Three Poisoned Promotions and How to Prevent Them

Poisoned promotions are those promotions that are doomed from the start because the person who is promoted isn’t capable or qualified for the new position.  Now, I know that no one intends to promote a person who cannot handle the new job, but I have seen it many times in my work with companies around the country:  in spite of the best intentions on everyone’s part, a person is promoted beyond their capabilities or qualifications, and the outcome is not good for anyone.

 Before we look at some typical examples of “poisoned promotions” and how to prevent them, let’s remind ourselves about what ought to happen in the promotion process.  A promotion decision is not essentially different from a hiring decision:  you should start the process with a thorough and objective evaluation of the requirements and demands of the position to be filled.  The most significant difference is that you have a great deal more first-hand information about the person (or people) you are considering for promotion, and this turns out to be something of a double-edged sword.  Let’s look at what happens.

 When you make a promotion decision, you are making a decision about someone you know, perhaps rather well.  You may have access to performance evaluations and other measures of work performance, but you also have many more informal sources of information.  Just a few examples might include co-workers (who may be “cheerleading” for the person,) personal observations of work-related behavior, anecdotes from co-workers that may or may not be job-relevant.

 If you do not have objective criteria for the position under consideration, and objective information about the person being considered for promotion, it can be tempting to use the promotion to (or attempt to) solve other problems, and this can lead to the three most typical “poisoned” promotions.  Let’s look at each one, and at how to prevent them.

 The “Do Something Nice For Someone” Promotion

 George has been with the company for seventeen years and is well liked by everyone.  His performance, while seldom excellent, is steady and dependable.  He has been in his current position for five years and his performance is acceptable.  Although he has not demonstrated exceptional capacity to take on more responsibility, he is ambitious and has been asking about a promotion.  There is concern that, if he is not promoted soon, he might leave the company.  More in hope than expectation that a challenging opportunity will trigger exceptional performance, he is promoted.

 The “Hand Off the Problem” Promotion

 John has been with the company for three years and has struggled to stay on top of his assignments and responsibilities.  He works hard and has a good attitude, but he tends to miss deadlines and it takes a lot of help by others to produce acceptable results.  He requires more supervisory time than any other employees at his level.  He hears about an opening in another division that appears to be a promotion opportunity to him, and he applies for it; recommending him for the promotion solves the problem in your own department of his marginally acceptable performance.

 The “Hope for the Best” Promotion

 Paul has twelve years with the company and has done well.  He has developed his management skills during his tenure and handled all of his responsibilities with care and ease.  Just before an opening came up in a position above his current level, and one for which he seemed to be an excellent candidate, he suffered some setbacks in his personal life that affected his work performance.  He argued persuasively that the effects of his personal problems were temporary and well within his ability to manage them, and he was promoted.  In the new position, however, he seemed to flounder and lose focus, and finally admitted that his personal difficulties were interfering more than he had expected.

 All three of these examples have a common theme:  the decision to promote each person did not take into enough account whether the individual is capable, either temporarily or permanently, of handling the much more demanding duties and responsibilities of the new position.  Follow the three-step process below to make sure you are not falling into this trap.

 Preventing Poisoned Promotion Decisions

 Preventing poisoned promotion decisions boils down to three simple steps:

 1. Evaluate the position that is to be filled and be sure that you understand the demands and requirements of the position. What are the knowledge, skills, and abilities requirements?  If there is not a written job description, write one and make sure it is accurate and objective by showing it to the person or people who will evaluate the performance of the person who holds the position.

 2. Objectively evaluate candidates for the position in terms of the demands and requirements of the job you are considering them for. Especially if this is a step from being an individual contributor to being a supervisor or manager, consider obtaining outside objective information about the person’s suitability and readiness to make this step.

 3. Consider the appropriateness of making promotion decisions in difficult or unclear circumstances that are provisional or temporary. If the promotion is subsequently, give the newly promoted person specific tasks and deadlines and then provide helpful feedback as they demonstrate the ability to grow into the new position.

Preventing poisoned promotion decisions takes some discipline and effort, but engaging the “peter principle” (that is, promotion of a person into a position where he is likely to fail) creates a whole new set of problems that are often worse.