Can a promotion be a bad thing?

Life is a wild ride. Some seasons grow us, some deepen us, others just feel like waiting. Work-life included. As a coach and mentor, it’s important to recognize where teammates are in life and what they’re needing most from their career. Acceleration is not always the best path for high performers.

Beau Ulrey
7 min readSep 12, 2023
Image of a winding road through prairie landscape. Wire fences and wooden gates for cattle.
Image credit: Jesse Bowser

From designer to manager

As a designer, I’ve spent most of my career striving for more responsibility and the next level as a contributor (that might sound headstrong, but I didn’t say I was successful 😬). I’ve been searching for more responsibility and operating under the impression that everyone shared my mindset. What was a career if not a constant search for growth and an upward trend? It’s a staircase and we all want the next step up, right? Most recently that meant growing in to a management role supporting a squad of truly remarkable content and experience designers.

Early on as a manager, I spent a lot of time talking with my teammates about their goals and how they wanted to grow. That growth often looked like a desire for a promotion, which I could easily relate to. But I had a hard time knowing what to do coaching teammates who didn’t seem to want to grow. All my searching questions to understand what they wanted, ways to push them further, how to grow responsibilities all came back with the same answer: not interested.

I was at a loss. Wasn’t the purpose of a career to constantly push for more and more? More compensation, more responsibility, more visibility? What’s my role as a manager if you’re not hungry for more? When does high performance not look like fast growth?

Let’s walk through these questions as well as my own misconceptions. I believe being a good leader doesn’t mean having it all figured out. It means constantly finding the ways I don’t have it figured out and working to be better.

What’s your professional love language?

My misconception: there’s an ideal solution for all top performers — promotion and publicity.

I spent some much-needed time learning from respected leaders and organizational psychologists and uncovered a beautiful truth: not everyone wants more in that sense, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s crucial to a team’s success. If every team member is itching for a promotion, you end up with a potentially cut-throat culture obsessed with rising above peers to the next rung in the ladder. It’d be chaos.

According to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, people can find themselves in rock star mode (gradual growth trajectory) and superstar mode (steep growth trajectory). These are not hard and fast boundaries as people can move between these modes throughout their career and even week to week. These are also not definitions of a person’s character or personality, which makes both paths easier to navigate. Important to note for managers — each trajectory has a very different ideal reward to make teammates feel seen, heard and appreciate. To show someone appreciation, you need to know their professional love language.

Table of steep and gradual growth trajectory. Steep growth trajectory looks like a change agent, ambitious at work, wants new opportunities, superstar. Gradual growth looks like force for stability, ambitious outside of work or content in life, happy in current role, rock star.
Illustration credit:

Superstar mode looks like someone who pushes boundaries and searches for more responsibility and new opportunities. Superstars tend to make waves. They bring vision and are ready for more. The professional love language here is time in the spotlight and fast growth in role and eminence.

Rock star mode looks like stability and quality. Rock stars tend to be more content in their current role, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning and growing. For a designer, this might mean growing craft skills to produce faster or collaborate better with developers while staying in the same role. They’re powering the team, but content in all things responsibilities. The professional love language here is time to roll up the sleeves, learn to execute at a higher level and become a subject matter expert.

I call this duality a beautiful truth because it adds new dimension to high performance. My bias towards superstars became blatantly obvious early in my role as a manager. Full transparency, if someone was not knocking on the door looking for more responsibility, I thought of them as not truly pushing themselves. Which is so far from the truth.

In reality, there are multiple types of high performance. This truth opened my eyes and removed a burden from my own shoulders. I let my own default define how I viewed high performance and growth. My definitions were limiting and got in my way as a coach for a diverse team. And they held me back from relaxing my own standards to focus on deepening my own skills over striving for more responsibility.

But I also realized there’s a broad group of leaders that share my misconception about the gradual growth trajectory. Why is contentment frowned upon? Why do rewards and recognition so often go to the folks moving and shaking on the rapid growth trajectory instead of those working over hours and doing amazing work behind the curtain? As a manager, it’s my job to celebrate both sides of the coin and reward teammates in the right way.

The upwards and outwards of growth

My misconception: all valuable growth is upwards; everything else is stagnation.

Another big ah-ha moment for me was realizing that growth can point both upwards and outwards. Again, my definition of growth has expanded. Upwards growth is pretty obvious and broadly recognized — you get a promotion, start leading an additional project or pick up a new set of responsibilities at work. Outwards growth is more subtle to observe, and also gets less credit than it deserves. Outwards growth looks like growing skills, mentoring others as a subject matter expert and influencing broader processes. It’s the professional love language of the rock star.

Rock stars are in a time of outward growth. Responsibilities stay the same or grow very slowly. This makes space for deeper growth in craft skills and a higher degree of quality in execution of work. It also makes space for more time and passion in other aspects of life.

Superstars are in a time of upward growth. They’re on the hunt for more responsibility and shaking up strategies in their work. There’s space in life to take on more at work and meet higher expectations successfully.

Recognize the beauty of life stages.

My misconception: my role is primarily to help people get bigger jobs.

How do you coach a teammate who is not on a steep growth trajectory? From my own limited experience, the first thing I need to know is how someone personally wants to grow.

Depending on life stages (and many other factors), some folks want to grow faster than possible, and some need steady and consistent work to focus more on other things like health, family and even a side hustle. Teams need the folks who are content to steadily make progress and deliver consistently. They keep the lights on and they also need effective coaching.

The key to guiding in the right direction is to know where someone personally wants to go and help them get there. Sounds simple, right? For superstars, they want upward growth, so look for ways to enable that when merited. This might look like submitting someone for a promotion or a new role, or it might look like coaching the superstar to be truly ready to take more on successfully. For rock stars, they are not typically interested in upward growth, so instead find ways to set them up as subject matter experts to help others on the team grow. This might look like investment in learning or setting the rock star up to teach and mentor teammates.

The following illustration visualizes how to coach across both trajectories and the scale of performance. High performing superstars are looking for promotion or responsibility growth. High performing rock stars are looking for the ability to stay in flow to grow deeper skills, increase productivity and continue in their mastery.

Chart demonstrating how to move high and low rock stars and superstars. Low performers move down, high performing superstars move up, high performing rock stars move outwards.
Illustration credit:

For myself, I’ve spent most of my career in superstar mode (for better or worse), looking for that upward growth. For the first time, I’m conscious of being in rock star mode. I’m looking to stay consistent in role and grow in my craft as a manager. I’m deepening my skills and learning every single day, and I’d like to keep it that way. A year ago, I would have viewed this as apathy or low performance. Now, I can see how this is a key part of growing and deepening in my career that can’t be sacrificed for the purpose of upwards growth.

So yes, a promotion can be a bad thing

Despite best intentions, channeling all types of top performers into more responsibility and bigger roles is not a one-size-fits-all solution to ensure someone stays and continues to grow. Accelerating around life’s twists and turns can be hazardous. For rock stars, a promotion can even cause them to become a flight risk. The best way to help all folks grow in all stages of life is to personally connect and understand what motivates them and what they’re honestly looking for. Corporate culture and immediate opportunities aside, what does someone truly want?



Beau Ulrey

I use empathy and good design to help people reach their goals.