bigger difference.
A sign of a promotions culture is everyone talks about the “career limiting move”.
I don’t believe in career limiting moves, though of course if it is evident that someone isn’t ready or capable of the next role, that’s something else. I mean, you have to prove that you’re ready for the next role if you want to get the next role.
Proving you’re ready requires a little bit of risk taking. In healthy corporate cultures, that’s behavior which is rewarded.
Not so in a promotion culture.
In a promotion culture, you are rewarded for being as similar as possible to the group of people who decide your next promotion. It is human nature to like those who are similar to us, so pretending to be as similar to your boss as possible is sensible.
In a promotion culture, you are rewarded for showing that you steer a steady course, one that doesn’t rock the boat. It is human nature for bosses to like it when their lives are easy, so promoting those that make it so is an easy decision.
And in a promotion culture, longevity of service, dedication to the organization as it is today, and conformance to all corporate norms is behavior that’s rewarded. A maverick might destabilize the steady progression of everyone else, so being the same as everyone else is the behavior that’s wanted.
You’ll all know where I’m going with this. Promotions cultures destroy any organizational capability to innovate, because they act to petrify the present status quo.
What can you do if you’re stuck in a promotions culture?
The best advice, I think, is find someone who’s senior who didn’t get senior by virtue of the promotions culture. They’ll have a different perspective on things than everyone else, and be willing to take a few more risks.
I consider myself lucky that my boss is in that category. He came into the Department from the outside, and has allowed me the liberty to do things I really doubt few others get.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be in that position though, what else can you do?
I think the choice is really very simple. You are either on the promotions bandwagon, or you’re off it.
In the former case, you should accept that you aren’t able to make any meaningful change, or take risks, or create a better future. Those things are incompatible with getting promoted.
If you’re off the promotions bandwagon, on the other hand, you can do all those things with impunity. You won’t be rewarded for doing so, of course, since rewards are reserved for those on the bandwagon. But you’ll have the chance to make a really significant difference.
Since I’ve joined the Government, promotions have become much harder to get by virtue of the fact that the resources available are being scaled back. And guess what? There’s lots more risk taking and innovative behavior going on. People are being far less conformant. They’re recognizing the old rewards system is changing.
Isn’t that an interesting outcome from public sector austerity?
* I feel I must point out, for any hacks who decide to hatchet me for having a blog daring to comment, that these pages are a private effort not reflecting the views of the Department, or any present or future employer. Yes, I sometimes sail deliberately close to the wind, but I do it with intent, ‘cause sometimes the best way to drive change is talk about it openly. And in case this post isn’t evidence enough, I want you all to know I opted out of the promotions culture on about, um, day 2. Follow #welovebaskers on Twitter.