I thought it was easy and obvious. I saw my manager at work and I knew I could do a better job than she did. I was eighteen and quite sure my inevitable promotion would soon be announced. Since I was the smartest person in the room, it was just a matter of time.
Time taught me otherwise. Even if I hadn’t been clueless and arrogant as a teenager, a temp in my first office job, I wouldn’t have been promoted because I had no track record. Simple as that. There was a long list of other issues I would have to overcome, none of which were obvious to me at the time, but the main one was that I couldn’t point to a timeline of accomplishments.
What I learned in many years of temping was how many different ways there are for an organization to be dysfunctional. I learned how many different ways there are for a manager to be a team’s biggest obstacle to success. I learned how to discourage employees and create a toxic culture. I worked in companies of all sizes in various industries. I worked for nonprofits, in government, and in industry. I worked for bosses I adored and admired, and I worked for bosses who made me break out in hives.
I learned what a rarity it is to have a job with a great boss in a great company.
People quit bosses, not jobs, and it will probably always be this way. The basic assumption in the workplace is that employees are lazy thieves who have to be watched and goaded. The performance review process is in place to protect the organization from liability in case it has to fire someone for cause, such as gross incompetence or insubordination.
It would be nice if more resources were put into developing leadership and communication abilities in management, if more emphasis were placed on encouraging positive qualities throughout the team. Another way of saying that is, lead with the carrot, not with the stick. Or find out if the team even likes carrots; maybe they’d rather have a pickle.
What if you had a nice boss who liked you and wanted to pull you forward? What if you had a nice boss who always wanted to hear your ideas? What if that nice boss then helped you develop those ideas and bring them to top management, making sure you got the credit?
What would that do for the company?
Considering all of that, is the company where you work a place that you believe is deserving of your maximum contribution?
Do you really want to get promoted at all? Or are you looking for a way to deal with your feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction?
Recognizing when things are bad in your organization is a strong leadership trait. It’s only one among many, though, so you’ll need to work on it.
I spent twenty years volunteering in an organization that I finally realized was deeply dysfunctional. I understood that my contributions never would be recognized or rewarded. After a crisis that I felt was badly mishandled, I left without a second glance. Nobody asked me to come back.
I found a new home in another organization, where I was asked to take a leadership role within just months, and invited to promote up a level twice in two years.
What changed? It wasn’t me. From my perspective, I continued to do what I have always done. I simply quit a good position in a bad organization and took up a good position in a good organization.
What are traits that will hold someone back from a promotion? There are many, and the people who have them tend not to realize that they’ll have to make major changes before they can move forward. That’ll be true no matter where they go.
Bad traits: Rejecting the fundamental values and vision of the organization, but staying. Failing to understand why leadership makes the decisions it does. Working at cross purposes with leadership, with managers, and with other team members. Lack of follow-through. (Once is enough to put someone on the Unreliable list). Disregarding the flow of communication by skipping meetings, ignoring announcements, failing to return calls and correspondence, not reading email, and interrupting or being disruptive. Complaining without offering solutions. Criticizing others without supporting others. Demonstrating greater loyalty to something else besides the mission, such as a hobby or politics. Making the organization, management, or teammates look bad. Generally being a pain in the neck.
Neutral traits: Not being interested in leadership. Not particularly wanting to advance. Not having time, due to caretaking responsibilities, continuing education, or other situational issues.
What does it take to get promoted?
Fitting in with the culture, for good or ill
Making your boss look good, even if you disrespect that person or disagree with their methods
Working above and beyond your remit
Effectively being regarded as already doing higher-level work (beware: a toxic company will simply let you do extra work without compensation, forever)
Earning the loyalty and support of your peers, sometimes (and watch out, because if your boss likes you and your peers don’t, they’ll frag you)
Demonstrating that you understand the organization’s vision and mission
Making it obvious why promoting you will improve the bottom line and solve problems that are important to the organization
Asking for the promotion and making the case why it should be yours.
Looking back at the twenty-five years I have spent in the working world, I understand that there were so many things that held me back. First, I never chose a single, extremely specific thing that I wanted to do. Second, I did not look like an A player in terms of wardrobe and hairstyle. Third, my health issues made me unreliable, despite my overall dedication and work ethic. I corrected all of those issues and shifted my allegiance to a worthwhile organization.
At that point, it was just a matter of time.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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