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The Promotion Trap

How success in the office blinds people to what is really important in their careers
Business meeting, circa 1984 (Photo credit:
Business meeting, circa 1984 (Photo credit:

A few weeks ago I met with a colleague – well, now I consider him a colleague. When I first met him over twenty years ago, he was my senior by far. Today, he is nearing retirement.

Sitting opposite him in his office, at the same organization where we first met, I suddenly recalled a conversation we had back then. He had recently been promoted to a new position, and in a rare moment of candor, he admitted that he was feeling ambivalent about his new job.

“To tell you the truth, what I really love is education, working with youth, being in the field. I was so good at it that I got this promotion to a management position. But I feel like my best self doesn’t get a show in this new role. I wish I could go back.”

I wish I could go back.

Strange as it may seem, the conversation we had a few weeks ago began to take a similar turn. I asked him what he was currently working on, and he told me, with no particular excitement, of real successes in arenas of management and development.

But then his eyes lit up as he began to describe his rather marginal involvement in the educational activities of the organization. “I wish that I could spend all my time on that. But I’m really just a voluntary advisor for them,” he sighed.

Why didn’t he go back to the work he loved?

In my work as a Human Resources professional and a careers consultant, I hear this theme over and over. A successful management professional will meet with me to discuss career possibilities, and when I ask, “What do you really want to do?” I hear the inevitable sigh. “I would love to be doing X. I used to do that, but I was promoted, I developed in new directions, and now my skill set is only fit for another job like the one I have now.”

Is there a way out of the promotion trap?

The answer to this question is different depending on where you are on your career path.  If you are facing the offer of a promotion to a managerial role for the first time, this is the time to stop and think. Of course, being offered a promotion is flattering: it means that you are very good at your job, and that your efforts are being noticed and rewarded. It usually means a pay raise, and a status rise – all very attractive motivations for saying yes.

This is the time to examine what you love most about your job, and what parts of your personality are given expression though your work. Then, consider what frustrates you at work, and where you feel that your talents are not given free reign.

Now, try to visualize what your workday will be like in the new position. Will you enjoy the tasks that will fill your day? Will your talents and skills find expression? Will you feel successful and fulfilled?

Of course, job satisfaction is not the only consideration when you are offered a promotion. Salary, professional development and other considerations will be part of the puzzle. But don’t assume that a promotion is necessarily the right step for you: think it through, and have the courage to say no, if you discover that you do not really want that role.

But how can I give up this opportunity?

Your employer decided to promote you. She probably made that decision because she wanted to reward your excellent work and to ensure that you will stay. If that is the case, you can think creatively about other ways she could reward you and keep you happy.

Perhaps you would prefer to be given more independence in your current work, to spearhead a new project that is close to your heart, or simply to improve your conditions, such as receiving a pay raise or flexible work hours. You may find that your employer is delighted to give you what will really make you happy in recognition of your excellent work.

What if I am at the height of my career? How can I take a step down?

If your career path has led you to senior managerial positions, yet you feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied with your work, it’s not too late to make a change.

The change does not have to take the dramatic form of leaving your position and accepting a lower level one. Perhaps the areas you are missing at work can be filled in through subtle changes in your areas of responsibility.

If you, like my colleague, love field work and find yourself disconnected from the field in your current role, discuss options for shifting some areas under your responsibility and making room for an element of field work in your position.

Perhaps particular areas of management are difficult or not enjoyable for you, but others are wonderful ways to use your talents. You may want to discuss the possibility of passing on elements of your role to other staff members – who may be delighted with the “promotion” – while maintaining the elements that you truly enjoy.  In addition, seek out ways to give expression to your other skills and talents outside of the workplace.

Sometimes, though, to get out of your managerial rut you may need to take the courageous step of seeking a new position, one that will have you feeling fulfilled and motivated. You may need to be willing to accept a pay cut to make the change, and that will be one of your considerations in deciding to take this step.

These days, job changes and even radical career changes are more common than ever before, and do not necessarily constitute a “red flag” for potential employers. If you can make the case for your change of heart, you may find that it is appreciated, and that a new employer will be glad to take you on board in a role that fits your talents and personality.

I did not have the heart – or perhaps the gall – to ask my colleague if he is sorry for accepting the promotion back then. I know that his career has been successful and that he is a respected professional in his field, and I know that he has had a stable job and a steady income through many economic ups and downs. Perhaps he would say that it was the right choice for him.

But if you face that choice now, make sure to take your next step with your eyes open.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.
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