Ask a Boss: What If I Don’t Deserve This Promotion?

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Dear Boss,

I work in a technical program where change is very, very slow to occur, if it occurs at all. Most positions have one or two promotions built in, with the next step being management. However, management roles are typically only open due to retirements, so they don’t happen often. Most employees have been here 15 to 20 years or more. Because it’s so hard to get promoted, it’s also hard to be fired. This results in a fairly toxic environment with people who either (a) don’t have a great work ethic, or (b) are extremely hard to work with on a personal level (but at least get their work done).

I am one of the few young faces around here, and one of the few without a technical background. I’m also one of few women. I started right out of college and managed to forge a new, nontechnical position for myself, and I’ve received two promotions since, which is fairly rare. (I had to fight for my second.)

Our section’s supervisor position was recently open. Two of my colleagues applied for it, since it’s the only way for them to receive a promotion at this stage. They’ve both been here 15- or 20-plus years. An outside applicant was eventually selected, and my colleagues were furious. They were passed up for something they thought was rightfully theirs, something that they had been working toward all this time. Luckily, our new supervisor is great. He’s really helped me grow in my role and everyone has come around to him. But he is so good that he’s now being considered for a promotion, leaving our section without a supervisor again. Well, last week he told me (confidentially) that our management agrees that I’m the best candidate to take on his role if he successfully gets his promotion.

While this is great news, I’m really at a loss. I have little management experience, and I don’t have the same technical background as everyone else. There are many things my colleagues do that I do not understand and could not do myself. He understands this and explained that the position is more about managing people than managing projects, and I agree that out of my colleagues I would be the best fit for this task, considering that one of them regularly has literal temper tantrums in the hallways. (Like I said — it’s toxic.)

Even my supervisor agrees that my colleagues might be troublesome. They would be upset that they’re being passed up yet again, and this time for someone younger, with fewer years in the program, and without the same technical background and knowledge as them. On top of my own impostor syndrome rearing up, I’m faced with people who will legitimately not believe I am suited for the job, whom I’ll then be tasked with managing.

A promotion is a promotion, and it would be great for me, but I already feel like I don’t “deserve” the role, and that I’m not the best suited for it. I know they’ll react poorly if they find out a junior member of their section is going to be jumped up ahead of them. I’m really struggling to feel positive about this and I almost feel like I should turn down the position. What should I do?

There are two different issues here: Do you deserve the promotion, and do you want the promotion?

It’s pretty likely that you do deserve the promotion. It sounds like more than one person agrees you’d be right for the job (your boss and people above him) and your management is willing to piss off your more senior co-workers to offer it to you, which isn’t something employers normally do lightly. Plus, keep in mind that they were hiring for this position not too long ago, so presumably they’re assessing you against the sorts of outside candidates they talked with last time and they still think you’re the right person. And your boss is right that in many management jobs, you don’t need to have the same technical expertise as the people you manage.

Also, you clearly have a track record of achievement there. You created a new position for yourself and have already been promoted twice in an environment where promotions are slow to happen. Obviously you’ve got strengths and people see them.

You’re doubting yourself because you’re comparing yourself to much older colleagues who have been there many years longer than you, and you’re assuming that you can’t deserve more than what they’ve been offered. But your letter makes it really clear why you’re being offered a promotion and they’re not: They don’t get their work done, are a pain in the ass to work with, and at least one of them has temper tantrums in the hall. Those are not people you promote. In fact, those are exactly the people you do not promote.

You, on the other hand, sound conscientious, driven, and sane. Those things are appealing and in many contexts will put you ahead of candidates with more experience but serious personality issues.

So let’s assume that you deserve the promotion. But what about whether you want it? That’s a different question. Do you want to move into management? Not everyone does. And do you want to move into management at this particular organization, with all that comes with it? Managing people is hard under the best of circumstances; managing people in a toxic environment with hallway tantrums is even harder. Are you up for managing people who may resent you, resist your authority, and otherwise make your job more difficult? Are you comfortable exercising authority and dealing with slackers and attitude problems? Do you know how you’ll do that in a workplace that doesn’t fire anyone, and thus one that will severely impair your ability to impose consequences if problems aren’t resolved? Do you know what kind of support you can count on from above you?

As part of thinking through these questions, talk with your manager, the one whose job you’d be moving into. Be honest with him about what you’re grappling with and ask for his advice. Did he deal with pushback when he started in the job and, if so, how did he approach it? Knowing the personalities involved, what challenges does he think you’re likely to face? How has he dealt with the we-don’t-fire-anyone culture? What kind of support does he think you’ll get from above if you do run into problems?

This might all sound like I’m nudging you away from taking the job, but I’m not. Some people thrive in this kind of situation — or at least tolerate it well enough to rack up useful experience that they can then parlay into something better. You just need to think all this through ahead of time, be realistic about what you’d be taking on, and decide if you want that or not. The worst-case scenario is that you take the promotion because, hey, it’s a promotion … and then realize that you hate what it’s turned your daily life into. So make sure you really want not just a promotion, but this particular promotion into this particular job working with these particular people in this particular culture.

Also — and this is key — if you do accept the job, push hard for your company to give you some management training and/or mentoring. I’d say that even if you were going to be leading a team of lovely, hardworking, welcoming staff, but it’s going to be extra important with this group.

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Ask a Boss: What If I Don’t Deserve This Promotion?