An Unexpected (But Common) Cause of Underperformance: Being Promoted

A bunch of different factors can lead to underperformance. Most of them are fairly obvious, such as a lack of organisation, a lack of motivation or not getting the support that they need from others.

One that is less obvious, but is one of the most difficult to solve, is being promoted.

The best treatment here is actually prevention, so we’ll focus on this today but still address the more challenging issue of what to do if you encounter a situation where a team member gets promoted and simply can’t do the job that they’ve been given.

Let’s start with a brief look at some of the problems that can be caused when someone is underperforming after being promoted.

You get pulled into day-to-day work

When a team member can’t perform their job well, the first person to be affected by this is usually you. You’ll naturally need to spend more time helping them and supporting them with whatever is going wrong. As a result, you’ll probably end up spending less time with the rest of your team and less time on the core elements of your own role.

Now, supporting and helping your team is an important part of your role as a manager, but this kind of problem can escalate and put you at risk of spending far too much time with them. It can also have a negative effect on your own mental energy, leading to wider problems with your own performance.

An otherwise star performer’s career gets mothballed

This is a big one for me. Usually when someone gets promoted, it’s because they are doing a great job in their current role and are performing well. 

But when they get promoted and start to struggle, you’ve not only got someone in a new role who is struggling, but you’ve lost a great performer in their old role as well. You’ve basically got two roles that probably are operating at peak efficiency. 

It’s also just very sad to watch someone go from being a great performer to an average (or worse) performer because of, ironically, being promoted.

The team becomes unstable

A single underperforming team member can be a problem for the team as a whole. But when someone is promoted into a more senior role and then underperforms, the effect can be even more pronounced. This is because someone who has recently been promoted has probably taken on bigger responsibilities, whether that is for bigger projects or more team members, their role is bigger than it used to be. So the effect of them not performing can be felt even more than it would have been if they were in their previous role.

The knock on effect can be that team members feel unstable and uncertain in their own roles.

Okay, so let’s now take a look at how you can avoid all of these problems or at the very least, mitigate them and reduce the negative effects.

Don’t promote early

I’m trying not to be too much of a fraud by writing this, because I’ve made this mistake more times than I’d like to admit! But hopefully you can learn from my mistakes!

This is probably the biggest danger that can lead to underperformance. Someone simply isn’t ready for the bigger role and responsibilities that you give them, but they get it anyway and as a result, they struggle. 

I know it’s hard to avoid this. One occasion when I made this mistake was when a senior team member had been offered another role at another agency and was basically threatening to leave unless we gave them a promotion and pay raise. I knew deep down that we should probably just let them take the other offer, rather than promote them into a role that they weren’t ready for.

We did it anyway and this led to six months of difficulties for the individual who had been promoted and several team members around them. 

If they’d left, it would have been difficult too, but it would have been less difficult than the situation that we ended up with.

If you find yourself in a similar position, take some time to weigh up the pros and cons of promoting someone vs. them leaving. I’d bet that in most situations, you’re better off sucking up the pain of them leaving, rather than having them in a role that they can’t do.

Increase responsibilities in their current role without promoting

The core reason why someone struggles after being promoted is because they take on new and / or bigger responsibilities that they’re not able to handle. So one key way to avoid this is to introduce some of the responsibilities or tasks when they are still working at their current level.

For example, if someone’s next step is to move into a role where they manage a team of people, you can give them a taste of this by giving them responsibility for just one person to start off with. Perhaps they manage an intern or a junior member of staff first and get this experience before they take on a whole team. If this isn’t possible, perhaps they just take on responsibility for a specific part of someone’s management, such as managing their training program or helping them manage their day-to-day to-do list. 

This allows them to get valuable experience in an area that will be key to their success when they get promoted. It also allows you to observe and see how they perform and to give them feedback along the way.

In this example, it may actually turn out that they don’t want to manage people! I once worked with someone who was pretty convinced that they wanted to manage a team, but after managing one person, they realised that they preferred to be an individual contributor rather than a team leader. And I should add, they had this realisation despite being a good manager and having a good team member to manage! Their fair logic was that if they are doing well, with a good, easy going team member, yet they still aren’t loving it, then becoming a manager of many people clearly wasn’t for them!

Fully understand what you need from them when they get promoted

It’s really important that when you promote someone, that you (and them) know exactly what they are getting into. The only reliable way to do this is to write a very clear set of job role expectations and responsibilities, then communicate this very, very clearly to them.

Crucially, you’re not writing a set of expectations and saying that they need to instantly meet all of those expectations, or need to be meeting them right now. But you both need to be comfortable that they have the ability to meet those expectations within a reasonable timeframe, with a reasonable amount of support from you.

Ideally, you should communicate what someone’s next role looks like when you are working with them on their professional development planning. This is the best way to avoid their next role being a complete surprise to them and a steeper learning curve than it needs to be. But you can only do this if their next role is very clear, so ensure that you have this and can work through it together.

Do a transition period

It can feel very overwhelming when someone moves from one role to another very quickly and needs to almost instantly step up. It’s really important to get off to a positive start in a new role but if they take on too much, too quickly, they don’t have a fighting chance of making it a success. 

The solution here is actually pretty simple – you have to take a bit of time to plan the change from one role to another and look for what actually needs to change – then have a plan and timeline for it.

For example, if they are taking on responsibility for a new set of projects, they need to be briefed on these projects and be given the information that they need in order to do a good job on them. At the same time, they may be handing over previous projects to someone else, so time needs to be put aside to carry these things out. 

When you have a clear list of what needs to be done, you can then put a reasonable timeline against the plan so that not only are the tasks going to be done, but they are done in a sustainable and controlled manner. 

Avoid doubling up their roles

One big mistake that I often see is someone being promoted from one role to another, but still being expected to handle every single aspect of their old job, whilst handling every single aspect of their new job. As mentioned above, there is likely to be a transition period when the two roles do crossover, but this needs to be as controlled as possible so that they don’t become overwhelmed. 

For example, if someone moves from a role where they work on a number of different projects into a team management role, they are often expected to continue to manage those projects whilst taking on responsibility for managing their new team members. 

You need to ensure that when someone is promoted, that their old responsibilities get handed to someone else as soon as possible.

If this doesn’t happen, it’s likely that they won’t have the time or the headspace to do the best job possible in their new role and they’ll fail. Yet they may well be capable of it, but not whilst trying to still do their previous job.

How to manage someone who is struggling after their promotion

In reality, despite all of the ways above to avoid this difficult situation, you may still end up with an underperforming team member who has been promoted beyond their skills and experience. So, what do you do if you find yourself in this position?

This is a big topic and I’ll write more about it specifically soon, but in the meantime, here are a few tactical things that you can do.

Firstly, try to understand exactly what is causing them to struggle. What is overwhelming them or causing the underperformance? Are they trying to do too much and need help to prioritise and focus? Are they being confronted with problems that they’ve never seen before and need help from you in dealing with them? Whatever it is, this is the first step that you need to take.

After this, you need to break down their new role into its core parts and aggressively focus them here. Chances are that they are feeling overwhelmed in one form or another, so you need to go back to the basics of their role and get them to focus on them. This is probably going to mean that you need to sacrifice someone else, or give them more hands-on support than you’d usually like, but it will be a good step in helping them move in the right direction.

If they’re really struggling, you may need to consider a chance in role and responsibilities that is more extreme, but we’ll talk about that in a future article.

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