When to Turn Down a Promotion

Know when to give your boss the thumbs down
Know when to give your boss the thumbs down

Getting a raise.
Climbing the corporate ladder.
Receiving a better title.
Taking on more responsibility.
Advancing your career.

These are the accomplishments that most people in the workforce strive to attain.

Countless resources exist to guide you every step of the way, from entry-level newbie through middle management and all the way up to the executive offices.

How much heartbreak and anger has been exercised lamenting when things don’t go as planned?

  • Why can’t I earn more money?
  • I can’t believe I got passed over for that promotion!
  • My boss is so incompetent, I could do so much better!

So if you are ambitious and fortunate enough to get tapped for that big promotion, there’s no question you’re going to jump at the opportunity, right?

Not so fast.

How many times has history favored someone that has succeeded by doing exactly the opposite of what everyone thinks they should do?

  • In the stock market, when every broker is worked into a frenzy over the next new thing, taking a contrarian view can often lead to profits.
  • When every sports fan and member of the media analyzes the lineups, breaks down the stats, and insists there’s no way that Team A can beat Team B, maybe it’s time to lean the other way (insert your favorite dramatic upset here).
  • When Porsche announced that they’d be launching a bulky SUV for 2003 (the horror!), I remember thinking it was a colossal mistake for the brand. This was a company with a racing heritage that crafted high performance dream cars that made 15 year-olds buy posters and 40 year-olds tap their retirement accounts. The result? The Cayenne made up 57% of Porsche’s sales the next year, and might have saved the company in the long run.

So it was with great interest that I saw Georgetown University professor Cal Newport speak at a conference and take the opposite view of the “climbing the corporate ladder” tradition, which he talks about in his blog Study Hacks.

He told a story we’ve heard numerous times.

A talented employee was recognized for their accomplishments and offered:

  • A better title
  • More money
  • More responsibility managing a team

The problem is, those three things often come with three downsides:

  • More stress
  • More hours
  • Less time actually doing the things you love, both on and off the job

Case 1

In this case, not only did the employee deny the promotion to a higher title, she counter-offered dramatically, saying she would rather spend more time working independently on the projects she was best at, didn’t want to manage a team, and wanted to cut back on her hours, shifting to 4 days per week so that she could pursue a degree in her spare time. Amazing!

Case 2

In the mid 90s when the US economy was unstable, a coworker told me that her father continually refused raises from his employer. Why? He was content financially, loved what he was doing every day, and was concerned that if his salary kept escalating every year, he would become too expensive and be laid off in favor of someone younger and cheaper.

Case 3

I’ve also worked with people that simply get really good at one thing, come in every day and do that one thing, and then go home. For years on end.

For some people (myself included), that would seem like torture. I picture an assembly line worker whose only task was to put the left rear wheel on a Cadillac for 15 years. Yet, some people enjoy having a set routine and being a master at one task.

I saw this with a coworker that was a graphic designer, doing a lot of the grunt work. Yet, he didn’t want to move to doing user interfaces, he didn’t want to manage anyone, and he didn’t want to take on more responsibility. He loved his job, he loved his life outside of work, so he was content to just stay the course.

The key in these situations is to find out what makes you truly happy. If a simplified day job allows you to enjoy the other parts of your life more, why not go that route?

In Mr. Newport’s example, work/life balance and pursuing a degree trumped managing a team and having a corner office. He emphasizes that there are two rules that enable you to get to this point:

1) Master a skill that is rare and valuable
2) Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards

These employees had worked incredibly hard to become highly skilled in a specific area … enough to be recognized for a promotion. The difference is, they proposed a non-traditional way to be rewarded. Note: these tactics are not likely to work for an employee just starting out, or one with skills that can be easily replaced.

Bottom line:

You still need to work hard, become skilled, and look to advance your career as much as possible. But at some point when you near the top of the corporate ladder, take the time to look around and survey the landscape to make sure the next step is the best direction for you. Thumbs up!

Note: A version of this article first appeared in a post for Salary.com.