Paths to Success: Responsibility vs. Promotion

Companies are striking a balance between additional responsibility and promotion to ensure employees have the growth plans that suit them best— and encourage them to stay.

When an employee is first hired, nearly everything about the job can be challenging and exciting—it’s all new territory. But after as little as a year or two, your managers may notice the employee doing the job by rote and having a lot of extra time on his or her hands. Depending on your philosophy, this point in the employee’s career with your company is the perfect time to offer a promotion with additional responsibilities. Or you may feel it is at this point that the employee simply needs to be given more responsibilities to spur continued learning— particularly if a spot at the next level is not open.

The decision isn’t as easy as you may think. With payrolls still tight at many companies, the option of assigning additional responsibility to an employee who appears to have mastered his or her initial responsibilities may seem the best option. But the employee may become demoralized and resentful about the added workload without recognition of a job well done and at least a small salary increase. On the other hand, offering a promotion may encourage the employee to rest on his or her laurels and become complacent. Companies are finding that a mix of these two paths to learning is best, with that mix varying depending on the organization’s culture.

No two employees are the same when it comes to what drives learning, so the first step to determining which path would be best is getting to know them. “What’s motivating to one employee might be de-motivating to another. If you know your employees well, you’ll be better able to select an assignment,” says Kathy Jones, director of Employee Development, Baylor Scott & White Health.

Jones recommends having a career development discussion with each employee each year, apart from the annual review. “Ask them what they’d like to learn. This will give you insight into their motivation, and also will send the message to them that you expect everyone to learn,” she says. For example, Jones says an employee who wants to learn how to influence peers could be given the opportunity to observe an influential leader in your organization. When giving an employee this kind of assignment, Jones says it is important to encourage employees to think about what they are experiencing. “Ask them what they observed, and help them figure out a way to try out those tactics in a safe way. Then give them the expectation that they need to apply those learnings on the job. Maybe they have a pet project they always wanted to implement. This could be a way for them to influence their peers.”

Similarly, Jones says, an employee who wants to become a manager could shadow his manager when she does certain management tasks, and then gradually have the manager give him responsibility for a particular piece of that task.

When employees are promoted at Baylor Scott & White Health, the organization has a program that ensures they don’t become complacent. “We require our new-to-role leaders to take a two-day foundational leadership course. The first four hours are all about transitioning to their new role. We share a study of best practices for leadership transitions and ask them to make a list of all the tasks they will stop doing and start doing as a result of their new role,” says Jones. “This helps them stop doing the core work they did as an individual contributor. Six months after they are in their new leadership role, they participate in an assessment of their leadership competencies and create an Individual Development Plan. Our goalsetting process is part of our annual performance review, so the goals they are held accountable to as a leader are different from the goals they had as an individual contributor.”

Part of understanding each employee’s individual needs is knowing when he or she is trying to tell you something. “Some of the signs that employees are ready for more include they are finishing assignments quickly (and accurately), they seem to be bored, they are asking for more, or others are asking them for help,” says David B. McLaughlin, M.Ed, SPHR, training manager, American Fidelity Assurance Company. “Whether you give them a promotion may be a question of whether or not you have the ability. If you have low turnover, you may not have a position to promote them to. They may need to go to another area of the company to learn a different part of the business or you may be forced into simply increasing their responsibilities.”

One of the challenges of setting a growth path for an employee that balances increased responsibility with promotion is that many employees won’t stick around if they are not given a promotion and pay increase within a reasonable time frame. For Generation X employees and particularly Millennials, who often differ from older generations in the speed at which they expect promotions and advancements, that time frame may be shorter than you think.

Ed Grabowski, manager, Talent Development N.A., at Minacs, tells the story of a high-performing employee who was given satisfying growth opportunities, but not a promotion, and eventually moved on. “I had a direct report who was highly motivated to lead projects that were visible to our client. Compensation and title were also motivators for her. I will refer to her as Beth. She was truly a high performer, but I was not able to give her a new title or an increase in pay. However, I ensured that Beth was in front of projects that were client facing. This sustained her for quite a while. She truly felt like a key contributor to our client’s success,” relates Grabowski. “But even though Beth felt fulfilled with the work she was doing, she eventually realized she could provide the same positive impact at another organization, as well as receive an increase in pay. In addition to truly understanding what motivates employees, it is important for an organization to understand the time threshold relevant to each employee.”

Putting the added responsibility in context with future possibilities for the employee is important. “You must set the tone for what the additional responsibility means for their future development. It’s important to be clear about what the expectations will mean for them in the future,” says Stacy Henry, former director, Learning, North American Operations, Iron Mountain. “Sometimes it’s necessary for employees to take on additional responsibilities to prepare them for a promotion. It’s also an opportunity for the business to assess whether or not they are, indeed, the right fit for a role, while giving them an opportunity to determine if it is best for them, as well.”

To avoid the employee getting overwhelmed or demoralized by the new responsibilities, Henry recommends offering structured guidance. “The expectation has to be set by their immediate supervisor as to what their responsibilities will be. Put together a 30-, 60-, and 90-day plan,” she advises. “Have weekly check-ins to ensure that expectations are met and employees have a clear understanding of their new role.”

A compromise between simply adding responsibility and giving a promotion is to offer a stretch assignment. The employee may be offered a promotion if he or she performs well on the assignment. “Stretch assignments are a great way of testing an employee’s readiness for additional responsibilities and challenges. These added responsibilities provide employees a ‘safe space’ in which to grow their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) without a fear of negative consequences if things don’t go perfectly,” says Anne-Marie Fort, senior consultant, BPI group. Fort says it’s up to your organization whether you are open with employees and let them know they are being tested or given a trial run with the stretch assignment. “On one hand, it can be motivating for the employee when his or her manager acknowledges the employee’s potential. On the other hand, some employees may demonstrate behaviors above and beyond their normal tendencies, painting a false sense of their abilities and intentions. This is why having a consistent understanding of the employee’s performance and potential is important prior to increasing responsibility.”

Leah Minthorn, acting director of Learning for North American Operations at Iron Mountain, says her manager was up front about the test she was being given. “My manager was clear as to what would be expected of me and what the intentions were for getting me to that next level; the kind of support I could expect, etc. It was made clear to me that I was not just ‘getting the role,’ that I essentially had to earn it, and that this was my test,” she says. “I’m comfortable with this approach as I was told up front what to expect. I knew that the job was being posted. I knew that my interview was taking place on the job.”

Letting employees know they are being tested for a possible promotion only works with the right corporate culture, says American Fidelity’s McLaughlin. “If you are going to be up front with them about it being a test, then you need to be the type of person and have the type of organizational culture that is able to have difficult conversations about performance and development,” he says.

Fort says after a stretch assignment is complete, employees should debrief the experience with their high-potentials group, or another employee group. It will help employees to reflect on the experience and will give others who soon may be given stretch assignments an idea of what to expect. “It’s a great development opportunity for employees to share the lessons they learn from their experiences with expanded responsibilities,” she says. “Having those employees speak to a high-potentials program, write a white paper, etc., not only helps them reflect on the experience—which is often where true learning occurs—but also gives others the opportunity to learn from their lessons.”

To ensure employees participating in stretch assignments and other growth opportunities feel treated fairly, create consistent job categories, roles, and corresponding pay, recommends Nancy J. Lewis, former chief learning officer at ITT Corporation, and before that, vice president of Learning and Leadership Development at IBM. “All roles in an organization should be categorized and leveled by scope, scale, level of expertise required, and potential impact on the company’s bottom line. When this is done, you will find that you can have management and individual contributors in the same level of responsibility because their impact on the company is the same, regardless of whether they manage people or not. This also provides the organization a way to equitably level roles cross functionally,” she says. At the same time, notes Lewis, the company’s culture should teach employees the need to be adaptable. “I think most people understand that to keep pace with the needs of our growing and changing businesses, all our roles will change constantly and expand in responsibility. They also will require us to gain new skills and expertise.”

Masters of the Matrix
By Audrey Smith, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, and Ellis Hall, Executive Consultant, Executive Solutions Group, Development Dimensions International (DDI).

Throughout our lives, we’ve been primed to follow a clear chain of command. So it’s no wonder that, for most of us, a matrix-based business organization feels, well…alien.

As they move up the ladder, leaders in matrixed-based organizations face more complex challenges, including accountability to multiple people, the need to influence others across sectors or regions (often with little authority to fall back on), and getting the most from shared resources…not to mention the complexity that comes with virtual work teams, global locations, and multiple languages.

Research by DDI and others suggests that those who overcome the challenges of the matrix are pros at three skills:

1. Networking. Masters of the matrix are experts at looking across the organizational chart and understanding the people and departments that currently relate, or are likely to relate in the future, to their job.

They expand their contact database to include central connectors (leaders, “old-timers,” political players…people who have many of their own connections), boundary-crossing connectors (high-leverage people who cross silos, geographies, and hierarchies), and peripheral players (niche experts, disconnected contributors, cultural misfits—people who can provide unique views and insights).

2. Partnering. Similar to building a network, building a beneficial partnership requires time, trust, and a commitment to being a good partner in return.

Becoming a more valued partner requires an ability to think expansively. Good partners go beyond the confines of their own experience, knowledge, role, geography, and function. They also see beyond the organization into the marketplace to identify shifts, trends, and challenges.

3. Influencing. To successfully persuade key stakeholders to take action, influencers understand it’s important to position their personal agendas while also considering shared goals. And by leveraging their networks and doing their homework, they know how to appeal to their partners’ heads, as well as their hearts. They understand how to build a logical case grounded in an understanding of the issues and show how it links to business strategy.

Leaders of all levels can—and will—realize success navigating the matrix by remembering that, for as alien as it may seem, the matrix, at its core, is human. The best news: The skills described above can be developed!

The Leadership Test

By Kent Sipes, Training, Communications, and Change Management Consultant, Io Consulting

I spent a few days in Hyderabad, India, last year, teaching effective communications to an offshore staff. Their office is growing so quickly that more leaders are regularly needed, as the office reinvents itself. Rather than hiring experienced outsiders for most of these positions, the manager prefers to “grow his own” by sometimes adding to the staff for whom a leader is responsible, and at other times adding to the areas for which that leader is responsible.

In fact, the growth often outpaces the ability of the leadership structure to flex, and promotions sometimes lag behind increased responsibilities. In this way, the increased responsibilities become a low-risk “tryout” for the leader. A temporary position as leader of a special task force allows the staff member and the organization to evaluate how good a fit he or she is for a more permanent role change.

The budding leader gets a chance to see how a changed relationship to co-workers plays out, whether the new role adds more excitement and interest (or only stress), and what the day-to-day responsibilities of the new role really are. The organization gets a chance to assess whether the candidate manages his or her changed relationships effectively, is able to think outside the constraints of his or her usual position, and how increased power/responsibility affects his or her attitude.

If the “tryout” is successful (for both sides), the employee can be permanently moved into a leadership role; if not, both parties have gained understanding from the experience, and the employee may be more effectively placed in future assignments. The organization also may gain a better idea of what sort of employee is likely to succeed in that role.

If such an arrangement is not used unfairly or excessively (management dangling the possibility of advancement in front of employees just to get more short-term work from them for no added cost), it can be of great benefit to individual employees—and to the organization.


  • Train managers to create Individual Development Plans for each employee, including a discussion of what most motivates them and their desired career path at the company.
  • Managers should speak one-on-one enough with employees to note when they seem to be getting bored with their jobs and are seeking a challenge.
  • Not all employees will stand for being given added responsibility with no discussed plan for an eventual pay increase and promotion. Consider offering the plan of an eventual reward to employees who are keepers.
  • Offer a stretch assignment that tests employees in a role with added responsibility. This way, you get to see how employees will perform before giving them the increased salary, and the employees also will get a chance to see if the new role is right for them.
  • Setting growth plans of added responsibility and possible promotion becomes easier when you create consistent job role categories and corresponding pay grades. That way, employees understand what is expected of them in each role and whether they can expect a pay increase and promotion when moving into a new role.
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.