Is Your Promotion System Wrecking Your Culture?

BY Kathy Crosett
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In every organization there is a pecking order. Your employees may love their jobs and love the culture you’ve created together. That contentment won’t stop them from paying attention to status changes. Managers often don’t realize that actions on their parts to reward a specific employee can often wreck culture. Here’s what to watch out for.

As social animals, humans always track status levels. When managers make a change that confers higher organizational status to a specific individual, everyone notices. For example, when an employee gets a promotion or a corner office, the routine is disrupted. Everyone else will take time to figure out where they stand in the new structure. If they agree that the person who received the promotion was deserving, conflict will be kept to a minimum. If not, you can expect arguing to increase and cliques to form.

In her recent Wall Street Journal article, Dr. Marissa King, Yale School of Management, digs into this topic. Dr. King cites studies showing the negative impact of status conflict. When M.B.A. students in a study failed to complete group tasks, the trouble was traced to status conflicts. Instead of doing the work, the students argued about whose opinion was right – based on their educational background. The students who believed they had higher status, because they went to "better" schools, felt they had the right approach to finishing the project.

If your team members are engaged in status conflicts as a result of a change you made, you can bet productivity is suffering. You can try to ease tensions by using a couple of tactics. One method is to acknowledge that there are status differences. If you do, be sure to recognize the contributions of each individual in the organization on a regular basis. This strategy improves every individual’s sense of worth.

King also recommends warding off conflict before it starts. For example, be careful when you promote an individual who’s been a member of a team for a long while. Get buy-​in from that individual’s peers. If that tactic won’t work in your organization, publicly explain the individual’s accomplishments and contributions to the team. These accomplishments should be real — clearly visible to the team — not details you've dreamed up to justify what you're doing.

Dr. King has a word of caution about promoting individuals based on personality. All too often managers are swayed by an individual employee’s personality or physical characteristics instead of performance. It’s easy to be won over by an outgoing and attractive person. Unfortunately, these traits do not always translate into outstanding performance.

Study the status system at your organization – pay attention to who dominates conversations in meetings, who appears disengaged, and who interrupts. These tendencies can help guide the path you should take when it’s time to promote one of your team members.