In the employment world, the allure of climbing the ladder is undeniable. The promise of higher status, increased salary and greater recognition often drives us to relentlessly pursue promotions. Yet, amidst this pursuit, we often overlook the profound impact it can have on our well-being, our relationships and even somewhat ironically, the quality of our work.

For many, the pursuit of promotion is just like chasing a mirage in the desert. We believe that achieving the next fancy title or level will bring us lasting satisfaction and fulfilment. We believe that once we have it, we will have “made it”. However, research indicates otherwise. According to a study by Gallup, only 33% of employees in the UK feel engaged at work, suggesting that the pursuit of promotions does not necessarily lead to increased happiness or fulfilment.

What fuels this fixation for many of us? Is it the glamourised portrayals in movies? Perhaps the achievements we witness in friends and family? Or could it be an intrinsic trait ingrained in our species?

The truth is, the obsession with chasing promotion can be influenced by all of these factors and more, including societal norms, personal experiences and innate human tendencies.

Movies, television shows and other forms of media often depict success as synonymous with climbing the ladder. Characters who achieve high status and wealth through promotions are frequently portrayed as role models, reinforcing the idea that upward mobility is the ultimate measure of success. Fictional I know, but in the sitcom “The Office,” created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, characters like Tim Canterbury (played by Martin Freeman) and Gareth Keenan (portrayed by Mackenzie Crook) are in a constant competition for promotion and better positions within the fictional Wernham Hogg Paper Company. Their ambitions and interactions with each other and colleagues highlight the common theme of career advancement as a measure of success in the workplace.

Even Gervais’ character, David Brent, the boss, is deeply entrenched in this obsession with stature, titles and climbing the ladder. Every action and interaction he takes, seems geared toward looking good and being the best. In his own mind, he believes he’s achieving exactly that, but to those observing from the outside, he falls well short of his own self-perception.

Reflecting on this, it’s worth asking ourselves if we’ve ever exhibited “Brent-like” behaviours. Have we ever been so consumed by the pursuit of promotions and status that we lose sight of how we’re perceived by others? It’s a question that prompts introspection and reminds us of the importance of staying grounded and authentic in our professional pursuits.

Cultural values and societal expectations undeniably shape our perceptions of career advancement. In cultures that prioritise individual achievement and status, pursuing promotions is often seen as crucial for personal fulfilment and social validation. Many organisations are structured to facilitate a progressive ascent into more senior positions over time. However, there are individuals who defy this conventional trajectory, they have no interest in chasing the proverbial carrot – they break the traditional mould and defy the system!

So, how do we motivate these individuals who aren’t driven by the allure of promotion? For me, the answer lies in treating them with respect, making them feel valued, and encouraging their contributions wherever possible. By recognising their unique skills and strengths, and providing opportunities for growth and development that align with their interests and values, we can foster a sense of belonging and purpose within the organisation. Ultimately, by creating an inclusive and supportive environment, we can inspire all employees to excel and contribute to the collective success of the team.

We naturally learn by observing the behaviour of those around us, particularly friends, family members and colleagues. If we see others being rewarded for their career advancement, we may internalise the belief that promotion is necessary for happiness and success. Additionally, witnessing the struggles and sacrifices that others make in their pursuit of promotion can create a sense of peer pressure or societal expectations to follow a similar path.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans are wired to seek out opportunities for status and social dominance. In ancestral environments, individuals who held higher social status often had greater access to resources, mating opportunities and protection from threats. This drive for status and recognition may be hardwired into our brains, leading us to pursue promotions as a means of elevating our social standing and securing our place within the group. You could perhaps argue that this is still the same now, just those resources look different, but are still the same in context.

Ultimately, our desire for promotion may also stem from individual aspirations and goals. For some, the pursuit of advancement may be driven by a genuine passion for their work, a desire for greater influence or impact, or a sense of personal achievement. Additionally, promotion often comes with tangible rewards such as higher salaries, better benefits and increased job security, which can provide a powerful incentive for individuals seeking to improve their financial and professional well-being.

Constantly striving for promotion can take a toll on our mental and physical health too. The pressure to perform, the fear of failure, and the relentless pursuit of success can lead to stress, burnout and even serious health issues. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that individuals who prioritise promotion over other aspects of their lives experience higher levels of stress and lower job satisfaction. Initially, I found this statistic surprising, however as I digested it over (another) hot, velvety, cinnamon latte, I found myself at the other end of the spectrum, thinking that actually I am not surprised at all! I recall many times over the years feeling completely fried as a result of leading the charge for that next step.

As I mentioned before, the obsession with climbing the ladder can negatively impact the quality of our work. According to a survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), 37% of employees reported that their workload had increased due to the pressure to compete for promotions. This can result in decreased productivity, compromised quality and damaged relationships. We need to go above and beyond to get promoted, but what happens then, we get promoted, does the workload decrease or does it continue at this frantic pace?

I know first-hand the dangers of becoming consumed by the pursuit of promotion. In my own career, I’ve found myself constantly comparing my progress to that of my peers, feeling resentful towards those who were promoted ahead of me. At times I doubted my own abilities and felt overlooked and undervalued. It wasn’t until years later, that I took a step back and reflected on my journey that I realised the true nature of the race I was running—it was with myself.

Anyone who has worked in my teams, or has been a mentee of mine over the years will immediately recognise this when I say, instead of fixating on promotions, we should focus on delivering excellence in our work and fostering meaningful connections with our customers, stakeholders and team members. When we prioritise the needs of others and strive to exceed expectations, we not only enhance the quality of our work but also experience greater satisfaction and fulfilment. Most of the time, this will be followed by promotions and further opportunity naturally.

As a people manager responsible for promoting others, I’ve learned the importance of humility and self-awareness. Looking back, I realise that there were times when I promoted individuals who were not yet ready for the responsibilities that came with their new roles. I had been wearing rose-tinted glasses, overlooking their shortcomings in my eagerness to advance their careers. Was I setting them up for success or failure? Was I being fair to them? These are questions that I asked myself. However, through these experiences, I’ve gained valuable insights into the importance of honesty, transparency, and mentorship in the promotion process. Sometimes people may not like what you’re telling them, however this doesn’t mean that they won’t respect it.

My conclusion, while the pursuit of promotion may seem appealing, it is not necessarily the key to happiness or fulfilment. By focusing on delivering excellence in our work, prioritising the needs of others, and embracing opportunities for learning and growth, we can find true satisfaction and success in our careers. After all, the real race is not against others—it’s with ourselves.

To hear more of my ramblings, follow me on LinkedIn – Matt Sims. Let’s connect and explore how we can work together to create a brighter future.

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