How The Wrong People Get Promoted And How To Change It

Research reveals that companies consistently choose the wrong people for management roles. Here’s what you can do to avoid the same mistake.

Have you ever quit a job just to get away from a bad boss? If you have, it turns out you’re in sizable company. According to a April 2015 Gallup study, one in two U.S. workers have at some point in their career felt compelled to make that same difficult choice.

That the business world may be filled with managers who unwittingly drive their people away is at the heart of Gallup’s 50-plus page report “State Of The American Manager: Analytics And Advice For Leaders.” What the research reveals is that organizations consistently choose the wrong people for management roles, and pay dearly for it through poor engagement and costly turnover—and the inevitable decline in overall performance.

But Gallup also discovered what distinguishes the very best managers—new and truly groundbreaking insight into the talents, motivations, and practices of bosses who make workers want to stay.

Here are five of the most significant findings of the report:


Perhaps the most important—and disruptive—conclusion from the study is that too many companies have a flawed methodology for selecting people into management.

How? They base hiring and promotion decisions on an employee’s past experience, and then reward them by giving them an entirely different role. According to the research, at least 80% of the time this methodology backfires.

Getting the decision right in who you name manager and how you develop them is the most important decision any organizational leader can make.

“It is the rite of passage in most organizations that if you are very good at your job—whether it be in sales, or accounting, or any number of specialties—and stay around a long time, the next step in your progression is to be promoted to manager,” says Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist. “But the talents that make a person successful in a previous, non-management role are almost never the same ones that will make them excel as a manager.”

The Gallup study states pay structures at most companies reinforce this career progression, and must be redesigned to ensure employees are given more than one path to earning higher compensation and prestige. According to the report, organizations back themselves into a corner when they tie pay to managerial status creating an environment in which employees compete for roles to which they’re not a fit.


Gallup studied individual managers at numerous organizations, and discovered those managers who most consistently drove high engagement, loyalty, productivity, profit, and service levels all shared five uncommon talents:

  • They motivate their employees.
  • They assert themselves to overcome obstacles.
  • They create a culture of accountability.
  • They build trusting relationships.
  • They make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and organization.

Gallup confirmed this combination of innate talent is so rare that it exists in about only one out of 10 people. They also believe another two out of 10 people have some of these five talents, and can become great managers with the right coaching and development.

Ironically, Harter is convinced that the most highly talented manager prospects are hiding in plain sight within organizations, and the use of some predictive analytics tool can help them make more informed hiring decisions. The rewards for doing so are impressive. Companies already employing these disciplines have realized a 48% increase in profitability, a 22% increase in productivity, and 30% jump in engagement scores, the Gallup report notes.


Hiring the right people for manager roles represents the single greatest opportunity facing organizations today simply because of the upside it signifies. According to the study, managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores. When a company raises employee engagement levels consistently across every business unit, everything that matters to an organization’s long-term viability gets better.

Gallup has studied engagement since the 1990s, and has repeatedly found that companies with happy and committed employees outperform all others in terms of business outcomes including absenteeism, turnover, innovation, and productivity. Getting the decision right in who you name manager and how you develop them is the most important decision any organizational leader can make, the report stresses. The best strategies in the world will likely fail in execution without the highly talented managers in place.


Another stunning finding is that employees of female managers on average are at least 6 percentage points more engaged than those who work for a male manager. In fact, out of the 12 different questions Gallup uses to diagnose a person’s engagement, employees of female managers outscore male managers on 11 of those items.

Only one out of three workers has a female boss today, yet women leaders eclipse their male counterparts in many of the ways known to inspire high levels of commitment, initiative, and loyalty in 21st-century workers. They more consistently cultivate the potential in their people by creating challenging assignments. They praise and value people for their efforts and contributions. They take steps to foster a positive and cooperative work environment.

Women leaders eclipse their male counterparts in many of the ways known to inspire high levels of commitment, initiative, and loyalty in 21st-century workers.

In their 2013 book, The Athena Doctrine: How Women And The Men Who Think Like Them Will Rule The Future, authors Michael D’Antonio and John Gerzema note the skills required to thrive in today’s world—such as honesty, empathy, communication, appreciation, and collaboration—are widely regarded as being on the feminine side of human nature.

Gallup’s data suggests many of these same qualities have a significant and meaningful impact on driving engagement.


Accentuating the positive behaviors and traits in people proves to be a wildly more successful approach to driving engagement than a well-intended focus on mitigating weakness, Gallup says.

In a study of more than 1,000 random U.S. workers, nearly two-thirds, or 61%, of employees who felt they had a manager who honored and intentionally amplified their positive characteristics were engaged –- twice the national average.

Overall, Gallup has discovered that the managers—male or female—who routinely motivate the greatest employee engagement have an instinct for investing emotionally in their people. Workers describe them as being more human and relatable—someone who cares about them personally and with whom they can discuss non-work related issues.

These same high-talent managers also make communication a priority. They hold regular meetings and interact with each employee in some way every single day. Simply put, they make their people feel valued and connected which has the direct effect of sending engagement soaring.


With 70% of the working population admittedly disengaged in their jobs today, we’ve reached a crisis that’s not just harming organizational performance; it’s profoundly undermining human potential.

But we now realize there is a cure. If we accept the idea that every person working today deserves to have a supportive, caring, and effective manager—and we make that happen—the rewards will be simply inestimable.

A version of this post was first published on Fast Company.

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