Don’t let yourself get pushed into a job promotion

June 18, 2015, 4:03 PM UTC
Person Climbing a Ladder to a Bright Skylight
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Dear Annie: I really identified with Fortune’s recent article about turning down a promotion, because I’m facing a dilemma. I like what I’m doing now, as the logistics person on a brand-management team, and I know I’m really good at it. But our company has an unwritten rule where everyone moves “up or out,” and lately my boss has been making noises about promoting me to management.

Sounds great, right? But the thing is, I have no desire to manage anyone. The team-leader role pays more than I make now, but not enough to make it seem worth giving up doing what I really like. Other people who have turned down promotions here have ended up either leaving the company or stuck in the same job forever, so I don’t want to blow my chance. But I believe I have a bigger contribution to make as a logistics expert than as a manager. Any thoughts? — Nobody’s Boss

Dear N.B.: If it’s any consolation, you’ve got plenty of company. In his consulting and coaching work, Richard Wellins says he’s seeing “more people turning down promotions lately, or weighing the decision much more carefully than we’ve seen in the past.” A senior vice president at Development Dimensions International, Wellins is co-author of a new book, Your First Leadership Job.

He notes that saying “no, thanks” to a step up the organization chart is especially prevalent among Millennials who “don’t want their parents’ career path. For one thing, they don’t want the endless hours and the stress.”

Maybe that’s not surprising, considering that many people who have ascended into management seem to regret it. “I recently asked a room full of 100 managers, ‘If you could keep your current pay but go back to your old role as an individual contributor, would you do it?’” Wellins says. “About 90 people raised their hands. It startled me. I see it as an indication that lots of managers accepted promotions for the wrong reasons.”

And what might those reasons be? Some people think they’ll have more power in a bigger job, but “you usually don’t get more power, just more politics,” he observes. “In fact, true leadership is more about giving up power. The job requires you to be the ‘face’ of the company and get people under you to comply with policies you may not agree with. You also give up power in favor of helping other people succeed.” If you don’t want to do any of that, he adds, you may earn a bigger salary and more perks, but “no amount of money will ever be enough.”

DDI’s research shows that becoming a boss is a lot harder and more thankless than most people expect it to be. In one study, DDI asked 385 executives to rank the transition to management in comparison with other sources of stress they had experienced. Most rated the transition more stressful than divorce, major illness, or coping with teenage kids.

More to the point of your dilemma: A separate DDI study, of 600 managers this time, examined the reason why people accepted promotions, and then compared the eventual outcomes. Bosses who had been pressured into the role, without particularly wanting it, were twice as likely to end up leaving their companies as people who voluntarily sought to be managers.

Not only that, but among the group who felt pushed into management by an “up or out” corporate culture, even the people who stayed told the researchers they hated their jobs. “Three times as many managers who had been pressured into it were unhappy,” notes Wellins.

“That’s strong evidence that, before you let yourself get pushed into a promotion, you should think more about your true career goals than about what your current employer expects from you,” he adds. “Taking a job that’s going to make you miserable is a mistake.”

Since you believe you could contribute more to the company as a logistics expert than as a manager, here’s a question: Have you discussed that possibility with your boss? Turning a promotion down flat is one thing, and may lead to your company’s answer to Siberia. But suggesting an alternative to the promotion—one where you’d still be an individual contributor, but on a broader scale than you are now—is something else. If you can make a strong enough case for what you have in mind, your boss might agree to help you do it.

“Ideally, the organization would create an alternate career track, where people with specific expertise could move up as they contribute more over time, without being pushed into management,” says Wellins. Plenty of companies already have those separate career tracks, and you may end up deciding to go somewhere that does. But for now, why not see if you can start one? It’s worth a try.

Talkback: Have you ever been pressured into accepting a promotion you didn’t want? How did it turn out? Leave a comment below.

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