How To Get Promoted Based On Merit Rather Than Hubris.

This is how to compete and win on a biased playing field.

Coach Tony
Sep 6, 2016 · 8 min read

Promotions are unfair. Statistically, promotions have a bias towards rewarding hubris over merit.

This is an extremely pervasive bias across many industries.

This bias could be extremely intentional — a company culture that values initiative over all else.

Or this bias could be very subtle — meeting cultures dominated by whoever speaks first.

In the subtle case of a meeting, the difference between speaking and not speaking can be measured in a pause of a second or less.

The bold speaker speaks as soon as a thought occurs to them. The meritocratic speaker pauses a single beat to double check that their idea will be valuable to the group.

That simple pause is how hubris incorrectly wins a race.


You’re a person who values competence. This is part of your identity.

I want you to win those races, but without radically changing who you are.

Naively, many people assume that to get promoted they should develop more hubris. You may have even been told this, “Why don’t you just be more assertive?”

Thankfully (for you and the entire world), trying to develop hubris as some sort of twisted virtue never works out. The reason competent people aren’t full of shit is because they respect results over promises.

You’re not going to win your New Years “Become a bullshit artist” resolution. You’ll give up in a bout of self-loathing because it directly conflicts with your identity.

The actual best way to compete is much more appealing.

Think of hubris as fake confidence. It’s irrational because there’s no actual knowledge or research backing it up.

Competent workers eventually develop a different brand of confidence based on real knowledge and expertise. Rather than being irrationally aggressive, they become overwhelmingly grounded by their preparation.

Preparation and data gives you an incredible backbone.

So, with the idea that you should be yourself, only more so. Here are four ways that you can make sure you get a promotion, get the recognition you deserve and make the impact that the world needs.


#1. Preparation

A lot of people don’t know what strong preparation looks like, so I’ll give you an anecdote from the first time I successfully stood up to an overbearingly bad manager (and, please note, I had many weak attempts completely rebuffed before this).

I was on a death march, i.e. a project that was riddled with schedule, budget and quality problems with no acknowledgment or plan for fixing these problems. I got fed up with failing, which prompted me to take an unusual amount of initiative:

  • I bought a book on project management on a Friday after work.
  • I read this entire book over the weekend, taking my knowledge of project management from zilch to pretty good in just two days.
  • On Monday, I moved my computer to a little known corner of the office and turned off my email.
  • For three days I created a full specification, project plan, and estimate for the entire project including the pieces that other people had to do.
  • On the fourth day, I scheduled a meeting with the project manager who should have done this work themselves.
  • I presented my reality-based, well thought through plan and estimate for the rest of the project.
  • Surprisingly, the project manager responded by saying, “That estimate is too long. I can’t get my manager to agree to this.”

Despite my surprise at not being immediately recognized as a hero, I didn’t back down.

I told the project manager to either let me present to his manager or to present me with a new reality-based plan that would fit his target estimate. My preparation was so much better than his, so my competence beat his confidence.

Who buys a book and reads it over the weekend just to win an argument with their manager?

The answer: people who want to win the race against their irrationally confident competition. I was promoted immediately after this.


The good news about preparation is that it’s exactly what you’re naturally inclined to do. And it’s the right thing to do. Preparation and merit are close friends.


#2. Patience

A shitty, but common way to win the race is with patience.

I often observe competent workers who also cary a long term sense of obligation. So despite bad management decisions, these workers persevere.

In a moderately well-run company (remember, bias toward irrational confidence is rampant and normal), bad managers will be promoted, flame out and then be fired.

Out of exasperation, and lacking any candidates with excessive hubris, the quietly competent workers will start getting promotions.

But let’s be real. This is a crummy strategy to rely on. You want something that works faster.


#3. (Gut) Perception

“Go with your gut. Worst case scenario, you’ll learn why your gut is wrong.” ~Marc Hedlund

Your gut tells you when you have preparation work to do. Learn to perceive what your gut is telling you.

Here’s a scenario. Your manager comes to you with a ton of work and asks you if you can get it done by tomorrow.

  • A rookie says, “Ok.” and then tries their best.
  • A novice says, “I’m not sure.” and then tries their best.
  • An expert says, “Ok,” lets their manager leave, notices that the experience left a bad taste in their mouth, back-of-the-envelopes the actual amount of work as three days, and emails back to their manager, “I just went through the details and I think it will take three days.
  • An master says, “Let me take a look and get back to you today,” estimates the time, compares it to existing company priorities and then either responds, “It’s going to take three days but I think we should still do it because…” or responds, “It’s going to take three days and I don’t think it’s worthwhile because it gets in the way of this other, better thing to do.

But that’s all triggered by your gut.

This is a speed hack. Often months go by between gut feeling and utter certainty.

More importantly, it’s a quality of work hack. Backing down to hubris trades a minor conflict today for an actual failure tomorrow.

It would be hubris to act immediately off of a gut reaction. Those are the people we’re trying to replace.

Instead, your gut is the trigger for you to do some actual, competent work. Stop waiting until everything has fallen to pieces and start listening to your gut.

But how do you develop this power of gut perception?

Meditate.

That’s the best answer I have for people that want to learn how to trust their gut.

I’m serious. Meditation is a very specific form of brain training. You practice becoming aware of your thoughts.

Lets go back to the scenario where your manager drops a ton of work on you. There’s actually a lot going on in your head when that happens.

  1. You may have been interrupted and your mind is still focused on the unrelated work you were in the middle of.
  2. You may intuitively disagree with the rationality of the request.
  3. You may subconsciously want to please your manager and/or avoid conflict.

So, in order to have a good conversation you need to be able to recognize that jumble of thoughts so that you can address them. Otherwise you’ll say yes no matter how bad the request is.

Why does this lead to a promotion? Because you stop putting your manager in terrible positions by never pushing back.

When you say yes, your manager tells your manager that the project is on track. Then when you later say no or fail to deliver, your manager looks bad.

I’ve framed this post as a battle between merit and hubris — but in no way do I mean merit and meekness go together. You use your merit-based approach to be firm and direct.


#4. Principles

Principles are things you’ve pre-decided and have at the ready. They make it possible to answer quickly when you don’t have time to prepare.

Peter Drucker, famed business writer, gives the advice that the idea of the hard-charging CEO who is rapidly making decisions is bogus and dangerous. A CEO, and any leader really, should respond to any request from a coworker with the principle that would let that coworker make the decision on their own.

Principles get refined over time. You don’t start your career with any. Then, through experience, you start to build them up.

For example, one of Steve Jobs lesser known principles was that Apple “sells dreams, not products.

You see this in every Apple product description. Every feature is explained in terms of what it allows you to accomplish rather than merely what it is or how it works.

So, when some new marketing hire comes up with the great idea of applying sales psychology hacks from Cialdini’s Influence book, the rest of the team can say, “That’s a fine idea for some other company — but it’s not what we do.”

That leads to consistency and efficiency — every decision isn’t held up by a negotiation over an entire universe of options. They’ve narrowed the options in order to keep moving.

Also important there, by narrowing the options Apple gives themselves room to become world class at the option that they did choose.

Your principles are the same. First you identify them. Then you polish them. Then you become world class.

When a problem calls for a principle, you’ll be ready to move with both speed and skill.


How You End Up With The Promotion

All four principles have been tested in an executive coaching practice. Here’s how they play out.

I’ve seen people try to be constructive and then develop a very negative attitude. Small attempts lead to failure which leads to a sense of fatality which leads to even worse relations with coworkers. It often takes an epic amount of preparation to break through and change that dynamic.

At higher levels of management, competent leaders start to get dinged for not having a strategic mindset. This is bullshit.

These leaders just order their milestones differently. They get their team in order and then go strategic. Because what use would strategy be if there’s no one to execute it?

This is where your philosophies come in. They help these leaders delegate more effectively and switch into strategy before they get unfairly labeled.


Why You Should Add Some Rocket Fuel

Obviously, I’m a fan of executive coaching.

Business is competitive and you only have a few options for rocket fuel: extra work, a boss who believes in you, a hired gun who believes in you.

If you think hiring a housecleaner is a good investment in your career, then a coach is that times a million. The hubris vs. merit dynamic is the most common in dynamic in business.

Coaches exist to help you navigate this. Ask your friends which coach they use or try Coach.me’s leadership program. This is something I wish I realized when I was twenty-two, rather than when I was thirty-two.


A Note on Fairness

This hubris vs. merit framing is statistically related to diversity bias. The HBR piece linked at the top gets into this. It’s one of the reasons that women and minorities are often incorrectly valued.

However, I punted on that topic and just made this a purely self-serving post. If you want a raise because you think you deserve a raise, then the above advice is for you.

If you do happen to be in one of those groups, then there’s one added bit of framing that you should have.

You compete on a playing field that’s not level. This is not fair. So, there are two battles going on. One is to tilt the playing field (not covered in this article) and the other is to compete most effectively on the current playing field (what this article is about).

Again, not fair. I’ll write a separate post about how companies can level the playing field in a way that increases both fairness and competitiveness. It’s absolutely win-win.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Coach Tony

Written by

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Coach.me. Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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