August 9, 2020.
As I was working on the Staff promotion packets article, I originally included a section on "Promotion pathologies" to (attempt to) avoid when going up for a promotion to a staff-plus engineering role, but it ended up making the article less cohesive so I scrapped it there and have pulled it out here as a separate post.
I've written about some of the weird emergent behavior around promotions, but didn't address how some recurring tropes often derail individual promotion nominations.
The themes I've frequently seen block folks from getting promoted during calibration discussions are:
"Work was too easy to justify." This comes up frequently around projects that are very high impact but don't necessarily seem hard enough to justify a promotion. This is the downside of working in a previously neglected area, as often you'll spend a while cleaning out low-hanging fruit that results in major improvements but without necessarily the difficulty of a similar impact within the core business.
"But what was the impact?" This is the flipside of the first pathology. Just as you have to come to terms with impact being just one factor in these sorts of promotions, there are folks doing great work in projects that don't go very far despite their good efforts.
"But how much of that was their work?" When working within a team, particularly a team staffed with more senior or a number of similarly senior individuals on the same problem, it's hard to attribute impact across that team. This leads some teams towards doing individual projects, which is a brittle, slow and sad way for a team to work. Generally speaking I think this is aligned with company priorities of spreading their best folks across many different teams rather than consolidating them on a smaller number of team, but it certainly can work against an individual's preference to work with similarly senior folks as they reach more senior levels.
"But we can't promote everyone." Depending on the company size, there is often an explicit budget-driven quota to the number of promotions they're comfortable making or an implicit quota driven by not wanting to appear as soft evaluators by more senior management.
"But they're not like the others." Folks often use familiarity as a proxy for excellence, with predictably negative impact to the diversity of their senior levels.
"They need to maintain the level of impact." For folks who are doing great work, but may have only reached the level of obvious-promotability more recently. This usually leads to delaying a promotion for another 1-2 performance cycles.
There are certainly promotion pathologies, but these are some that I've seen come up most frequently. If you're an engineer, you can increase your chance of promotion by preparing your manager to answer these questions. If you're a manager, reviewing these questions for each promotion canidate will reduce the likelihood of delivering a disappointing surprise.
Many of these are challenging to address–that's why I didn't include recommended counter-strategies, but hopefully it's still worthwhile to be aware of them.