The dangers of being promoted into incompetence at work: Navigating the impact on your career

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Last week I facilitated a three-day workshop for a group of leaders working with a large south-east Asian hospitality group. Of the nearly 30 participants, some of them had been in their role for over a year, but the majority of the delegates were still relatively new leaders having been in their role for less than six months. 

By lunchtime on the first day, I felt I had a pretty good pulse check on where the group was at, and I could sense that one particular individual seemed quite overwhelmed. I approached her during the break and asked her if she wanted me to go back over any of the content from the morning sessions. 

She was so appreciative but as we were reviewing some of the slides, she stared at me with a look that depicted a combination of anger, frustration, and sheer panic, and said, “I just feel like I’ve been promoted into incompetence”. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t the first time I had encountered a new leader in such a predicament, so I was able to turn the rest of her lunch break into a spontaneous mini coaching session. I just didn’t want her to feel so daunted for the remaining two and a half days of the program. 

It’s never easy to feel that you have been promoted into a role for which you feel ill-prepared or lacking the necessary skills or qualifications.  

You can feel completely overwhelmed, out of your depth, or unable to meet the demands and expectations of the new role. 

I remember many years ago, a boss for whom I had huge respect told me that one of the biggest mistakes any leader can make is to promote somebody into a leadership role just because they’re a top performer. Since then, I have witnessed many a ‘fall from grace’ where a star player is promoted and given responsibility for a group of people only to resent the promotion and in many cases decide to leave the organisation after no longer holding a place in the spotlight, or no longer earning the bonuses they had grown so accustomed to. 

Top performers certainly don’t necessarily make the best leaders.  

In fact, sometimes they don’t even want to be a leader. This is exactly what had happened to Zerlina, my workshop participant and quasi coaching candidate in Malaysia last week. 

Excelling in a role requires a certain set of technical skills and expertise. However, being a leader requires a different set of skills entirely including strategic thinking, empathy, delegation, as well as the ability to inspire and motivate others and not all top performers naturally possess these leadership traits.  

At the same time, top performers often achieve success by focusing on their own individual goals and tasks, while as leaders they need to shift their focus to developing their team, which requires a more collaborative and inclusive mindset. Leadership also involves providing constructive feedback, and for those star performers who are primarily focused on their own individual tasks and personal successes, the art of delivering feedback isn’t always necessarily top of mind. Besides, they may not even possess the patience or interest (let alone the ability) to guide and develop others. 

Being promoted is often seen as a significant milestone in one’s career. However, there is a hidden danger that can lurk within this seemingly positive development: being promoted into incompetence, and this can have profound consequences on one’s professional journey.  

The dangers of being promoted into incompetence are real and should not be underestimated. 

The impact can be far-reaching, affecting an individual’s performance, confidence, reputation, career growth, and overall well-being. It is therefore essential for organisations to carefully evaluate potential candidates for promotion, not only considering their past performance but also their potential for success in and genuine desire for a new role. 

If you are responsible for promoting others within your organisation, what can you do to ensure they don’t feel like they’ve been promoted into incompetence? 

As a leader, before promoting a team member, it’s important that you carefully evaluate their skills, knowledge, and potential to excel in their new role. As you would if you were running an external recruitment process, consider their past performance, feedback from colleagues and superiors, and any relevant assessments and evaluations. But first and foremost, make sure they actually want the gig. 

Never assume that a promotion is at the top of someone’s career aspirations. 

Ensure you clearly communicate the organisation’s as well as your own expectations of somebody performing in the role, along with how their success will actually be measured. This clarity can help them prepare and set realistic goals, as well as perhaps even helping them determine whether they feel they’ve got what it takes.  

Remember, it’s essential to continuously monitor the progress and well-being of your team member in their new role following a promotion. If any challenges or concerns arise, as their leader, it’s up to you to address them promptly and to provide the necessary support to help them succeed. 

If you’re a first-time leader yourself, and you feel like you’ve been promoted into incompetence, what can you do to overcome the paranoia and anxiety? 

The self-doubt and fear of failure can lead to increased stress levels and even a potentially unnecessary dislike for the role.  

It’s essential that you take proactive steps to address and overcome these feelings by exploring professional development opportunities. This could include formal coaching or perhaps being buddied up with a mentor at a similar level within the organisation to help you navigate your new responsibilities and who can also offer guidance, encouragement, and accountability. 

It’s not uncommon for doubt to creep in as you progress along the new leader competency continuum from being unconsciously incompetent to consciously incompetent.  

If this occurs, take time to reflect on your strengths and accomplishments, and the reasons you were promoted into the new role in the first place. Just remember that people higher up in the organisation believed in you. But if you can identify specific areas where you believe you need to improve or acquire new skills, then speak up. This self-awareness will allow you to focus your efforts on targeted areas for development and help you progress towards a more consciously competent state. Celebrate each milestone and acknowledge the progress you make along the way. 

Being promoted into incompetence can lead to a decline in performance and erode confidence, which can be demoralizing, negatively impacting self-esteem and self-belief. The sense of inadequacy can also take a toll on mental and emotional well-being. 

Just be patient. With self-belief and a commitment to your professional development, you can regain the confidence needed to excel in your leadership role and move past any temporary feelings of incompetence. 

Whether you are responsible for the careers of those around you, or if you are a new or aspiring leader, it’s critical to be aware of the dangers of being promoted into incompetence at work. 

Remember, hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders squash any feelings of being promoted into incompetence. 

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