Promotion? No Thanks!

A surprising survey finds that over half of employees are happy to stay in a role that offers no room for promotion.

For decades, it’s been a core assumption of every business’s human-capital approach: Workers want to get ahead, and firms can incentivize them with promotions and new titles. This has been the only way to really drive an organization forward.

But what happens in a world where climbing the corporate ladder is no longer a worker’s main goal?

Corporate chiefs are finding out the answer to this question, to their dismay, as they struggle to lead today’s workforce. According to a remarkable new report by Workmonitor, a whopping 51% of employees will happily stay in a role they like, even if there’s no possibility of career advancement. In fact, 39% of employees said that they don’t want career advancement, because they enjoy their current role. All of this runs counter to the basic assumption that people want to move forward, not stand still, in their careers. “The world has changed,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry. “Fifteen years ago, I would’ve told you that something’s wrong with them. Now it’s a norm.”

Workmonitor surveyed 27,000 workers globally, and discovered that they value their personal life and flexibility far more than many realize—and more than they do their careers and achievement. “The long-term ambition for most respondents is a stable, in-house role,” concluded the study’s authors. Experts say that this attitude has gone beyond the rank and file to permeate the uppermost echelons of leadership. If offered a high-profile executive role, a leader in a less prestigious position might say no in order to avoid a heavy travel schedule and spend more time with family.

Of the various generations, Gen Zers show the least interest in working long hours to pull down a big paycheck (about half prioritize flexible hours and workplace, versus one-third of baby boomers), partially because 1 in 5 now believes they’ll never own a home, according to research by Redfin—and thus see no reason to save for a down payment.

Business psychologists are unsurprised by this turn of events. People take jobs for a variety of reasons, and expectations of promotion and high income are only two of them, says business psychologist James Bywater, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. Other common motivators include intellectual curiosity, self-expression, the desire to make a difference in the world, a commitment to great service, and the joy of putting new approaches into practice. Bywater suggests, crucially, that the “not interested in promotion” attitudes of some employees might not be permanent, and may shift over time. “People can tread water, take horizontal steps, sort out other priorities, and then return to the escalator,” he says.

Still, firms continue to dedicate enormous resources to helping people get ahead—everything from performance reviews to bonuses. Certainly, many workers still want all that, but experts say the best step right now is for leaders to refocus their efforts. “Workers don’t want to be put in a box for thirty years,” says Alma Derricks, senior client partner in the Culture, Change and Communications practice at Korn Ferry. Workmonitor data shows that 72% are interested in future-proofing their skills, through training in areas like artificial intelligence and IT. They want to learn and grow. This is best accomplished, says Derricks, by creating a stimulating work environment that benefits both employees and managers, with opportunities for different types of growth.

To ascertain employee drives and motivations, Bywater suggests speaking with teams and individuals. “This means a series of conversations, hopefully backed with insight, wisdom, and emotional intelligence,” he says. In this way, the emphasis is less on incentivizing individuals than on getting the best out of them. 


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