How companies can stop making their best employees miserable

The New York Times recently carried a provocative thought piece by Arthur C. Brooks called Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work. Brooks describes the phenomenon this way:

Ambitious, hard-working, well-trained professionals are lifted by superiors to levels of increasing prestige and responsibility. This is fun and exciting — until it isn’t.

I’ve certainly witnessed this phenomenon at the university. Smart, ambitious researchers get tapped for administrative jobs — being a department chair or even dean — only to find out that their aptitude for scholarship doesn’t imply an aptitude for administrivia, nor a stomach for administrative politics. It happens at universities, but it happens at organizations of all kinds when employees leave positions where they excelled and got noticed, to move “up” to managerial roles.

The result is bad for morale, perhaps bad for productivity, and, as Brooks points out, probably results in a bunch of extra alcohol consumption.

Brooks presents this as a challenge faced by individuals, a crisis point in the career of the smart, ambitious worker. And he’s right about that. But it’s also an organizational challenge, and a leadership challenge. Here are a few thoughts on what leaders are ethically obligated to do to rise to that challenge.

1. Select based on what matters. Leaders (whether CEOs or senior leaders at universities) understandably tend to choose for promotion bright people people who excel at what they do. But wise leaders need to look beyond performance, to look at the match (or mismatch) between the qualities that allowed the individual to excel and the qualities that would allow them to excel in a new managerial role. They need to ask not just, “would this person be good at the job?” but also “would this person thrive at this job? The person who could “do the job” might be good enough at it for now, but the longer-term organizational and personal costs of burning out need to be counted too.

2. Support your people. Leaders have an obligation to make sure that people promoted to what risks being their “level of misery” are provided appropriate training and support. The fact that you were a star accountant doesn’t mean you have the people skills to be good at managing accountants. The fact that you were a terrific account manager doesn’t mean you’ll have the administrative skills to run a team of account managers. Inevitably you’ll need additional training, you’ll need the support of talented admin staff, and you’ll need mentoring. That last one is tough: mentoring tends to require an investment of a senior leader’s own time — a precious resource — but it’s an essential investment to make.

3. Fine-Tune the Culture. Leaders need to foster the right kind of culture within their organizations. That’s a truism, but worth considering none the less. In particular, leaders need to foster a culture (and a reward system) that gives talented people more than one way to “advance” within in organization. It’s a bad thing if the talented salesperson can only advance (and see herself as advancing, and be seen by others as advancing) by taking on a supervisory position for which she isn’t suited. And it’s a bad thing if going “back” to front-line sales, after a few years’ hard service in a supervisory role, is seen as a sign of failure. If getting promoted to, and keeping, such a position is the only way she can demonstrate her worth, she may well do it — to the detriment of both her own health and that of the organization.

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