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People might have a hard time understanding why you wouldn’t want a promotion, especially in Western culture that values competition, individualism, and professional incentives. That’s what we’re presumably striving toward: bigger paychecks, fancier titles, more autonomy. Who doesn’t want to be the boss or at least want something greater out of their careers?
Well, more and more higher education professionals are reluctant to climb the hierarchical structures of their institutions. They see administrators stressed by the burdens of increased demands and scrutiny. They might see the hoops faculty must jump through to earn a full professor. They figure a promotion is not worth it. There are many reasons why, but across many industries, there’s been a recent backlash against the hustle culture.
This leads to a few questions: Is promotion aversion more likely to happen in higher education than other industries? What are its consequences? How do you explain your lack of upward mobility when making a lateral move? Is ambition dead?
Let’s start by answering the first question.
Up or Specialize
Because of the faculty tenure system, many people believe higher education has strict “up-or-out” practices that are similar to the military, accounting, and investment banking jobs. While up-or-out does apply to pre-tenure faculty, there are associate professors who can remain at an institution with no desire to become full professors.
“There are many institutions that would be happy if you (didn’t want to be promoted) because there are salary implications,” said Mark Coldren, associate vice president of human resources at the University at Buffalo. “It depends on the institution and how they look at productivity with teaching loads, research, and service. It’s up to a dean to recognize the right mix. There still might be a push from a department chair to ask, ‘What do you mean you don’t want to be promoted to a full professor?’ But everyone has to be as open as possible to see if there’s value for going further.”
Higher education is professionalized in such a way that people progress toward specialization more than upper-level management. The career goal of most faculty is to be an expert in one of the more than 2,000 academic disciplines. Administrative and staff positions have grown at rates that far exceed faculty jobs in a variety of functional areas, including a surfeit of services to recruit and retain students, which creates more opportunities for specialization.
This doesn’t mean there’s a dichotomy between managers and individual contributors. Within all the niches are opportunities for growth on a spectrum; for example, within recruitment, you can be promoted from admissions counselor to director of admissions to vice president of enrollment management. And because institutions have such vast and complex networks of specialization, the ultimate generalist leaders — the presidents, provosts, or deans — have demanding jobs that are often unappealing or at odds with specialists.
“Our industry has a tendency to hurt itself by being too specialized,” Coldren said. “We have too many job titles, and we don’t necessarily look at the broader way of how we do work. So I think that’s going to evolve a little bit more, but, let’s face it, I think people come to our industry because they like an element of stability, tradition, and security.”
Too much specialization has its consequences — mainly poor leaders and managers.
After specialists achieve a desired level of success, they might progress to a job that exceeds their abilities or, regardless of their skills as a manager, supervise people who specialize in their area of expertise. This tendency to move up the hierarchy and rise to one’s level of incompetence is known as the Peter Principle.
Coldren said this occurs when people recognize that their depth of knowledge is no longer valued in the market and feel pressured to enter roles outside of their competencies.
“You might have 10-15 years left in your career, but (your job as a specialist) is the highest you can go as an individual contributor without having broader leadership responsibilities,” Coldren said. “A lot of people are now saying, ‘I’m happy where I am, I like where I live, and I like my campus.’ You just have to be honest with yourself about what you want to do.”
That’s not to say that being the go-to expert means limiting yourself and there’s no way to expand or test your leadership skills without pursuing a department chair or dean position. It’s common for faculty to have course release to mentor junior faculty, or they might serve on committees while maintaining their permanent role.
The Peter Principle can occur where too many specialists settle for their current positions, leaving the most incompetent, self-delusional careerists to become managers. But employers can avoid this earlier in the pipeline.
“It’s about (employers) having good conversations with people about what they do well and what you expect from them,” Coldren said. “That can be a real Achilles’ heel for higher education because (institutions) don’t necessarily do feedback well in a formal way with performance management and annual evaluations.”
Coldren said good feedback involves institutions being persistent in developing leaders and asking employees if they want to be promoted, and then indicating what it takes for them to improve.
“As an employer, if I talk about it in that way, I’ll get solid people doing competent work and excelling in certain areas that bring value to the institution,” Coldren said. “The Peter Principle happens when I don’t talk to you, and in 15 years (when it’s time to be promoted), it’s like, ‘How did you get here?'”
Latitude for Lateral Moves
OK, so you decided that you don’t want to be promoted, but you still want a different job. How do you explain yourself in a job interview? The good news is that employers are less skeptical of lateral and even downward moves. But you still need to be prepared to tell your story with assertion and reason.
“I’ve heard some really good stories where people have said they just want to get back and roll their sleeves up and they don’t want to necessarily set policy and direction … they want to actually do the work,” Coldren said. “We take people for what they’re saying. Just because it looks lateral or it looks like they were having trouble as a leader versus an individual contributor, you want them to be engaged and interested (in doing the work).”
Hiring managers are less suspicious of candidates’ shorter stints and are not as likely to assume career stagnation from people being in the same role without a promotion. Because of the Great Resignation, employers need to adapt their thinking to recruit better talent.
“Some of those old rules are out now,” Coldren said. “(Employers) don’t look at job-hopping the way they used to. The last few years dramatically changed how they look at someone’s background.”
After deciding you don’t want to be promoted and convincing others that you’re a valuable employee, you still might internally question your own ambition.
You wouldn’t be working in higher education if you weren’t ambitious. Most of us care about mission more than money. Motivation diverges, however, as people begin pursuing happiness, meaning, or some combination of the two.
Workers from every generation say they want to do meaningful work (and think other generations are just in it for the money), but in recent decades there’s been too much focus on happiness and advice to “follow your passion.” Happiness is often associated with things like work-life balance, flow states, and well-being, which could conflict with one’s desire to do meaningful work and toil for the benefit of the greater good.
If people don’t want to be promoted because it could interfere with their idealized sense of personal happiness, then, yes, professional ambition is dead. “Happiness is not a goal,” Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. “It’s a by-product of a life well lived.”
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