The problem with the modern career arc

The career ladder — or career development, career arc, job growth, etc. that you want to call it — is a big deal. Take a look at this visual:

That was the basic first-world life path for much of the time after the Industrial Revolution. Now it looks a bit more like this:

That obviously impacts your individual career ladder. But there’s another thing you need to take into account, especially if you’re a decision-maker who can promote others.

The career ladder and the dirty little secret

Let’s start with two things that I mostly believe to be true about workplaces:

If you add those two together with “We tend to put people in teams to do work, but we promote individuals,” you kind of explained a major lack of clarity for many about work. That’s when you come to review/bonus season and you’ve got some hard-charger shrieking at his boss “I hit all my targets!” and he’s getting zero reward or bump. But the boss? He probably just walked away with a cool new $20K. That’s life, baby!

There’s some new research out of Stanford about high-power (i.e. decision-makers) but low-status (i.e. not respected) individuals within organizations. I’ve written about this once before too, in a post called ‘Standard hierarchy is the lowest form of respect.’ What do I mean by that? Have you ever had a boss where you only respected him/her because he/she was your boss? Yep. That’s it.

Here’s the Stanford research, and this part should pop out a bit:

On the flip side, people in low-status jobs often receive little respect and thus experience negative feelings about themselves and others. “People with a lot of control over resources but little of the respect that comes with high status may be prone to act based on the negative feelings that they have,” says Halevy. “And they can have a negative impact because they control resources, so power without status is toxic.”

This is how this evolves at many jobs: you got some target-chasing buffoon in the middle ranks who is close with a few SVPs or C-Suiters, so despite Peter Principle, he keeps getting bumped up. Within about five years, this guy — who probably has no clue what the organization even does, in reality — is now in charge of a ton of people, projects, decisions, and timelines. He has a lot of formal organizational power on the old career ladder, but he has virtually no respect. He’s a high-power, low-status individual. People have to respect him because he’s their boss/project manager, but no one actually does. We’ve all worked with this person, and/or multiple variations of this person. In fact, here are 12 such examples.

Anyway, this all leads to a lesson.

The career ladder lesson

As I mentioned above, few people understand what makes a person get promoted at work. But if I had to look under the hood of 100 different companies, I’d say a big factor is usually “proximity to those already in power.” Now, this can burn you too — if you’re someone that makes a COO look good, the COO doesn’t want to bump you up, because he wants to keep looking good and doing less work. It’s a double-edged sword in that way.

If you were a decision-making person in a company, though, your best bet (here’s the lesson!) would be to only promote people up the career ladder who have:

  • Aptitude for the job/work (Important)
  • Respect of others (More important)

See, any discussion about ‘the future of work’ is really just about respect. That’s it. Research has shown respect is crucial time and time again to work environments.

You need respect on teams and between bosses and employees, for sure. That’s very important. But you absolutely need respect from the highest ranks coming down. If you have a bunch of C-Suite people that don’t seem to give a shit about anything except themselves and their bonuses — and I’ve worked in those places — it’s really depressing to even come to work every day. Your work basically doesn’t matter, because even if your boss loves you and what you do, all that truly matters to that org is what the top dogs perched atop the career ladder want for themselves. I also call this “Country Club Management,” and it’s a big deal post-2008 recession. Executives who couldn’t retire yet want to hold on to their scratch.

So the best type of leader for an organization would be someone with high-power (organizational decision-making) and high-status, or high-respect.

In fact, I’d promote someone who hits less targets but seems to be more liked and respected over someone who hits more targets but everyone seems to fear or hate. In the second situation, you’re making someone into high-power and low-status. Look at the pull quote above to see what happens then.

If you don’t believe that, try this:

And what if you yourself sense that you’re acting out due to your own position of low status but high power? By mistreating others, you’ll further reduce your status in the eyes of coworkers and feel even more disrespected, setting up a “vicious cycle” of conflict, the researchers say. You’re better off using your energy to boost your status by, for instance, contributing more and demonstrating your competence. “People should be aware that there are constructive ways to ascend the status hierarchy,” says Halevy.

That second quote here is also fraught as hell. “Contributing more and demonstrating your competence.” Let me put that through a managerial translator for a second and see what happens. Standby. Beep beep boop boop beep beep beep boop. OK, got it.


So my broad takeaway here: if you have the power to promote people up their own career ladder, consider looking for those who appear to be respected by others. Give them the formal power. When your organization is seen to be led by high-power and high-respect individuals, others will follow. High-power (formal) and low-respect (earned)? Not so good.

What else you got re: career ladder, Peter Principle, and respect?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.