I’m afraid that I don’t deserve my promotion

A reader writes:

I work in a technical program where change is very, very slow to occur, if it occurs at all. Most positions have one or two promotions built in to them, with the next step being management. However, management roles are typically only open due to retirements, so they don’t happen often. Most employees have been here 15 to 20 years or more. Because it’s so hard to get promoted, it’s also hard to be fired. This results in a fairly toxic environment with people who either a) don’t have a great work ethic, or b) are extremely hard to work with on a personal level (but at least get their work done.)

I am one of the few young faces around here, and one of the few without a technical background. I’m also one of the few women. I started right out of college and managed to forge a new, non-technical position for myself and I’ve received two promotions since, which is fairly rare (I had to fight for my second.)

Our section’s supervisor position was recently open. Two of my colleagues applied for it, since it’s the only way for them to receive a promotion at this stage. They’ve both been here 15/20+ years. An outside applicant was eventually selected, and my colleagues were furious. They were passed up for something they thought was rightfully theirs, something that they had been working toward all this time. Luckily, our new supervisor was great. He’s really helped me grow in my role and everyone has come around to him. But he was so good that he’s now being considered for a promotion, leaving our section without a supervisor again. Well, last week he told me (confidentially) that our management agrees that I’m the best candidate to take on his role if he successfully gets his promotion.

While this is great news, I’m really at a loss. I have little management experience, and I don’t have the same technical background as everyone else. There are many things my colleagues do that I do not understand and could not do myself. He understands this and explained that the position is more about managing people than managing projects, and I agree that out of my colleagues I would be the best fit for this task, considering that one of them regularly has literal temper tantrums in the hallways. (Like I said — it’s toxic.)

Even my supervisor agrees that my colleagues might be troublesome. They would be upset that they’re being passed up yet again, and this time for someone younger, with fewer years in the program, and without the same technical background and knowledge as them. On top of my own impostor syndrome rearing up, I’m faced with people who will legitimately not believe I am suited for the job, who I’ll then be tasked with managing.

A promotion is a promotion, and it would be great for me, but I already feel like I don’t “deserve” the role, and that I’m not the best suited for it. I know they’ll react poorly if they find out a junior member of their section is going to be jumped up ahead of them. I’m really struggling to feel positive about this and I almost feel like I should turn down the position. What should I do?

There are two different issues here: Do you deserve the promotion, and do you want the promotion?

It’s pretty likely that you do deserve the promotion. It sounds like more than one person agrees you’d be right for the job (your boss and people above him) and your management is willing to piss off your more senior co-workers to offer it to you, which isn’t something employers normally do lightly. Plus, keep in mind that they were hiring for this position not too long ago, so presumably they’re assessing you against the sorts of outside candidates they talked with last time and they still think you’re the right person. And your boss is right that in many management jobs, you don’t need to have the same technical expertise as the people you manage.

Also, you clearly have a track record of achievement there. You created a new position for yourself and have already been promoted twice in an environment where promotions are slow to happen. Obviously you’ve got strengths and people see them.

You’re doubting yourself because you’re comparing yourself to much older colleagues who have been there many years longer than you, and you’re assuming that you can’t deserve more than what they’ve been offered. But your letter makes it really clear why you’re being offered a promotion and they’re not: They don’t get their work done, are a pain in the ass to work with, and at least one of them has temper tantrums in the hall. Those are not people you promote. In fact, those are exactly the people you do not promote.

You, on the other hand, sound conscientious, driven, and sane. Those things are appealing and in many contexts will put you ahead of candidates with more experience but serious personality issues.

So let’s assume that you deserve the promotion. But what about whether you want it? That’s a different question. Do you want to move into management? Not everyone does. And do you want to move into management at this particular organization, with all that comes with it? Managing people is hard under the best of circumstances; managing people in a toxic environment with hallway tantrums is even harder. Are you up for managing people who may resent you, resist your authority, and otherwise make your job more difficult? Are you comfortable exercising authority and dealing with slackers and attitude problems? Do you know how you’ll do that in a workplace that doesn’t fire anyone, and thus one that will severely impair your ability to impose consequences if problems aren’t resolved? Do you know what kind of support you can count on from above you?

As part of thinking through these questions, talk with your manager, the one whose job you’d be moving into. Be honest with him about what you’re grappling with and ask for his advice. Did he deal with pushback when he started in the job and, if so, how did he approach it? Knowing the personalities involved, what challenges does he think you’re likely to face? How has he dealt with the we-don’t-fire-anyone culture? What kind of support does he think you’ll get from above if you do run into problems?

This might all sound like I’m nudging you away from taking the job, but I’m not. Some people thrive in this kind of situation — or at least tolerate it well enough to rack up useful experience that they can then parlay into something better. You just need to think all this through ahead of time, be realistic about what you’d be taking on, and decide if you want that or not. The worst-case scenario is that you take the promotion because, hey, it’s a promotion … and then realize that you hate what it’s turned your daily life into. So make sure you really want not just a promotion, but this particular promotion into this particular job working with these particular people in this particular culture.

Also — and this is key — if you do accept the job, push hard for your company to give you some management training and/or mentoring. I’d say that even if you were going to be leading a team of lovely, hardworking, welcoming staff, but it’s going to be extra important with this group.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Miss Elaine E*

    Ditto what Alison says.
    Also, think about what you would want to accomplish in that role. Do you have any ideas that would realistically bring sanity to that toxic environment? Do you have the temperament to handle most, if not all, the personalities?

    It also wouldn’t hurt to think about where you want to be in say, five to 10 years? Is this promotion the way to get there? Are there other ways to get there?

    Best wishes, no matter what you decide.

  2. Isben Takes Tea*

    “You, on the other hand, sound conscientious, driven, and sane.”

    This sounds like the one-size-fits-all promotion slogan I can get behind.

  3. Trout 'Waver*

    I think this letter perfectly demonstrates the difference between technical skills and management skills. They’re two separate things.

    Making the transition to management is tough even in the best cases. If you do take the opportunity, insist on management/leadership training and maybe see if your former supervisor is open to mentoring.

    1. turquoisecow*

      Absolutely! So many times we presume that people with the technical skills will be good at managing people with those same skills, but that’s rarely the case.

      OP, those toxic, tantrum-having coworkers might be really, really good at the technical aspects of their jobs, but they can barely manage themselves, never mind anyone else. You, on the other hand, seem to have people skills. You’re self-aware, and you’re aware of the flaws and strengths of yourself and your coworkers, while they seem to be completely confused about even their own flaws. (“Why won’t you promote me after I just had a tantrum in the hall?” Gee I wonder.)

      1. Honeybee*

        Absolutely! So many times we presume that people with the technical skills will be good at managing people with those same skills, but that’s rarely the case.

        I believe the technical term for this is “Michael Scott syndrome.” :D

  4. J.B.*

    Great advice! OP – I would consider not only whether you want the promotion, but whether you should be looking around more broadly. Maybe you’d be ok with staying in your current role, but toxic environments do take it out of you.

  5. irritable vowel*

    I think the question you should ask is not whether you’re well-suited for the promotion (because it sounds like you are, and that others think so), but whether the promotion is well-suited for you. You say “a promotion is a promotion,” but that has to be about more than just a bump in pay and the recognition that you were worthy of it. This new role is something you’re going to have to live with every day, not just on the day you get the promotion. It’s absolutely okay to turn down a promotion, if managing in general isn’t something you want to do, or at least not in this particular situation. Sure, you won’t get the extra money, but you’ll also avoid what sounds like a lot of hassle and drama.

    1. Emi.*

      Exactly. A promotion is a promotion into a particular role, and you can decide whether or not you want that role separately from the questions of whether you deserve to be promoted (and it sounds like you do!).

  6. INFJ*

    Definitely seek out advice from your boss on this. He’s actually gone through what you will have to go through (being resented) and can give you specific, relevant guidance. Especially since you seem to have a good relationship with your boss, and he was able to win over your colleagues.

  7. ProfessionalSloth*

    Another thing to consider: If you turn down the position, the higher-ups will only have two other options: Go outside the firm again (and create yet another layer of toxicity by passing over those two guys you mentioned again) or hire one of them (neither of whom seem to be a good fit for the job). So you also have to ask yourself, “If I say no, do I really want to work here if/when either of those other options occurs?”

    Realistically, management really needs to have a sit-down with the two who were passed over and let them know WHY they were passed over and, more specifically, what they need to change or work on if they really want the job. Otherwise, this situation is just going to keep escalating every time the position needs to be filled.

    1. Whats In A Name*

      I was coming to say something similar. Regardless of whether she takes the promotion or they hire from the outside the underlying issue remains the same and until someone does something to rectify this environment I am not sure what the right answer is.

    2. Artemesia*

      good point. When a relative of mine was nervous about taking a high level position in her company she was asked ‘Well do you want to work for the person they will hire if you don’t take it.’ She realized that she was probably likely to be at least as qualified as anyone else they would bring in and probably more so. Take. Get management training and clarify your authority. Use it to position yourself for a move elsewhere if this place remains toxic.

    3. Stephanie*

      Yeah, is it a place where you could turn down a promotion? Last place I worked, it never went over well if you turned down a promotion unless you had a really good reason since it was so built into the company ethos that you worked your way up.

  8. BRR*

    As Alison touched on, I think part of the LW’s apprehension is she might not want to be in this specific position. These coworkers sound like a pain and come off to me as a deterrent. Like applying externally, you’re not evaluating a promotion on its own, you’re evaluating whether you want the position.

  9. Seal*

    Make sure you know your boss will have your back on personnel decisions before you take the job, particularly since you already know some of the people who would report to you are problem children. Nothing undermines your authority like a boss who allows your employees to do an end run around their supervisor to get what they want.

    1. KR*

      Yes, this. We had a difficult employee in one job. My coworker finally became a shift supervisor and in her first month the difficult employee threw a tantrum at her and totally disrespected her so she went to go write her up. The write up never made it to the employee – the next day our manager took her aside and said, “I appreciate you trying this out but we don’t write up Difficult Employee.” It made my coworker so mad and she made sure she told the manager when she quit that she was tired of trying to supervise people and make sure things were done correctly when she had no power to hold them accountable for their actions.

      Difficult Employee probably still works there. Our manager was under the false idea that if someone has a disability defined by the ADA, they can’t be fired at all, even when they’ve been explicitly told not to yell at coworkers or tell customers to go f___ themselves or refuse service to people and so on.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I always find it amazing how employers use the (erroneous) idea that they can’t fire someone who is ADA-eligible to avoid doing their jobs as managers.

  10. Zahra*

    Echoing everyone:
    Would you have the power to fire them?
    If so, what’s the procedure (i.e. how many hoops will you have to jump through)?
    Given your colleagues and the “we don’t fire anyone” culture, how much would you be able to steer the department in a new, interesting and/or productive direction?

    Given all that, do you want to manage them? Or do you want to manage at all?

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I’m hoping that hiring a manager from the outside, and promoting the OP are all part of a new phase in the organization and the higher-ups want to clean house. The OP may be granted the illusive power of hiring and firing.

    2. Troutwaxer*

      That’s what I was thinking too. If you’ll be allowed to fire the screamers and the jerks then I’d take the job. As to the technical issues, you can learn about them over time if you apply yourself – you don’t need to be able to do a tech’s job, but you should be able to understand their issues and discuss their needs and problems.

  11. Greg M.*

    you actually sound like you’re the best qualified. anyone who throws tantrum should never be a manager. combine that wiht you working hard and being good at what you do means that yeah actually you are qualified for it and the best choice.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      And she is questioning if she is qualified to be a manager instead of just grabbing power. Planning and reasoning are great qualities in a leader.

  12. DCompliance*

    The manager gave the OP one crucial piece of advice- “the position is more about managing people than managing projects”. If the OP does take the position, it’s now the OP’s turn to career path the rest of the team. If the OP’s team is still interested in being in management, then OP can address the toxic atmosphere/tantrums in the hallway. “You want to become a manager, here’s what you need to work on…” Therefore, any guilt the OP feels about taking the position, can be wiped out by paying it forward. Make the team feel like you want them to succeed in their career paths. If the team still is miserable, well…at least OP tried and proved the point he/she earned the position.

    1. animaniactoo*

      In OP’s place, I would ask for this to be communicated to them by management *before* taking the promotion.

      “I know that you were hoping for the supervisor promotion. Jane is going to be the new supervisor, and we’d like to be clear with you why we think she’s a better choice than you are. Anyone who is in the position of managing other people has to be able to communicate effectively. On a number of occasions, you have been seen and heard in the hallways being very loud and belligerent. These are not effective communication techniques and we have serious concerns about how people would feel working under you with this kind of demeanor. While Jane does not have the same technical skills or work experience that you do, she has excellent people skills which are more important to the fundamental responsibilities of a manager role.”

      1. LSP*

        I like that script, and I agree. Upper management should communicate this before the change takes place.

    2. Electric Hedgehog*

      In my (limited) experience, toxic and incompetent workers get frustrated and quit within a few years if consistently met with firm, calm, logical, no-drama/no-nonsense management, because the methods they use to get what they want stop working. Your upper management recognizes the problem w/ your coworkers, so maybe, they’re hoping to continue the great management trends of your current manager with you. An outside hire is a bit risky in this regard because you don’t always get what you expect, so that may be part of why they want you. For them, if you’re good, it’s a win-win: the employees improve, or they quit/get fired.

  13. NW Mossy*

    I made the jump to management just under 2 years ago in somewhat similar circumstances – I manage a team of long-serving employees, a couple of whom are challenging to manage. While none of my directs wanted my job, there’s definitely a bar to clear with technical experts who expect their manager to know everything they know and then some, as well as the challenges that young boss/older reports can bring.

    I definitely still feel like I’m flailing sometimes, particularly when there’s conflict between what I need my reports to do and what they want to do. Alison mentioned Manager Tools as a resource in her response to a post I found in the archives and I’ve been soaking up the knowledge from their podcasts recently in an effort to keep getting better. I managed to stumble into some good-manager behavior which is yielding improvement in my team’s engagement scores, but I know I still have work to do in being the expert-level boss I want to be.

    What I’ve learned, though, is that as much as I don’t get it right 100% of the time right now, a self-aware person like yourself comes in at an advantage because you can turn a critical eye on your own behavior and realize “Yeah, that didn’t work, time to try something different.” You also come off as very empathetic, which really helps you avoid obviously toxic behaviors like being abusive or not listening. For people that have had toxic bosses before, even just being a reasonable and kind human being can feel like sweet relief – don’t discount the value of that.

    1. Not A Morning Person*

      Ditto! Especially the last sentence: “For people that have had toxic bosses before, even just being a reasonable and kind human being can feel like sweet relief – don’t discount the value of that.” Having worked for a particularly toxic boss and then escaping her to a boss who was kind and reasonable, I agree wholeheartedly.

    2. Jane Gloriana Villanueva*

      This is great, thank you for this info. I am a manager as of December 1st and am trying to organize my time and tasks such that I have time to actually participate in the management training that has been offered, but things on the side are fantastic to know about. I really appreciate those last two lines, especially. I had a toxic boss a few years ago in the position I’ve just taken, and I want to separate the wheat [the strengths she brought to her position and what I would like to reinstate in our office or projects to start from scratch], from the chaff [ I do not want to do it the way she did at alllllll]. There has been much reorganization so I did have to consider very thoroughly what Alison and many others mentioned here, do I deserve this step and do I want it? Really good input from you and the commentati. Thank you!

  14. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

    I feel like I could have written this letter a couple of months ago. I applied for and was being very strongly considered for a promotion that would have entailed me supervising a very difficult team, with similar issues of senior employees with various personality problems that have kept them from being promoted for years. I have little management experience so it was daunting, and many times during the process I questioned how in the hell I was passing each stage of the interview process, or if I’d be able to succeed in the role if I got it. My husband gave me some great advice. Since I was being totally upfront about my weaknesses and my employer was vetting the process VERY thoroughly, he said that if I got the job it was because everyone believed I was the best candidate for the job, and *I* should believe it too.

    As it turns out, I did not get the job; I was told very honestly that I was the #2 choice, and that the only reason that they went with #1 (an external candidate) was because he not only had a good deal of management experience, but management experience specifically managing difficult teams. While I was disappointed I didn’t get it, I did appreciate their not setting me up for failure.

  15. LAI*

    I was in a similar situation once and it didn’t go well. My supervisors asked me to take on a temporary management role and I accepted without really thinking through the consequences. I was in my twenties, managing people with many more years of experience, some of whom had very difficult personalities. None of them had wanted the role but they still clearly resented having someone who they viewed as their junior now supervising them. The culture of not firing anyone was really what made it impossible to be effective though, because it’s REALLY hard to motivate people to change when you can’t impose any serious consequences. Of course, I could have fired people if I’d worked hard enough at it but it was just so “not done” at that place. Plus, being a manager means being the person who everyone goes to with all of their problems but you can never complain. It means that you can’t be friends with coworkers anymore, in the same way. It was such a toxic experience for me that I ended up leaving for a lower-level position elsewhere. I did learn a lot about what management is though, and what kind of situation I’d want if I ever considered a management position again in the future.

    1. AMT*

      That’s what I’m afraid of for the LW. “No one can get fired” = red flag for a potential management candidate. Those hallway tantrums are now the LW’s to deal with.

  16. JC*

    I was in a somewhat similar position to you recently. I managed to move up really quickly in my flat-structured organization. By the time I was there 3 years, I was promoted to a rare management position because of my boss’s retirement.

    A year prior, my boss asked me if I was interested in moving into a leadership role, and I actually told her no! I had no management experience, was good at my technical role and was afraid I’d be bad at management. Like you, nearly everyone in my department had been there far longer than I had.

    I am really thankful that my boss did not remember my “no” to her question and promoted me anyway. Management has been challenging but the challenge has been rewarding.

    The part of your letter where you say you’re a woman in a male-dominated environment stuck out to me. There’s research demonstrating that when men are more quick than women to put their hat into the ring for positions that they feel are a stretch for them. Of course that’s a generalization and maybe it’s not what’s happening here. But keep in mind that you might have some imposter syndrome creeping in. I know that imposter syndrome was one reason why my initial reaction to moving up was to think I didn’t want to, wasn’t ready, etc (and I’m also a woman in a male-dominated organization). Now that I’m here I realize I can do this at least as well as anyone else in my organization could.

  17. Brett*

    Two things that popped out as strange…
    Highly technical people want promotions this badly, and they are dissatisfied with their roles because they are not getting promotions. Normally the tech people are the ones who can be content with their work without constant promotions as long as other components of job satisfaction are there.

    So, I think there is more to their dissatisfaction besides not getting promotions. My guess is that pay is stagnant unless you get promoted, but it could be a insufficient training and skill development, poor project diversity, no challenge in their current roles, etc. Could any of these be factors, and can those factors be fixed?

  18. Malibu Stacey*

    Who waits _15 years_ for a promotion? I guess the same people who won’t leave a spouse that they loathe until the kids go to college. I mean, after getting passed over for a few years wouldn’t you get the picture already and apply somewhere else?

    1. sometimeswhy*

      Someone who works somewhere with regular COLA and step increases and promotions-in-series that one wouldn’t necessarily call a promotion if you’re explaining it to someone outside the organization since the core job functions never really change unless you’re going into a supervisory or management position? Gubmint work, mostly.

      1. Darkitect*

        That sounds about right. I’m a government employee in a technical position who’s one promotion away from a management position. Frankly, at this point in time the trade-off isn’t worth it. The pay bump is modest but I wouldn’t get to do what I enjoy anymore. My supervisors are grooming me, but I’m definitely dragging my feet…

  19. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    OP, I think it is important that you know upfront what kind of support you will have in managing the employees before accepting, and if I were you I would tell the higher ups I will only take it on the condition that it is addressed with your team by the higher ups first. As people have said above, letting them know that while their technically expertise is valued, that doesn’t translate into management, and they have thus far not showcased management skill sets. If they are set on possible management positions in the future, they can express that to you and part of their annual goal sets can be growth of different management skills.

    You need to have the power to manage – and you can’t do that if disciplinary action isn’t available to you. So you need to know before you accept that you’ll have the power to do PIPs and firings if necessary

  20. Em too*

    Also, what are your other options? You’ve clearly shown potential; might you be able to look for management roles elsewhere? If you took this role, how long would you expect to stay in it?

  21. CanCan*

    As Alison said, being a manager is totally different from being in a managerial role; it’s not just another promotion. You should really be thinking of it as changing careers. If you’re not happy in this position, will you be able to move back to your previous position in the same company? Will you be able to move back to a non-managerial position with a different employer?

    A close family friend was promoted to management during the 2000’s tech boom, after being in technical positions since the 1970’s. He was laid off within a year; our guess is that he turned out to be a lousy manager. He’s a lovely person, and wants to make everyone happy, – which isn’t what management is about. Well, after that he could no longer find tech positions, because it’s assumed that people don’t voluntary want to leave management (and the higher compensation that goes with it). Nor could he find any management positions (possibly because it doesn’t fit with his personality, and he had so little experience with it). Ended up un- and under-employed for the next decade, until retirement age. If he hadn’t accepted the promotion to manager, he might still have been with the company.

    1. Chaordic One*

      The OP sounds like she is resilient, and she is certainly young enough that she could bounce back to another position if things don’t work out.

      Your friend sounds like he was in a completely different situation, made much worse by the Great Recession and age-related discrimination, which forced many talented individuals into early retirement.

  22. Rainy Day*

    LW said “There are many things my colleagues do that I do not understand and could not do myself.”

    I have a relative who is a project manager. This person does not have any tech skills and coordinates multiple teams – tech (front end and back end), non-tech, and design. It has worked out fine, and my relative is great at the job. Also, the employer routinely provides management training workshops.

    1. Rainy Day*

      Oops- didn’t say that well. Relative does have some general tech skills – just not at the same level and specialization as the tech teams.

    2. anon attorney*

      Came here to say similar. I used to manage a team of project specialists. I could not have done their jobs, but that wasn’t my role. I was there to manage the project. You don’t need to know everything they know, you just need enough knowledge and common sense to know if they’re trying to bullshit you (or have a trusted ally you can ask if you suspect bullshit).

    3. NW Mossy*

      It can actually be an advantage not to be able to do everything your team does, because it means that you don’t fall into the trap of taking on their work for them rather than making sure your team has the necessary resources/staffing/training to do the work successfully themselves. If you’re doing work that your team should be doing, the company is paying too much (i.e., your presumably higher pay rate rather than the lower rate of your employee) to have the work done and you’re also giving short shrift to your management responsibilities.

  23. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Another thing to consider: If you don’t take the job, they aren’t going to promote someone else. They are going to hire from outside. Not that this is a bad thing – obviously, it wasn’t the last time. But your direct supervisor will be someone new, and you’ll be one step removed from your current supervisor, whom you obviously enjoy working for currently. It sounds to me as if he would be very open to mentoring and training you, as he really believes in you for this role. Either way, your job is going to change … anytime you get a new manager, your job changes.

    On the other hand, I have seen organizations where they have turned down those with technical expertise in favor of “fresh blood” (ugh, I hate that term, but it fits here) and/or looking for particular characteristics and generic management skills and it … hasn’t always worked out well. Now, granted, perhaps those with the technical skills weren’t the best fit, either, for various reasons (such as for example the reasons you state others may not have been promoted at your org!), but I would say if you do take this role you should take seriously the technical end and make it a point to learn their jobs on at least a superficial level.

  24. Gary*

    Gotta love the picture over at nymag from 1973. Tell them to at least flip the image so it correctly shows the man using his right hand. One look at his fly and you can tell it’s flipped.

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