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Promotions Aren't Just About Your Skills – They're About Your Relationships, and Why that's a Problem for Organizations


The path to success and career advancement within an organization is often perceived as depending primarily on one’s skills, competence, experience, and performance. However, research has consistently shown that relationships and social capital also play a significant role in opportunities for promotion. While having strong relationships can certainly be advantageous, solely favoring those with the best connections over the most qualified candidates can undermine an organization’s performance and lead to unfair outcomes.


Today we will explore how relationships factor into promotion decisions, discuss the potential issues this poses, and provide recommendations for establishing a more equitable system that balances both qualifications and relationships.


Relationships Matter in Promotion Decisions


A wealth of research has demonstrated the influence that relationships have on career outcomes like promotions. Several key studies have found:


  • Employees with more central network positions in their organization’s social network are more likely to be noticed and given new responsibilities that could lead to promotion (Podolny and Baron 1997).

  • Those who are socially connected to senior leaders and decision-makers tend to advance more quickly, as sponsors and advocates within their networks support and endorse their candidacy for new roles (Burt 1992; Fernandez and Weinberg 1997).

  • Employees perceived as socially attractive or well-liked by colleagues are judged more favorably and afforded greater opportunities than equally qualified but less popular candidates (Cable and Judge 2003; van Rijswijk et al. 2006).


While skills and experience certainly factor in, having allies who can vouch for work performance and potential seems to carry significant weight. As such, promotions may go more to those good at political savvy and rapport building rather than purely meritorious job candidates.


Potential Issues with a Focus on Relationships


When promotion decisions are largely influenced by who knows whom rather than what qualifications are presented, it can foster inequity and undermine organizational functioning in several ways:


  • Biases and uneven opportunities. Those lacking strong alumni ties or an outgoing personality may find themselves passed over regardless of actual abilities (Rodan and Galunic 2004). This promotes uneven access to advancement.

  • Tunnel vision. Relying on endorsements within close-knit circles limits diverse perspectives and may ignore high-potential candidates from outside those circles (Burt 2004). Creative solutions are stifled.

  • Inefficiency. Less qualified but more socially connected individuals may rise to roles beyond their capabilities, hampering productivity and decision-making (Lazega et al. 2008). Resources are wasted correcting errors.

  • Unfair perceptions. An atmosphere where promotions seem arbitrary or a matter of luck rather than merit breeds cynicism, low morale, and high turnover among top talent (Aguinis et al. 2016). This erodes organizational commitment.


While smooth relationships are important for coordination, extreme preference for them over hard skills threatens the competency and effectiveness of leadership. A balance must be struck.


Recommendations for Organizations


To address these issues and promote a fairer, more merit-based approach to advancement, organizations should consider implementing the following recommendations:


  1. Establish clear competency frameworks for roles. Explicitly define the qualifications, experience, and capabilities required for each level to provide an objective standard for assessment (Ingols and Shapiro 2014).

  2. Use multiple raters in evaluation. Solicit performance feedback from direct reports, peers, and customers in addition to managers to gain a 360-degree perspective less vulnerable to bias (Smither et al. 2005).

  3. Require diverse promotion committees. Ensure representation from different functions, levels, and backgrounds on selection panels to consider a range of perspectives rather than just ingroup favorites (Karaffa and Koch 2015).

  4. Highlight development opportunities. Broadly communicate internships, rotations, and stretch assignments to give all talent pools exposure to senior management and a chance to demonstrate readiness for promotion (Ng et al. 2005).

  5. Provide mentoring. Pair top performers lacking sponsorship with advocates so social capital deficiencies do not hold back the best candidates (Allen et al. 2004; Higgins and Kram 2001).

  6. Benchmark compensation to the market. Payout competitive salaries for level of responsibility to reward achievement rather than just appearances of achievement or social clout (Heneman et al. 2000).

  7. Conduct skill audits regularly. Routinely assess whether those in key roles still possess the abilities required as jobs evolve over time to maintain a fit between positions and qualifications (Church and Rotolo 2013).


These structural reforms aim to introduce greater objectivity, transparency and accountability into promotional decision-making, ensuring the most meritorious move ahead based on proven abilities rather than social positioning alone.


Case Examples of Recommendations in Practice


Several Fortune 500 companies like Intel, IBM, and Capital One have successfully integrated practices reflecting the above guidelines over the past decade:


  • At Intel, a competency model specifying technical and leadership benchmarks for each career stage gives employees transparent goalposts to work toward and screeners objective criteria for new manager selection.

  • Capital One pairs high-potential associates who lack sponsorship through a structured mentoring program, identifying three future leaders who may have otherwise escaped notice.

  • IBM conducts regular skills assessments across departments to pinpoint any positions-person mismatches and proactively retrain or rotate staff to optimize organizational fit over time.


By incorporating structural solutions focused on qualifications assessment, diverse perspectives and developmental support over strict reliance on informal favoritism, these industry titans set a best practice for promotion equity benefiting both individual career success and company performance.


Conclusion


While connections undoubtedly play an important facilitating role in navigating careers, solely privileging them over competence threatens the sound functioning and justice of organizations. A balanced, calibrated approach considering both qualifications and relationships through multipronged policy reforms helps address inequities, broadens prospects, and sustains a talented leadership pipeline. With the right frameworks and processes in place, companies can promote based on proven track records rather than preferential treatment, building fairer systems where the most merited consistently rise to levels matching their abilities.


References


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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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