Promotions are more stressful than divorce


Think twice before you ask for that promotion. What are you asking for, really? The average salary increase is less than 4%. This amount of money is not going to change your life in any notable way. Instead, ask for something that will change your life, like training, or a plum project that will broaden your skills.

Even if the benefits of a promotion were more notable, it’s hard to imagine them being worth the trouble a promotion causes. Development Dimensions International (DDI), a human resources firm, reports that, “When given the opportunity to rate life challenges in order of difficulty, 19 percent of all US leaders [polled] rated being promoted as the number one greatest challenge, superseding personal stressors like coping with bereavement, divorce and relocation.”

First of all, you have to figure that the majority of these people found getting a promotion so stressful because their stay-at-home spouse takes care of all the other stuff. Of course relocation is not stressful for an executive. He or she works in the New York office on Friday and the Seattle office on Monday, and meanwhile, the spouse is moving the kids and all the stuff. So, in fact, relocation is probably a negative on the stress scale for executives because they finally get a little relief from that nagging feeling that they should go home for dinner.

But even putting those issues aside, a promotion is very stressful because you have to start excelling at a different kind of job. Matt Paese, a vice president at DDI, says that the top three reasons that promotions are so stressful are:

1. Things get more political

2. There is more ambiguity and uncertainty

3. You don’t have as much personal control and you have to get things done through other people.

So, look, I think we can conclude here that if you don’t want to deal with office politics and delegation, then you should say no to the promotion. Robert Hogan, famous organizational psychologist thinks that you either have the personality for management or you don’t. Unfortunately, he finds that, “Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership.

Steve Fishman wrote a nice piece about this problem in New York Magazine, titled Boss Science. In this article, Hogan describes the five traits of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. What makes the best leader? Openness. “Open to new experiences, new ideas, new people. He’s not dogmatic. He likes diversity. He’s not a routinized taskmaster barking orders down the organizational chart.” (If you want to know your own traits, take the Hogan Assessment.)

It turns out that it’s much more important to be open than to be intelligent if you want to succeed as a leader. And conscientiousness is good for being the person who does stuff, not the person who leads. Agreeable is a good trait for a great team player, bad trait for a boss. Neuroticists are good when you need to hear about the worst-case scenarios, all the time.

Don’t despair if you’re not all about openness, though. The Harvard Business Review reports this month (paid) that the thing that really makes your workday good is feeling like you’ve made progress on your goal, and having your manager acknowledge that progress. So better to have the kind of work you are good at, and get praise for it, then move into a management position that you do not have the skill set to thrive.

So forget about that promotion. Don’t let someone else define your career path for you and then promote you through it as if their vision for your life is your vision. Instead, figure out what work you are best suited for, and request it. This is the best path for you.

19 replies
  1. Hunter Arnold
    Hunter Arnold says:


    This is great advice. If you’re looking at how to handle a promotion once you’re given the promotion, you’re too late. Accepting and taking the risk that comes with a promotion requires planning – if it’s a position you’re not passionate about, you should know it. If you think you’re not cut out for the politics that accompany the position, you should know it.

    You should have a firm idea of the type of career path you want before it’s handed to you; that way, you’re more able to manage the risk of a new position without letting it get in the way of your success.

  2. Greg
    Greg says:

    Many organizations lack mechanisms to reward workers monetarily other than promotions; usually promotion is synonymous with pay-scale. I have always thought it was a shame when an organization loses a great, loyal worker who loves their job because they put a ceiling on the pay scale. The value of institutional knowledge and informal leadership should be taken into account, but rarely are.

  3. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    Greg, this seems so common in the corporate cube-farm world. I know a guy who took a management job for that very reason – his wife wanted to stay at home with the kids and he needed to make more money. So he took a management position even though he had no leadership skills whatsoever. He was good at task-focused, detail-oriented stuff, and that’s what he liked. Getting into management was the worst thing for him – he lacked any sort of people skills whatsoever, and simply couldn’t extract himself from the details. Drove his staff nuts, and turnover went through the roof.

    It’s what I hate about the typical hierarchical corporate structure – being a manager doesn’t necessarily take any more skill than being a worker, it just takes DIFFERENT skills. There’s this myth that the manager should never make less money than the worker bees, but that’s silly. Pay for jobs should be based on the supply and demand for those skills.

  4. Matt M
    Matt M says:

    Fantastic post. I have had very similar views on promotions for a few years but thought that I was the only one or that it was just based on my experiences. I have worked at many jobs where I would not want my boss’s job. I have worked at a few where the promotions were good but those were rare. Thanks for writing about this issue.

  5. Mark
    Mark says:

    Want screwed up pay scales try working in the public sector.

    Time and time again I’ve seen great managers and administrators work up the pay scale and seen them begrudgingly finally paid somewhat better and guess what happens when they quit or retire? The inexperienced person hired to replace them sits down in the chair making exactly what the person they are replacing made and more often than not, that is the top of the pay scale meaning no raises for good performance. A fourth to a third of the promoted will wash out (fired, reassigned, or will bail out knowing the handwriting is on the wall) but the day they leave they were making the same as their peer managers with a track history of stellar performance.

    For the line employees it isn’t uncommon for a 15 year veteran with highly specialized skills and highly valued institutional knowledge to watch as the untrained newbies come in and make 95%, 96% of what they are making, sometimes even 100%.

    During my time of public service I saw burnout rates far worse than private sector because at some point along the way the realization hits that there is no difference between excelling and doing the minimum. Some just flameout and hang on, others keep slogging along in hope of a promotion, and others just consider their time in government paid training and head out to make a living in the private sector, often exploiting the problems they identified that no one would listen to.

  6. Terry
    Terry says:

    Have seen talented friends get promoted or change jobs for an excellent position only to be totally stressed out in no time at all. But it is their fault. They don't know how to delegate or say no. So the new position or company or boss takes advantage of these weaknesses and unintentionally squeezes these star performers into dry lemons. Make damn sure you know how to delegate and say no to the execs.

  7. John
    John says:

    What Hogan says is true,"Managers are rarely promoted based on their talent for leadership”, but for the wrong reasons. We continue to use the two characteristics interchangeably. Management is a skill the knowledge for which can be acquired and is characterized by such things as organizational ability, planning,controlling, monitoring, budgeting etc. Leadership on the otherhand is a talent involving charisma, social and emotional skills needed to get people to do what you want them to do because they trust you, believe you, are awed by you or fear you, to name a few. Our corporate society believes good performers (salespeople, accountants, marketers, engineers)make good managers, and good managers make good leaders. Nothing is further from the truth. This is why promotions wreak havoc on individuals. The stress is created when they are asked to be something they are not.

  8. Martha O'Mara
    Martha O'Mara says:

    Penelope – I enjoy your writing immensely but on todays column about “blending kids” all I can say is get a grip and get out your checkbook. There is nothing you can do but hire more help. I was professor at Harvard for 9 years, have 3 kids, wrote my book the year I nursed my twins, published it when they were two and did the whole book interview lecture thing. The truth is you cannot get work done at home when you have small kids there – end of story. You can pullit off when they are babies (I’d nurse my daughter in my office between lectures at Harvard, leaving her with a college student while I was in class.) It all cost a fortune but it is the only way. Right now you have to run your career and your kids in parallel – you’d can’t put things off or do then half-assed now – this is your moment with the book. Childcare is an investment in your career, spend the money. You won’t regret it when 10 years later you look at your bank account and realize you are ahead of most Americans because you have something in it due to the career you have built during these critical years. (Those women who did kids and then wnet to work all had them in their early 20s – it is a myth that you can do one and wait on the other). I could go on but I have an early flight to SF and a college girl showing up at 6:45 to get my kids to the bus. $16 an hour and worth every penny.
    Also, kids need you much more when they are OLDER, which is a topic I could go on endlessly about.
    Best of luck -you deserve it!!!!!

  9. Les
    Les says:

    Your “blending my kids” article starts with a typical description of a 2-parent 2-job family situation and ends with an atypical whining, on your part, about life being difficult. Welcome to the real every day world for many of us. The posting by Martha O’Mara was right on target. We are balancing disposable income, careers and family. Few 2 parent families with 2 jobs make more after paying for child care than 2 parent families with only 1 job. We do it to keep 2 careers moving forward while balancing work and home expectations. It’s a stressful condition in part because we value each other’s abilities and aspirations outside the home.

  10. JC
    JC says:

    Hey Penelope, I loved this article. But I was wondering how conscientiousness is a bad trait for a leader? Is it because they might become too demanding or a micromanager?

    * * * * * *
    Yes. And because conscientiousness is not something you can focus on when you are delegating. Leading, teaching, having a vision — those things are more compatible with delegating.


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