The Rise and Fall of a Golden Child
From 2008 to 2016, I worked for two organizations and was promoted multiple times. From 2008 to 2010, I had one job at a startup company where, within 12 months, I went from a being a reluctant employee to the golden child and was promoted twice. I was eventually put in charge of a group of 30 people, almost all of whom had advanced degrees in linguistics and had been with the company longer than I had. I was 28 years old and younger than many of the people in the group when I was promoted to a leading position. I stayed with that company for a little more than two years before moving on to a career in government. When I gave my notice, the company insisted that I stay with them, calling me daily for several weeks, offering verbal bait and monetary incentives to get me to change my mind, even going so far as to offer me a position as the core member of a yet-to-be-formed group of middle managers and leaders answering directly to the cadre of executive vice presidents. While I enjoyed my time at the company and had the utmost respect for my colleagues, I was ready for a change and accepted the position within the government, much to the company’s dismay.
During my career with the government, I was promoted to two high-level grades during the course of four years. I was put in charge of an important mission and developed it from the ground up. I again found myself the golden child, and yet I did not have any formal education in leadership and management, much less an advanced degree at all. The direct supervisors I had over the course of eight years during which I was promoted a total of four times for two employees were supportive, trusting, and generous to me. The upward trajectory in my professional life went on for a number of years before a new supervisor was assigned to me in 2016, and she was not impressed by my style or the substance of my skills. And I melted down. Our relationship grew so acrimonious that I behaved petulantly, often verbally sparring with my supervisor using a wholly inappropriate tone. I was subversive, uncooperative, and just a thorn in the side of my supervisor and her supervisors. This swift detrition in the relationship between my supervisor and me took place over a very short period of time (probably a matter of weeks). This was a hard fall after so long of being the apple of my supervisors’ eyes. While I was not pushed out of my job with the government, it was abundantly clear to me that it would probably take years, if ever, to repair the damage that I had done to my career and reputation literally in the space of a few weeks.
There were several factors that contributed to the rise and fall of my professional career over eight short years. That most important factor that resulted in the death spiral of my government career was that I was simply not equipped to effectively execute the level of duties that had been given to me. There was a mismatch between what I was capable of and the expectations my new supervisor had of me. When my supervisor pushed back against some of my suggestions and strategies—all of which my former supervisors had almost universally endorsed and reinforced—I was totally unprepared for how to respond in a productive way. I felt very threatened and lashed out. After years of ascent, how did my career go belly-up so quickly? The answer to that question lines in the default behavior that I would argue almost all organizations apply when bestowing authority and power to individuals, be it in the form of a promotion or additional responsibilities.
Climbing the Ladder: Ambition + Conscientiousness ≠ Competency to Manage and Lead
There is a consistent pattern that organizations apply when promoting individuals and giving out power and authority. The application of this organizational behavior is, in my opinion, what leads to a cadre of ill-equipped middle managers and leaders that are a primary source of organizational entropy (i.e., the position I found myself in). Leaders at the top of many organizations are often (although not always) well-educated in management, leadership, and business strategy and spend a great deal of time developing those skills. The individuals within the organization who produce the products and services are also usually well-educated and skilled, be they engineers, physicists, software developers, analysts, or chemists. The trap that organizations fall into that creates significant incongruity—and, therefore, a significant source of entropy—is the paradigm used to transition people who are conceiving, developing, and producing products, services, and solutions to the cadre of middle management and leadership. The two factors, in my personal experience and observation, that organizations apply when promoting individuals and extending power and authority to them—most especially to the class of middle managers and leaders—are ambition and conscientiousness.
Ambition and conscientiousness are characteristics in people that employers love. Ambition is a manifestation of the level of energy and individual is willing to commit, be it for ulterior or benevolent motives. Conscientiousness is the level of compliance, dependability, and carefulness a person exhibits. Conscientiousness is considered one of the “big five” personality characteristics, within the construct of the Five Factor Model (FFM). For almost the last decade, there has been a truism that conscientiousness is the primary predictor of employee success. In Personality and Career Success: Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations—a 2009 paper—the researchers found that conscientiousness was tied to higher income and people’s satisfaction with their jobs (Sutin, Costa, Jr., Miech, & Eaton, 2009). The National Institute of Mental Health found as early as 1982 that men who possessed the characteristic of conscientiousness earned more (Kohn & Schooler, 1982). Research has discovered a clear relationship between how conscientious a person is at work and how valued he/she is. But more importantly, research has found a relationship between conscientiousness and how a person is rewarded at work. Perhaps the most meaningful reward at work is a promotion, with an accompanying pay raise. It, therefore, follows that individuals who exhibit behaviors such as compliance, dependability, and carefulness are the likeliest to be promoted. As an employee who was compliant, dependable, and careful in his work for many years, I was indeed rewarded with increasing levels of power and authority in the form of promotions and pay raises.
Where ambition is concerned, it is not one of the characteristics on the FFM, but nonetheless important. Ambition is not in and of itself a negative characteristic; it is a “switching quality”—i.e., a quality that can manifest in negative and positive behaviors—in contrast to other qualities that are universally negative or positive such as deceit or compassion, respectively. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate ambition from conscientiousness. For example, people may show up to work an hour early each day because they care so much about the quality and quantity of their work, that they are willing to spend more time doing it. On the other hand, some people may show up to work an hour early because they want to display to their superior and peers that they are cosmetically dedicated and willing to put in extra effort while not necessarily caring much about the work itself, other than as a means to an end. Just as I was a conscientious employee for so many years, I was also ambitious. The only real distinguishing factor between conscientiousness and ambition is that conscientiousness is more of an altruistic characteristic whereas ambition can be self-serving. Studies identifying a relationship between conscientiousness and employee success, to my mind, are akin to studies identifying a correlation between not using condoms and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, the correlation is sufficiently self-evident that studies are confirming the obvious. And it should come as no surprise why employers reward conscientiousness.
Why Organizations Reward Ambition and Conscientiousness with Power and Authority: Quid Pro Quo
Of course, it makes sense why employees who are conscientious are likelier to be successful, which may even make up for a lack of competency, in some cases. Inertia may be the most powerful force within an organization. If this is true, then it stands to reason that individuals who exhibit characteristics of compliance, dependability, and carefulness would be rewarded for their conscientiousness because it reduces the amount of friction within a system and maintains the organizational status quo. Boat-rockers are not often welcome people in organizations, even if the organization claims in its espoused values that it wants people who challenge the status quo and question things. An organization is likely to shun individuals who go against the grain by being incompliant, non-conventionally dependable, and not perceived to be careful because their behavior is disruptive to the organizational inertia. Even if the inertia within the organization is leading toward entropy, the organization will tend to reward conscientious people and punish outliers because of the aversion to disruption that so-called non-compliant people introduce, even when that disruption has the potential to reverse entropy.
In order to maintain inertia and avoid disruption, organizations tend to reward ambition and conscientiousness, and that reward often comes in the form of promotions and increases in power, authority, and compensation. Ironically, this is a major contributing factor to the toxicity and bureaucracy within the middle stratum of organizations at a high long-term cost for low short-term gain. This system is self-sustaining; middle managers and leaders and their superiors (i.e., those who are able to offer entry into the middle-manager class) are loathe to introduce disruption into the system, even if it is productive disruption because it undermines the mutually-beneficial relationship of middle managers' conscientiousness that manifests as compliance with and deference to their superiors. The problem with this paradigm is that ambition and conscientiousness are not necessarily characteristics that guarantee good managers and leaders. Therefore, organizations often find themselves in a vicious cycle where they continue to promote individuals who are ambitious and conscientious, and these middle managers and leaders often lack competency in those skills. Mathematically, this equation looks like: ambitions + conscientiousness ≠ competency to manage and lead. Its counter-productiveness notwithstanding, this is the model that the vast majority of organizations use to promote individuals, and this self-perpetuating model is a significant contributing factor (perhaps the most significant factor) preventing organizations from actualizing three crucial behaviors that allow them to be sustainable, productive, and profitable: collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation. While it is possible for organizations—especially larger organizations—to sustain this counterproductive culture for the long-term, it will eventually corrode morale as people who are subordinate to incompetent individuals have their innovation and collaboration stymied as they are blocked by bureaucracy, which prevents long-term profitability as financial resources are sucked up by ineffectiveness and inefficiencies. In sum, there is perhaps no more culturally dangerous yet seemingly innocuous organizational behavior than promoting people based on conscientiousness and ambition alone.
Strategies to Break the Logjam Part I: Reframing Value and Worth
It can be very difficult to dislodge a large cadre of middle managers and leaders who got into their positions by virtue of their ambition and conscientiousness and who, for the most part, lack competency in the skills of management and leadership. An abrupt change to an organization’s culture (e.g., making all middle managers and leaders re-compete for their jobs and measure their competency as effective managers and leaders) could be destructively disruptive to the organization. But, there are two strategies that can start to reverse and eventually eliminate this unhealthy behavior.
The first thing that an organization can do to reverse this phenomenon of ambition and conscientiousness being rewarded with power and authority is to decouple prestige from power and authority. For so many people, the accumulation of power and authority is a manifestation of their value and worth, and once they’ve gained it, they simultaneously cling to it while resenting it. This is deeply embedded in the human psyche because the more power and authority a person has, the likelier they are to be safe, which satisfies the most basic of human needs—thus, the clinging—but also, it traps them at the bottom of the needs hierarchy—thus, the resentment. However, as we have evolved intellectually, organizations can now deliberately create a narrative that reinforces the notion that value and worth to an organization are based on the value and worth an individual brings to an organization outside of the scope of power and authority.
Ironically, it is often the middle managers and leaders who reduce organizational value, not because they are inherently ill-intentioned, but because they are a part of a bureaucracy that codifies systems, structures, policies, and procedures that disrupt and prevent collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation. And it is often the experts beneath the middle managers and leaders (e.g., the engineers, the computer programmers, the salespeople, the scientists, etc.) who are doing the work that is adding the value to the organization. However, the tacit narrative many organizations signal to those same engineers, computer programmers, salespeople, and scientists is that their worth to the organization is relative to the amount of power and authority they hold, and this is reinforced when they are promoted for their conscientiousness and ambitious behavior. To disrupt this paradigm, organizations can do three important things: (1) decouple the accumulation of power and authority from compensation; (2) establish programs that reward and incentivize non-mangers/leaders for their conscientiousness and ambition in executing their jobs well; and (3) remove the implicit expectation that conscientiousness and ambition must needs be a path toward more power and authority by default. In other words, if a chemical engineer wants to remain a chemical engineer without an eventual management or leadership role for the duration of his/her career, there must be rewards to value this individual’s dedication to his or her role as a subject matter expert within the organization. And, perhaps more importantly, the organization should ensure that this person’s voice is sought out, valued, and heard, in spite of the fact that he/she does not hold a formal position of power and authority.
Strategies to Break the Logjam Part II: Developing Competence
The second thing that an organization can do to reverse the phenomenon of ambition and conscientiousness being rewarded with power and authority is to introduce the variable of competence in management and leadership into the management-leadership track. If an individual finds self-actualization in the capacity of a manager or leader, there is nothing wrong with that per se. However, ambition plus conscientiousness do not equal competency in management and leadership. By the same token, ambition, conscientiousness, and competency in a given skill are a firm foundation for effective managers and leaders, although this is not an absolute. If a person has some of these characteristics, an additional variable must be added, that is, the capacity of the skills associated with management and leadership.
While some people have a proclivity for management and leadership, for far too long organizations have ignored the fact that management and leadership (especially at the mid-level) are skills that must be learned. Investing in people to develop them as managers and leaders often does not look like a worthwhile venture when compared to investing in raw material, equipment, marketing, etc. because it is intangible and can be difficult to quantify a return on the investment. This is a myopic view of the human factor within organizations. There is nothing more valuable to invest in than people, and I don’t mean this in the abstract; I mean this in the most concrete sense. Creating a cadre of world-class mangers and leaders by developing their emotional intelligence and self-awareness, and skills in conflict resolution, team-building, effective communication, and organizational and behavioral theories, will pay in dividends. Organizations will eventually be able to quantify most of these costs, but it may not be as quick and neat as organizations are used to. When an organization acquires a new piece of machinery for an assembly line, for example, it can be much easier to quickly quantify that return on the investment. However, developing managers and leaders is a far more long-term but worthwhile investment, not just from a humanistic point of view but literally for an organization’s financial bottom line, by allowing it to be collaborative, effective, and innovative, thus giving it a competitive advantage. And if that is still not enough, consider that a 2015 Gallup study found that 50 percent of employees quit "to get away from their manager" (Harter & Adkins, 2015). No matter how you slice it, a 50 percent attrition rate is an enormous cost to an organization. How much more competitive and profitable could an organization be if it reduced the attrition rate to ten percent, five percent, or even one percent? Organizations can; it's just a matter of how willing they are to invest in developing a cadre of managers and leaders that are world-class.
When organizations are led by incompetent leaders and things are managed by incompetent managers, the financial cost is high, but often not immediately apparent. I don’t mean to use the word incompetent pejoratively; I mean it in the most literal sense: lacking in qualification or ability. This is not necessarily bad. None of us is competent at everything. In fact, most of us are completely incompetent at almost everything. But, to assume management and leadership grow naturally out of ambition and conscientiousness represents a false premise that deprives people of getting satisfaction out of their work as they labor under sometimes draconian conditions of incompetent managers and leaders who are ruled by insecurity which manifests as a command-and-control paradigm and megalomania. It also prevents organizations from creating an environment that is mutually rewarding for people and the organization when they bring all of themselves to work and give all they have to offer without having to climb the ladder and play politics in order to feel valued and get rewarded.
How often do organizations give lip service to putting people first when they refuse to develop the skills of management and leadership in people? How much collaboration, effectiveness, and innovation is squandered due to, at best, ineffective management and leadership and, at worst, counterproductive management and leadership? From the C-Suite, it can be difficult to recognize the damage done or human potential being wasted due to incompetent management and leadership. And, this is exacerbated by the fact that the middle stratum of leaders and managers have a vested interest in reinforcing false narratives to executive leaders that all is well and any disruptions are due to rogue elements among the employees, which will be dealt with.
Management and leadership are skills that must be taught, learned, and accurately applied. The best and most effective management and leadership skills do not see people as a means to an end but as humans who have many needs and whose unique human potential, when unleashed, represents the most powerful positive force within an organization. This is achieved by bringing people together through cohesion and congruence, helping people to make a positive difference in their organizations without formal power or authority, and serving a greater good in the world through their work. This is not achieved by standing on the shoulders of subordinates. The worst management and leadership practices lead to silos, information hoarding, passive aggressive behaviors, high turnover, burnout, confusion, undue stress, hyper-control, ineffective communication, sabotage, deceit, inauthenticity, resistance to upward feedback, and lack of trust. If you are in the upper echelons of an organization and you think you see signs of unhealthy behavior among middle management and leadership, get out of the C-Suite bubble and dig a little deeper. If you find rot, have the guts to challenge the paradigm from which the organization operates where middle leadership and management are concerned.
The fact is that social scientists have been studying, documenting, and applying effective management and leadership skills for decades, through fields such as organizational development, executive master’s programs in leadership, and organizational psychology. Many MBA programs now—which have, in the past, ignored the human element of work and focused on running profitable organizations at all costs—have begun to introduce into their curriculum the element of humanism, because it is a win-win scenario, in which organizations gain from the unbound potential people bring to work when they are treated as humans, which in turn creates more collaborative, innovative, and profitable organizations. Many of these things are not new, and yet, so many organizations assume that investing in developing a cadre of managers and leaders —especially at the mid-level—is not worth the return on investment. Instead, they put their trust in the false notion that management and leadership are inborn talents that will manifest in people through their ambition and conscientiousness. And, even when an organization accepts the decision to invest in developing their managers and leaders, they must have the right management and leadership skills. A manager or leader not trained in the right skills is no better to an organization than a brain surgeon is to a patient in need of a heart transplant.
Climbing the organizational hierarchy to gain a feeling of worth and value must be expunged from our Western ethos, as it encourages people to join the ranks of managers and leaders who may not be a good fit for those roles; it has the potential to create devastating megalomaniacs in organizations, and it necessitates the creation of uber-bureaucracies to accommodate all of those who feel compelled by tacit expectations to rise up the ranks in order to self-actualize, obtain prestige, power, authority, and earn more money. Yes, leaders and managers are useful to organizations, but at this juncture, I believe that the damage they do is sometimes so great that it completely negates any good they do. This is a troubling condition for the experience of people in the workplace. However, this trend can be reversed, and the organizations that develop managers and leaders who learn how to be of service in releasing human potential will have a competitive advantage now and in the future. If investing in people in order to have an organizational competitive advantage is not considered worthwhile, it may be time for a reexamination of the organization’s priorities and culture.
Not all managers are bad. Not all leaders are bad. Most have good intentions but simply lack competency. My hope and belief are that the vast majority of managers and leaders are good people who simply feel compelled to rise up the ranks of their organizations to satisfy their needs for safety, self-esteem, and relationships. I fell into that trap myself and learned an important lesson while living a painful experience. Without the right skills that are based on bringing people together through cohesion and congruence, helping people to make a positive and meaningful difference through their work, and serving the greater good at any level of an organization, unhealthy and destructive behaviors will manifest, leaving many an organization aimlessly drifting in the dark waters of low morale, cynicism, disengagement, and attrition, only to eventually run aground. But this need not be the destiny of people or organizations, as we know so much now about how to create and sustain healthy workplaces for the benefit of self and humankind, if only we seek it out.
Harter, J., & Adkins, A. (2015, 4 8). Business Journal. Retrieved from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/182321/employees-lot-managers.aspx
Kohn, M. L., & Schooler, C. (1982). Job Conditions and Personality: A Longitudinal Assessment of Their Reciprocal Effects. American Journal of Sociology, 1257-1286.
Sutin, A. R., Costa, Jr., P. T., Miech, R., & Eaton, W. W. (2009). Personality and Career Success: Concurrent and Longitudinal Relations. European Journal of Personality, 71-84.