Promotions Cultures & Innovation

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed working for Government*, it is there’s an endemic promotions culture here, far worse than anything I’ve seen anywhere else.

A promotions culture is what you get when the main objective of everything you do at work is to get to the next grade level. For some people, that’s a financial incentive more than anything else. Others want that promotion for the status and power that goes with it. A few, very few, want to be at the next level so they have an opportunity to make a bigger difference.

A sign of a promotions culture is everyone talks about the “career limiting move”.

I don’t believe in career limiting moves, though of course if it is evident that someone isn’t ready or capable of the next role, that’s something else. I mean, you have to prove that you’re ready for the next role if you want to get the next role.

Proving you’re ready requires a little bit of risk taking. In healthy corporate cultures, that’s behavior which is rewarded.

Not so in a promotion culture.

In a promotion culture, you are rewarded for being as similar as possible to the group of people who decide your next promotion. It is human nature to like those who are similar to us, so pretending to be as similar to your boss as possible is sensible.

In a promotion culture, you are rewarded for showing that you steer a steady course, one that doesn’t rock the boat. It is human nature for bosses to like it when their lives are easy, so promoting those that make it so is an easy decision.

And in a promotion culture, longevity of service, dedication to the organization as it is today, and conformance to all corporate norms is behavior that’s rewarded. A maverick might destabilize the steady progression of everyone else, so being the same as everyone else is the behavior that’s wanted.

You’ll all know where I’m going with this. Promotions cultures destroy any organizational capability to innovate, because they act to petrify the present status quo.

What can you do if you’re stuck in a promotions culture?

The best advice, I think, is find someone who’s senior who didn’t get senior by virtue of the promotions culture. They’ll have a different perspective on things than everyone else, and be willing to take a few more risks.

I consider myself lucky that my boss is in that category. He came into the Department from the outside, and has allowed me the liberty to do things I really doubt few others get.

If you aren’t lucky enough to be in that position though, what else can you do?

I think the choice is really very simple. You are either on the promotions bandwagon, or you’re off it.

In the former case, you should accept that you aren’t able to make any meaningful change, or take risks, or create a better future. Those things are incompatible with getting promoted.

If you’re off the promotions bandwagon, on the other hand, you can do all those things with impunity. You won’t be rewarded for doing so, of course, since rewards are reserved for those on the bandwagon. But you’ll have the chance to make a really significant difference.

Since I’ve joined the Government, promotions have become much harder to get by virtue of the fact that the resources available are being scaled back. And guess what? There’s lots more risk taking and innovative behavior going on. People are being far less conformant. They’re recognizing the old rewards system is changing.

Isn’t that an interesting outcome from public sector austerity?

* I feel I must point out, for any hacks who decide to hatchet me for having a blog daring to comment, that these pages are a private effort not reflecting the views of the Department, or any present or future employer. Yes, I sometimes sail deliberately close to the wind, but I do it with intent, ‘cause sometimes the best way to drive change is talk about it openly. And in case this post isn’t evidence enough, I want you all to know I opted out of the promotions culture on about, um, day 2. Follow #welovebaskers on Twitter.

13 Responses to“Promotions Cultures & Innovation”

  1. November 22, 2010 at 8:59 am #

    Interesting – and you've seen that more inside the public sector than in other large corporate environments, e.g. banking?
    The only times I really came across warnings of 'career limiting moves' was in relation to the vanity projects of one or senior people, not as a general 'don't rock the boat' caution. In fact, for much of my time in the public sector, demonstrating a bit of divergent process innovation was really rather encouraged. Maybe I had an unusually positive experience.

  2. November 22, 2010 at 9:02 am #

    But perhaps you're one of the ones that decided to opt out? 

  3. November 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    James
    I can only assume you don't have a family dependent on you for support and see promotion (and associated monetary reward) as the way to secure their future?
    When you come into the organisation you have to accept some of the culture until you reach a position to change the culture.
    Good luck to you if you get the change to "what you do" rather than "what you say/how you say it".
    In defence of the civil service though I would suggest that this culture has been more prevalent since we brought in more from outside at senior grades, more dog eat dog approach and drive for the person rather than the organisation.
    Andy

  4. November 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    I do not see promotion as a way to secure the future… it is a way to get greater rewards. True security comes only from being so good no one can live without you.
    I think it is impossible to "accept" cultural stuff in an organisation blindly. Everything should be, and is, up for challenge.
    Knowing something about your position in our organisation, I know that we are all facing challenges right now. I would say this, though: the civil service is increasingly being asked to operate more like a business. To do that, I think it is reasonable that we bring in people who have actually run businesses. The "dog eat dog" you see may, in fact, be the healthy competition that the private sector has already, and which we in the civil service have been largely insulated from…. do you not think?

  5. November 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    James
    Agree that security in the organisation can come from being so good you can't be lived without but if you upset the wrong person it is just a mater of time before even that isn't enough.
    I like your positivity arounf challenging the culture and suport you in doing so but make sure it is only looking at what is wrong rather than baby and bath water as happens so often, change needs carefult thought.
    I agree we are facing alot of unpleasantness with job cuts and pay cuts (not sure chalenge is the word when you fear for your future) but that aside I agree we still need to think in different ways and aproach things in a way a businss might but we have to remember our role as lender of last resort to the most disadvantaged in society if we fail it can be decimating for the individual they can't take their custom elsewhere.
    To put in context the "dog eat dog" bit, I agree we need healthy competition for reward but on old approach in the civil service was earn the grade, learn the grade and then look at your peers and those above who are the best, aim for that and you're on the right track. You would also be marked as ready for promotion based on ability and knowledge built up. Now it seems that everything is drive for grade/promotion at al cost and no reference to learning the grade first then looking to the best it often seems like ego and arrogance rule rather than ability and knowledge, but there again I am old fashioned.
    Keep up the drive to get us moving forward and keep up the blog as always interesting to see the Blue Sky mob way forward for us grunts.
    Andy

  6. November 23, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    James, I would have thought part of your role is to give people like Andy a compelling (and positive) vision of the future? Strategic leadership is a bigger subject than just innovation alone. I agree with Andy’s point – that it is not just the blue sky view but we also have to recognise the challenge people at the coal face, experience every day. If managers are more interested in promotion than looking after the troops at the front line, then that would be very sad.

  7. November 23, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Another thing James, the transformation of the benefits system is a massive commitment, can you confirm that you are there for the journey and not just hanging out? Or will you run off to the next highest career bidding banking opportunity?

  8. November 24, 2010 at 4:27 am #

    That is, indeed, part of my role. As to a compelling and *positive* vision of the future: it is not always appropriate to do that, especially when the future is not especially compelling or positive. I think it better to be honest; people would rather have the truth than some convenient whitewash. And the truth is that for public sector employees, there are challenging times ahead. Of course, your point is that managers must be more interested in their people than themselves if they are to be good managers: with that I agree completely.

  9. November 24, 2010 at 4:44 am #

    I think that a rather unfair question in public forum such as this. Its impossible to say whether I'll be around for the whole of the welfare reform agenda, and to be honest those decisions aren't actually only in my hands. I'm as much subject to potential public sector cuts as anyone else, you know. I'd like to think that the work i'm doing now is worth a bit more than the "hanging out" label you just ascribed to it though.
    And one last point: if all I doing was waiting for promotion to the "next highest career bidding banking opportunity", can you honestly imagine for one second I'd have left banking in the first place? To join the civil service? 
    Obviously not.

  10. Steve Law
    November 24, 2010 at 5:39 am #

    Agreed 10 years is a very long time. Good to think about the culture needed to support transformation as well as innovation. Openness and being frank, can help mitigate fear and build trust? especially during these tough times.

  11. John Smith
    December 14, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    Hear hear,
    I've never quite heard it put that way before, but I have to say that I agree with your prognosis James.

  12. Thelema321@aol.com
    December 24, 2010 at 11:33 pm #

    What I was thinking about when I read James's provocation was about the nature of organisational constructs themselves. It seems that the basic organisational construct based on hierarchy has been with us for several thousand years? Is there a new paradigm of organisational construct in the innovation economy? What about the global virtual organisation – its coming very probably – but what will it look like and what might it mean?
    James your views please! Regards Thelema

  13. December 30, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    I do have to wonder, Thelema, whether what is going to happen is that the old hierarchies will simply dissolve as more and more of the useful stuff happens at the edge. Command and control is a broken paradigm for any really nimble organisation, I think. And our new generation of managers – the digital natives – will probably simply ignore established orders in their drive to do new things.
    I look forward to it, myself.

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