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When Is It OK to Turn Down a Promotion?

Sometimes Saying No to a New Position is the Smart Play

Getting a raise. Climbing the corporate ladder. Receiving a better title. Taking on more responsibility. Advancing your career. These are the accomplishments most people in the workforce strive to attain. 

Countless resources exist to guide you every step of the way, from entry-level newbie through middle management and all the way up to the executive offices. How much heartbreak and anger has been exercised lamenting when things don’t go as planned? 

Why can’t I earn more money?
I can’t believe I got passed over for that promotion!
My boss is so incompetent, I could do so much better!

So if you are ambitious and fortunate enough to get tapped for that big promotion, there’s no question you’re going to jump at the opportunity, right?

Not so fast. How many times has history featured someone who has succeeded by making the difficult decision to do exactly the opposite of what everyone thinks they should do?

  • In the stock market, when every broker is worked into a frenzy over the next new thing, taking a contrarian view can often lead to profits.
     
  • When every sports fan and member of the media analyzes the lineups, breaks down the stats, and insists there’s no way that Team A can beat Team B, maybe it’s time to lean the other way [insert your favorite dramatic upset here].
     
  • When Porsche announced that they’d be launching an SUV for 2003, I remember thinking it was a colossal mistake for the brand. This was a company with a racing heritage that crafted high performance dream cars that made 15 year-olds buy posters and 40 year-olds tap their retirement accounts. The result? The Cayenne made up 57% of Porsche’s sales the next year.

So it was with great interest I saw Georgetown University professor Cal Newport speak at a conference recently and take the opposite view of the "climbing the corporate ladder" tradition, which he talks about in his blog Study Hacks.

He told a story we’ve heard numerous times, in which a talented employee was recognized for her accomplishments and offered a better title, more money, and more responsibility managing a team.

The problem is, those three things often come with three downsides: more stress, more hours, and less time actually doing the things you love, both on and off the job.

In this case, the employee countered, saying she would rather spend more time working independently on the projects she was best at vs. managing a team, and wanted to cut back on her hours, shifting to four days per week so she could pursue a degree in her spare time.

As I reflected on this, I recalled a few examples of people that fell into this scenario. In the mid 90s when the US economy was unstable, a coworker told me her father continually refused raises from his employer. He was content financially, loved what he was doing every day, and was concerned that if his salary kept escalating every year, he would become too expensive and be laid off in favor of someone younger and cheaper.

I’ve also worked with people who simply get really good at one thing, come in every day and do that one thing, and then go home. For years on end. For some people (myself included), that would seem like torture. I picture an assembly line worker whose only task was to put the left rear wheel on a Cadillac for 15 years. Yet, some people enjoy having a set routine and being a master at one task.

The key in these situations is to find out what makes you happy. If a simplified day job allows you to enjoy the other parts of your life more, why not go that route? In Mr. Newport’s example, work/life balance and pursuing a degree trumped managing a team and having a corner office.

He emphasizes two rules that enable you to get to this point:

  1. Master a skill that is rare and valuable
  2. Cash in the career capital this generates for the right rewards

These employees had worked incredibly hard to become highly skilled in a specific area -- enough to be recognized for a promotion. The difference is, they proposed a non-traditional way to be rewarded. These tactics are not likely to work for an employee just starting out, or one with skills that can be easily replaced.

Bottom line: You still need to work hard, become skilled, and look to advance your career as much as possible. But at some point when you near the top of the corporate ladder, take the time to look around and survey the landscape to make sure the next step is the best direction for you.