The Ugly Truth About Promotions

The author says that regardless of the criteria and regardless of the regulations, promotions really come down to a couple of very human things that have little to do with job performance.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to promotions:

  1. Promotions are based on a checklist: if you match up against these criteria (ABC) and do these things (1234) when you have them all checked off, THEN you’ll be promoted.
  2. You don’t need to worry about the promotion, the checklist, or the politics – just do a good job and the promotion will take care of itself.

In the highly regulated world of government institutions, there’s a deliberate attempt to remove all of the subjectivity surrounding who gets promoted when. There’s an attempt to take all of the human aspects out of it so promotion becomes an easy yes/no question. All this in an effort to regulate everything from equal opportunity to diversity, to inclusion, to skill set mix, grade levels, pay scales etc.

And, all of that sounds nice and fair on the outside…

But here’s the important thing to remember: regardless of the criteria and regardless of the regulations, promotions really come down to a couple of very human things that have little to do with job performance.

Let me say that one more time: Promotions have very little to do with job performance.

I know every HR Professional and Career Development Officer – and even Organization Development Specialists – who reads this is aghast that I would dare say such a thing! And just to clarify – you can’t be a slug and expect to get promoted, but rock star performance is not going to guarantee your promotion either!

Here’s the truth:

Promotions are as much a function of timing as they are of work performance. Let me explain. Within our governmental institutions, the culture of “Time In Grade” still remains.  Even though most organizations have moved away from formal Time In Grade requirements, there is still an unspoken perception that you must have experience at your current grade level for a certain period of time in order to get “sufficient” experience to move up to the next grade level.

In practice, it looks something like this: if you’ve been promoted this year, the promotion panels are unlikely to give you active consideration for promotion until about two years later, at a minimum. (During this period you’re ‘undercooked’ and culture says that you need to stay at that grade a little longer.)

After those two years, you move into the ‘sweet spot’ where you are considered in the prime window for promotion. This sweet spot window usually stays open for about two to three years.

After that point, you fall into the unfortunate place I like to call the ‘overcooked’ category. There is a largely unconscious perception that “if he/she didn’t get promoted before now there must be something wrong with him/her.”

And all of this is regardless of what your performance evaluations say!

The other key piece that influences promotions is this: in government the number of promotions that any organization can put forward in any given year is largely determined by the budget they get from the higher authority that funds them. Which means your organization only has x number of promotion slots regardless of the number of people who are deserving of promotions.

For example, I just saw this year’s promotion statistics, for one grade level and one career track in the organization I know best. Out of 2,039 officers who were eligible and qualified for promotion, 27 actually got promoted. That’s right around 1%…

Now I want you to take that information and overlay it on what I just said about ‘undercooked’, ‘sweet spot’, and ‘overcooked’. Think about the person who was number 28. For some people, maybe even Number 28, their “sweet spot window” just closed.

Now why am I telling you this? Because this is a pretty pessimistic picture, right?

I’m telling you this because so many people look at their government careers and measure their success or failure in life based on the grade level they achieved. They look at their government career and say “Well if I got promoted to this level, I was a success, and if I didn’t make it to this level, I was a failure.”

I’m telling you the ugly truth about promotions because I want you to realize this: promotions are far outside your control, and they are not an accurate measure of the value of the contribution that you bring to your organization.

But here is what IS an accurate measure of the value you bring to your organization, and to the world at large. It’s the level of joy, fulfillment, excitement, and satisfaction that you derive from your work (the gift of service you provide to the world in exchange for money). That feeling of truly making a difference in the world – that’s the only accurate measure of your unique contribution.

And the beautiful thing about this is: it’s something you have absolute control over!

You can deliberately choose to tap into those things that matter most in your life. You can focus your energy on identifying, magnifying and using your unique gifts – those things that you do like no one else in the world. You can focus your attention on making sure you surround yourself with people who bring out and inspire the best in you — and that you are the kind of person who brings out and inspires the best in them.

After all that’s what leadership is, bringing out the greatness in yourself and others. That is Greatness In Government.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.