T Nation

Promotion Criteria


In another post, hspder made an interesting comment about reasons for getting promoted:

"I've found that rarely it is the most competent people that get promoted -- for several reasons. But that's a whole thread in itself, and I have the sneaky feeling you'll learn that one way or another in a few years. Hopefully (for you) not the hard way."

I would like to hear more about these reasons so I started this thread. Feel free to jump in!


I've noticed in my time that a lot of people will get promoted or denied based on a boss's/superior's personal opinion and/or that boss's favoritism.

I was passes over numerous times to go to a military board for promotion bases on personal opinion. I was NOT well liked and had nothing to do with my personal abilities or performance. I was finally afforded an opportunity, smoked the board with a near perfect score, and make most of my peers seem incompetent in comparison while performing at the next rank above me.

No, it isn't fair. But it's reality and it isn't changing any time soon. You gotta schmooze people, and hopefully you'll be competent too. I've worked for some real assholes, shitbags, incompetent idiotic retards, and some really spacey people. Outperform someone while being sociable with the boss works well for most people that I see getting ahead at work. I use some bizarre humor at work, and coupled with staying good at what I do got me recommended for the next promotion board. But I don't know how well that is going to work for those of you who work in other professions, corporate America, or cubicle hell.
Good luck


djoh615893 actually had a (unfortunately) very classic experience and has some very good points already, but, as promised, here go some of the most well-known problems, as discussed with several of my students.

  1. Promoting somebody because they "deserve it" does not have any economic rationale behind it in itself; promotions always have a cost associated with it, and unless there's a perceived benefit for whoever makes the decision, it's not gonna happen in most cases. People are, for the most part, selfish and do not hand out promotions because they're generous. They hand them out because they have something to gain -- or something to not lose -- by it. Sad, but true. There are exceptions, of course, but especially in larger companies they are very rare.

  2. "The other team dilemma": even relatively good managers, when faced with somebody that is very good at their jobs, have a fundamental dilemma: promoting somebody that is very good at job A means that you will have to replace that person -- with somebody that might be less good. If that's in another department, or reporting to another person, the incentive to promote is minimal; from THAT manager's perspective you're losing a good report so there is zero incentive to promote them -- even if they threaten they'll leave if they are not promoted. Even if other managers find that person somehow interesting, you will have their current manager running interference; I've seen many cases where current managers lie and/or refuse to give good recommendations on their best reports because they want to keep them for themselves.

  3. "Highest Level of Competence dilemma": Even if a promotion means that person will report to the same manager, that manager might have the disincentive that keeping the status quo is "safer", and losing somebody that is very good at position A and put them in position B still means replacing A and possibly not getting somebody as good in B. Even if B is vacant and in need of a fill, bringing somebody from the outside for B is ALWAYS LESS risky. Unbelievable? Not at all: firing somebody that was hired 60 to 90 days ago has a very small cost -- both economic and political -- while having to get rid of somebody that you just promoted from A to B and was good at A but sucks at B is extremely difficult.

  4. "Highest level of INcompetence dilemma": There is an incentive to promote incompetent people: the higher they are, the more visible their flaws are, and hence the easier it is to fire them -- especially if it becomes somebody else's problem. Firing somebody that has worked for a while in a company costs political capital to their manager: it makes the hiring manager also look incompetent, and puts the weight of the economic cost of having fired that person squarely on their shoulders. The solution? Promote them, preferably to the responsibility of another manager. Problem is that other manager now has an incentive to promote them too, and you eventually find these people getting to places like VP positions and only getting fired then. But then the firing manager is the CEO or the President, so nobody is there anymore to point fingers. Again, sounds incredible, but I personally know of several cases where this has happened.

  5. "Wingman" incentive -- most managers, especially less competent ones, have an incentive to promote people that, most of all, they know will "have their back". Especially at higher positions, managers want to have an authentic human shield around them -- basically knowing that all the people that directly report to them will never criticize them, publicly or privately. That can trump just about anything else, including competence, hence the experiences that djoh615893 had. You can gain your boss? confidence but kissing his/her butt, not by being good at your job. Looking good and doing good are two completely different things most of the time, and the former is far more important than the latter if you want to climb up the corporate ladder.

  6. "Never promote somebody that is smarter than you" dilemma: another problem is that if you're really good, you might actually be better than the people that you work for. That's bad: they will see you as a threat to their position, and hence keep you as far away below as possible. I know at least two cases of two portfolio managers that actually got FIRED by their bosses because they were giving better returns to their (smaller) customers than their bosses were (to their bigger ones)... If they hadn't been fired, they would eventually have larger portfolios than their bosses, hence make more money and automatically be promoted. Remember: in most jobs and states today in the US, without the benefit of a union, you can be terminated for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The beauty of "at will" employment...

  7. You may argue that 1 to 6 are mostly typical of larger companies. Very true. They are much, much rarer in smaller companies. Hence the love that many people have for small business. Unfortunately, small business has another problem: small growth. Furthermore, the fact that so many people love working for small businesses so much means that their retention is very high, so people, especially in managing positions, don't leave -- and you might not get promoted simply because... there's nowhere to be promoted to...

I know, this paints a very bleak picture, but I'm not making this stuff up; it's based off real stories and real companies. You can argue that I have mostly a view of the IT industry which, as many people around here know, is possibly the most screwed up ever, and that is a very valid point; however, if you look around and see how incompetence is rampant in most companies, and that finding a company that has a good product or a good service is close to impossible in most cases, I think you'll see that the results speak for themselves.


Thanks for the responses guys!