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How should I advise an employee who seems to be only motivated by/interested in a promotion?

Three ACS career consultants provide their advice on the subject
Industry Matters Newsletter
Andreea Argintaru, Principal Scientist, Axalta Coating Systems
Andreea Argintaru, Principal Scientist, Axalta Coating Systems

All managers should have regular discussions with employees to understand their careers goals, timelines, and motivations. In this case, discussions must focus on what motivates the interest in an accelerated track: money, empowerment, desire for a challenge or change, passion for managing people or projects, etc.

Some employees may have unrealistic expectations, but in my experience those who appear predominantly motivated by promotion tend to be top performers. If these employees also demonstrate ethical behavior, teamwork, and embrace the organizational values, they can be real assets for the company. 

It is important for a manager to ensure that projects and opportunities are available to continue to challenge and improve these employees, allowing them to demonstrate their ability to perform successfully in a higher role. Managers should also focus on close mentoring and training to overcome their weaknesses that may become a liability and hinder their further growth – such as burn-out from working extended hours, or less engagement with the team to focus on personal goals.

Lori Spangler, ACS Career Consultant
Lori Spangler, ACS Career Consultant

We all like to be recognized and rewarded with money and additional responsibilities. Promotions can be part of a satisfying career. But, for most people, there are a limited number of ladder rungs that can reasonably be achieved before plateauing. On the other hand, there are unlimited career paths and possibilities available if lateral transitions are also incorporated into career planning. Moving laterally into new roles and responsibilities offers the chance to continually learn within one’s career and to expand one’s knowledge of the company and the industry, which can lead to further opportunities. 

If an employee is stuck imagining new roles or areas of the company of interest to them, I would suggest that they spend some time thinking about their skills and strengths and where they might by valued. Networking with peers in other departments is valuable. The StrengthsFinder book can be helpful to some people as they look into new opportunities.

Roy Simmons, Managing Member, Simmons Management Services LLC
Roy Simmons, Managing Member, Simmons Management Services LLC

My approach to managing people has always been to figure out what they are good at, nurture that set of skills, and find ways to allow them to use those skills. There’s nothing wrong with being motivated by promotion if someone has the abilities for the position they aspire to. The approach should be to define the requirements for the position, give them the opportunity to meet those requirements, and then deliver on the promise once they are met. The “where do you see yourself in five years” interview question is important for this very reason. Determine if the hiring company offers the opportunities to satisfy the new hire’s wants and needs, whether it be work/life balance, cutting edge technologies, or promotional opportunities. Cautionary tales, though, are those instances where someone is promoted out of a position before the consequences have caught up with their actions.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

ACS Career Consultants are experts and leaders working in the field of chemistry who have volunteered to support other ACS members’ career development through one-on-one career counselling. They can stimulate your thinking, ask important career planning questions to help clarify goals, provide encouragement, teach strategies for making meaningful career decisions, and aid you in your job search. Connect with an ACS Career Consultant today!

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