I have a friend. He is driven by anxiety, even more so than me, which is saying a lot as I am probably the most high-strung person high strung person I know. He was talking to me for the uncounted time about how he was going to get fired for this or that little infraction. Yes, he pissed off his boss, he does that with regularity because of a cultural and personality conflict, but not to the point of getting fired. When I was talking to him, one of my responses when he wondered allowed why he wasn’t getting fired was “because you are good enough to keep around”. We talked about it for a while and he eventually agreed.
I’m continually discussing the concept of the purple squirrel. The idea that because so many professionals are doing so much more complicated jobs that coordinate a complex web of responsibilities and knowledge, it’s hard to find a replacement that has the right mix of skills and abilities. Usually when i’m writing about it, it’s lamenting the fact that companies are not willing to invest in people to create their own internal squirrel in a deliberate way. They just want to hire one so many people who can do the job are left out of the running. The flip side is that the individual holding the job is safe as there is not a ton of competition with the right mix of knowledge and experience. That’s the case with my friend. It’s more trouble to replace him than it is to keep him around and deal with the conflicts. But just because he’s safe in his position, doesn’t mean he’s going to go anywhere. There is no one in the organization saying, hey, let’s help you get to the next level. This isn’t surprising as most organizations don’t do this anymore, it’s not how the modern business climate is structured, if you want to get ahead organizational jumps are more effective than sticking around.
How do you know if you are in this grey area of ‘good enough to keep around’ but not good enough to get ahead? The first point is simply chronological. You been at your job for several years, you have communicated you want to get ahead, and have tried to climb the ladder. You could have been passive about it by simply applying for the openings as they have come along. You could have been much more aggressive about it by taking extra courses and industry certifications. You could have done organizational activities and joined industry groups. Maybe you were attempting to use the Brute Force attack theory for career ascendence. But in the end it doesn’t work. Nothing happened. Your still there.. The takeaway, especially if others have gotten promoted in your stead, is that the decision makers obviously don’t see you as leadership potential. This takeaway gets nailed home if you are getting passed over again and again. The second point, and really the final point is the situation my friend is in. You don’t get fired in an age where it’s pretty standard practice to fire someone who doesn’t quite fit the mold needed. You are in the same job year after year. So not getting ahead, and not getting fired equals ‘good enough to keep around’.
How did you get there? There are a lot of ways you can get into this mire. One analysis is simple and one I alluded to earlier: a personality conflict. Management usually, but not always, makes logical business decisions. Unfortunately sometimes the decision is based upon a personality or cultural conflict. Everyone has a bias, it’s part of the human condition. We have them because we are the sum of our life experiences Sometimes there is formal legislation against these bias in the form of equal opportunity legislation, but more often than not it’s much more nuanced and granular. Maybe the boss things you talk too much, maybe it’s a sex thing. When I say ‘sex thing’ I don’t mean in the traditional sense of sexual discrimination. There are industries and specific jobs that you tend to see that a feminine personality is prefered to a male, and vice versa. Yes, there are the blatant examples of not ever expecting to be a sales rep at Victoria’s secret or a waiter at hooters if you are a male even if the legislation may technically say they must give you equal opportunity. That’s not what i’m getting at here. I’m talking about More subtly don’t expect to be given a promotion in sales if your boss thinks that you are an introvert and an extravert is needed (even if your a great manager), and don’t expect to get ahead in nearly any government job if you are a bull headed action oriented individual (if your boss thinks you need to keep your mouth shut). In both of these instances, the personality traits may actually help at the next level, but the personality conflict by the boss (and in many instances a personality preference within the industry segment) will keep you from getting to the next step.
You’re not going anywhere. This leaves only two options: Option one is to stay, option two is to go. There are pro’s and con’s to each.
Option one: keep treading water. Just do your job. It’s what you have to do to eat and keep a roof over your head. So you work from 8-5 and then go home. Since you’ve seen layoffs, right sizing, reorganizations and all other of excuses to trim people, and your still there then there is a very good chance that they are going to keep you around. That’s good. It means you will probably be able to make that car payment. You won’t be fulfilled, but if you have the type of personality to just keep chugging along and not let your lack of career progress truly upset you then you are safe.
This is a valid option because we shouldn’t discount the value of security in a world of regular payments on everything. Let’s not forget that you may get lucky and the blockade moves (their own career ascendance, retirement, or downsizing, etc..).
Option two: See Ya! Option two is to leave your organization in hopes of greener pastures. Option one is a great lead in two option two. You could just sit tight until you find yourself saying ‘enough is enough’. When you do find you are absolutely ready to jump organizations to get that promotion, then you can use it as an opportunity to make your move on your terms. This can take a very long time because there is no incentive to move unless you are making a big jump in status, income, or some significant mix thereof. There are problems with option two that all boil down to that age old phrase of “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, in the bush, in the bush…” Sorry, while writing that I had a flashback to Ozz’s no more tears album.
Moving is difficult. It’s like hitting the reset button to connections, organizational knowledge, security, and everything that comes as a benefit to being in one job for a long time. It’s very scary. The positive is that if you have been good enough to keep around for several years at your last position is that you have something very very rare, a stable work history. Yes, some employers will question why you stayed at the same place for so long and they may talk about how much they love people with broad experiences… but the reality is most hiring managers want to hire someone they won’t have to worry about replacing for some time. Your extended work history with a single employer will be a serious positive to that end no matter what they say.
If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, Self Actualization and Esteem needs are near the top of the pyramid. These are the needs that are met, in part, by getting promoted and having more and more responsibilities at work. These responsibilities allow for increasing impact you can make with said oversight. You don’t get these needs meet if you are good enough to keep around but not to get promoted. If you are not climbing the organizational ladder, but are safe in your position then you will have the lower order needs met of safety and security.
The little trick to keep in mind is to remember that it’s important for all of our needs to be met, the lower order and the higher order needs. If your feeling frustrated by not getting promoted at work, maybe the solution has nothing to do with your job? Maybe you can target meeting the higher order needs outside of work? This isn’t an unheard of solution. In the early industrial age when most manufacturing jobs were fairly limited in scope, many members of the workforce were tremendously active in their communities. They would be engaged with boy scouts, the rotary, or any other number of civic organizations. Work put food on the table and life happened after 5 and on the weekends. Today, as the lines of work and life are blurred, so are the paths we take to self actualization. Stagnation in one route may blind us to the other routes we can take to meet these needs. The company won’t help us with clarity and meeting interpersonal and developmental needs. That is 100% on us. Will all your needs be met by getting a promotion via moving to another organization? If so, refresh your resume and start looking. The best part is that you get to do it on your terms! If you can meet your needs by segmenting safety & security (work) from having an impact on the world (through everything that is not work) then maybe you should stay. Just remember that no matter how safe you are at work, nobody is ever 100% secure in their job.
Bottom line, many would argue that being ‘good enough to keep around’ is damning with faint praise. Just don’t ever forget that in a world where so many people are let go for so many reasons other than work ethic, maybe it’s not such a terrible place to be. You can always become a leader in your community, as there is always a need for hard workers and leaders in jobs that don’t include a paycheck. Fortunately rent and groceries will be covered by your day job.