A common identity of a manager is the ability to rise in the organization – and is this a good thing?

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I’ve recently been writing about how the act of becoming a manager is an act that destroys the personal work identity of that new manager.  The manager no longer gets to do what they were good at as an individual contributor (IC), and now they are doing something they are new at – and perhaps in an awkward and amateurish way.  So the identity of being good at the former job is lost, and the ability to do the new job of management is slow to develop – if ever.

However, there is one aspect the new manager’s identity that is quickly formed via the act of becoming a manager.  That is:  The ability to “rise” through the ranks.

This is a differentiation that the others individual contributors (IC) in the organization do not have.  Only the manager has demonstrated this “skill.”  So while the new manager may lose his ability to perform the IC job, is no longer an expert at the IC job, and suffers through suddenly being amateurish at his job, the manager is indisputably good at one thing:  Getting promoted into the manager ranks.

As has been discussed in this blog before, performing management tasks is a new and different functional skill that needs time to develop and performance feedback as managers to master.  It’s like any other job – you start off not as good at it, but you can develop that skill, expertise and ability over time.

But the act of getting promoted – this act is mastered and demonstrated and rewarded the moment you become a manager.  It is the singular component of your identity that differentiates you from your employees.  You got the manager job, and the others didn’t.  At the first level management, you have done something that no one else has.

It is your new area of expertise.

Given that the act of getting promoted is the manager’s area of expertise, and that this is the primary new identity that emerges, it is understandable that the awkwardness and difficulty of actually performing the job of manager actually is an act of subverting your real expertise of getting promoted to manager.

Instead of developing the skills of being a great manager, the manager may instead focus on doing everything possible to continue to express this expertise of getting promoted.  And the only way to do this is to get promoted again.

In the common current management design, the value of the manager is not the ability to manage a team and achieve high performance of the team, the value of the manager is to demonstrate getting promoted again and again.

Look at this chart and tell me who, in the popular conception, is the most valuable employee:


Number of Promotions:











You don’t even have to know who these people are, what they have done, and it is natural to make conclusions about their relative value:

The most valuable employee is the one who has been promoted the most.  In any organization, Employee E can quickly demonstrate that she is the most valuable and she will win this argument every time – look how many promotions she has received!

So when an employee becomes a manager, the focus stops being on individual productivity, and starts being on getting the next promotion.   The manager’s identity is almost entirely tied to this signifier of productivity – the promotion up the chain.

As a result of this current management design, managers, by design, should not worry about managing, and should worry instead about getting promotions.  This is a key aspect of their identity – it’s actually what they are most expert on — and not working to get the next promotion (and focusing on managing) would undermine that identity.

Perhaps you were wondering why many managers you have had don’t seem to be worried about managing?  It’s because their identity isn’t tied to managing, it’s tied to getting promotions.  The actual act of managing is something that many managers don’t learn – or need to learn – in order to be promoted.  It is the act of getting promoted, which any manager has a priori accomplished and has proven successful at – that is what the manager is good at, and will continue to pursue.

Under common current management design, from the manager’s perspective, the act of managing a team is an ancillary and blocking task that actively gets in the way of what the manager has already proven to be better at– getting promoted further and thus preserving one’s identity. 

This is why one often observes managers “managing up” and – from the employee’s perspective — are strangely not concerned with the how involved they are with their team or, many times, the actual productivity of the team.

One may argue that someone who, once becoming a manager, demonstrates good management skills increases the likelihood of further promotions.   This is definitely a logical and obvious path, and not all managers tie their identity to the act of getting promoted – there are many great managers who focus on managing as their identity – and I salute these managers!  But it is not the only path, and it is probably one of the harder paths – to become good at managing – compared to continuing to express the identity of getting promoted.   It has been noted on this blog that there is relatively little direct observation of managers in performing their managerial duties compared to other jobs.

The point of this article is that, structurally, this focus on “managing up” instead of actual managing is enough of an issue that it contributes to the pervasiveness of low quality management and its associated costs.  When there is a natural disincentive to manage your team well, and a natural incentive and reward to NOT manage your team and focus instead on creating the impression of being great at managing by the act of rising through the ranks, it stands to reason that you will get lots of bad management.   Notice that I’m not advancing the thesis that there are only bad managers – I’m advancing the thesis that there are people in management positions whose identity is separate from managing, and are rewarded the more they are separated from the actual tasks of managing.

In the emerging field of Management Design, we seek to create an identity for managers that is closer to the actual act of managing, and not the act of getting promoted.  Management Design focuses on creating work environments that encourage the identification and tasks of managing a team, and ties success only to the execution and results associated with these tasks.  Structurally, many organizations are created to do the opposite, and much suffering occurs as a result.

Have you had managers who are more focused on getting promoted than they are in mastering their skills as a manager?

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .

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