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Getting Promoted? Not So Fast

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The first time I was promoted to a manager’s spot, I was excited. The step up meant a lot more money, a good size budget, and a nice group of direct reports.

As the months wore on, I realized I was less happy at work every day. The added responsibilities weren’t the problem. I liked managing people and administering the budget.

It was what I had lost.

As a manager, I spent less time doing the things I enjoyed most–writing and interviewing people. Climbing the ladder in my career meant moving away from the reasons I had chosen the career in the first place.  I left the company not long after for a job that was more in line with what I really wanted to do.

I might have avoided those unpleasant months if I’d done more soul-searching. Not just about the aspects of the new role, but about what I liked and didn’t like about the role I already had.

My managers hadn’t talked to me about those things either. Most managers don’t. As Marla Gottschalk, an industrial and organizational psychologist, recently wrote,Often, the single most critical question is never fully considered: Do you truly want to manage others at this juncture in your career?

Throughout our careers, we always have our eyes on the next step. And many companies only have one ladder to climb. For me, becoming a manager was the only way to get a significant raise. Saying no never occurred to me. I suspect that even if I’d had doubts, I wouldn’t have voiced them. Turning down a  promotion would be considered odd, even insulting, and make it pretty unlikely I’d get another chance down the road. Our culture is so hard-wired to view career success in terms of money and titles that it can be difficult to go against the grain. Tell someone you don’t want a promotion and you can expect the reply to be some version of: What’s wrong with you?

It’s easy to assume, as most companies promoting people do, that excelling at one role means you’ll l be just as good at another. But there is even more to it. You might be a great manager, but you just don’t want to be one. Maybe not right now. Maybe never. You may not be ready to take on those responsibilities, or you might have other facets of your current job that you still enjoy or want to develop further.

Gottshalk notes that in most companies, managerial roles are more valuable than individual contributor roles. Developing alternative career tracks and finding other ways to reward high-achieving employees who are not interested in or ready to manage others can help companies hang on to good employees.

And not just that would-be manager, but the whole team. As Ivy Exec’s recent survey of professionals recently confirmed, problems with managers are the primary cause of unhappiness at work. (For those who do make the jump, Sallie Krawcheck of 85 Broads has some great advice on how to avoid first-time manager mistakes.)

You can’t rely on your company to have already established other routes up the ladder.  But if you’ve given it some thought and climbing to the next rung doesn’t feel right, it’s worth talking to your managers about other ways to reward your performance–and expand your contributions to the company.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.