On the scarcity of promotions and fear at work

Scarcity of Promotion and Fear At Work

I pretty much started blogging because I have a specific way of thinking about different topics — especially around work — and I wanted to throw a few ideas out there and see if anyone felt the same way. So, if you do? Get in touch. E-mail me. Connect with me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, whatever you want. I love to find like-minded individuals in this crazy-ass world. Let’s tell stories and build a dynamic. I’d love to hear from you. Honestly. 

The Internet can be an amazing connective tool (pretty obvious thing to say, right?). I was waiting to go into a movie on Saturday and got into a discussion on Twitter with Mark Crowley, who I’ve never met in real life but share a lot of ideas with:

I’ve long wondered about this idea of “scarcity thinking,” or — probably phrased more accurately — “scarcity of promotions.” The basic idea is something like this:

  • There’s only so many people at a given org who can rise into the top positions/get the biggest bonuses
  • People are afraid that if they do the “wrong” things — for example, take a vacation — they will get knocked down (or stagnate along) the chain
  • Higher managers use that fear/concern as a way to “motivate” people to complete their projects, stick around longer, take time from their family back to the office, etc.

As Crowley admits above, this is all just a totally BS fear technique. It has almost no validity.

It’s always been amazing to me that, despite personnel costs being about 1/2 of most organizational budgets, no one seems to ever think scientifically around:

So we don’t put a lot of thought into (a) how we bring people in, or (b) how we bring people along. “Talent strategy” is a farce.

So what do we pay attention to?

Oh right. Money. Chasing revenue, margins, and profit.

Here’s the thing, though — we could do that more effectively if we thought about people more effectively. Product and process are sacrosanct to most managers, but people can and should matter a lot too.

Alright, now let me shift trains of thought for a quick second: let’s go back to this idea of “scarcity” (“There’s only so many top dog spots!”), promotions, and fear.

Typically, there are two major reasons people get promoted, best I can tell:

  • They are good at politics / the existing power structure already likes them
  • They are good at generating revenue
  • (A distant third) They’ve been there for a long time and eventually they have to get promoted

All these make logical sense:

  • No top dog/SVP-type will promote someone they don’t want to work directly with a lot
  • You don’t want to pay someone $150K if they don’t generate revenue, because that’s essentially a hit
  • Peter Principle

As such, you can basically tell if you’re going to get promoted, IMHO. Are you:

  • Close to the existing power structure?
  • Good at generating revenue?
  • Never going to leave?
  • (A distant fourth) Do something that no one else internally can do?

If you meet some of these criteria, you’ll probably get promoted. If you don’t, you probably won’t. It’s really that simple. (And PS — right now very few people are getting promoted.)

So if your manager lobs something at you like “Well, this is our busy time of the year … it wouldn’t be advised to take time off then …,” it’s complete fear-driven bullshit. It means nothing. That manager knows exactly where you’ll be in one year or five years, which is working on the same deliverables for essentially the same pay.

The scarcity of promotions and fear lie is how we justify not training employees, it’s how we justify not taking vacations, etc. It’s all garbage. Stop thinking along those lines. Do your work, look for some purpose in it where you can, and when someone says something like this to you, just ignore it and do it anyway.

Ted Bauer


  1. I’d add jealousy to the reasons a manager might avoid giving promotions. God forbid a subordinate comes in and outshines the bawse. If you want something to wither, ignore it. If you want something to flourish, you have to nurture it and give it attention. Chances are that if you’re always feeling “out of the loop,” you won’t soon be getting a promotion. You could even be subtly sabotaged without even knowing it.

    • I have a friend who consults for some big firm, like a Deloitte or someone I believe. She is pretty high-up and meets with C-Suite people at billion-dollar firms. She’s said more than once or twice, she’s met a CEO, CFO, COO combo who basically say to her, “Look, our goal here is to get people to work HARDER, but we pay them the SAME or LESS. Can you help us?” She sighs, and then talks about “perk-based environments,” or whatever. Free donuts, but baby, you ain’t ever gonna make a dime over 63K! That’s how the shit works at most places, I think … it’s all kind of a complex game (to us) and a simple game (to the top dogs). In the process, we overcomplicate everything and throw ourselves on the cross repeatedly so that we can find some value in said game. Working world, baby!

      • Wow…it really sucks to have my horrible outlook on things justified and confirmed! Things are the way they are because certain people want them that way.

      • I mean, here’s the flip side … that girl is cool and she “gets it,” but she’s coming in with a team and the company is probably paying 100,000s for her team to come in — and they’re wining/dining ’em too. She’s posted pics online of having dinner at the Eiffel Tower, etc. So it’s like, you know, people can “get it” and they still chase their own personal dream, you know? Like I said, it’s a complex game.

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