Rewards and promotions are a challenge for any leader. At first glance, it should be simple. Doers of jobs well done are promoted and rewarded, but it is far from that simple. Resources and egos make rewards and promotions a precarious balancing act.
In the corporate world, promotion means moving an employee up to the next level. Most people want this, but not all. For many the next level brings change. Often it accompanies greater responsibilities and a different political prowess. I worked with a man who was a power trader and dispatcher. He was by far the brightest guy on the team and this was known up and down the ladder. Each year they spoke to him about promotion and each year he turned them down. He liked his world exactly as it was. For him it provided comfort and freedom.
Coriolanus was a superb warrior. He had no desire to work the political scene in Rome. When moved into the position of consul he no longer was able to utilize his key talents, those of a ferocious warrior. Instead he was asked to use empathy, something he completely lacked. As a warrior his hubris and bravado served him well. He could hack and kill and be as gruff or egomaniacal as suited him so long as he won the battle. As consul, he would need political wile and empathy for others, both of which he severely lacked. Eventually, this ill fitting promotion cost him everything; his home, family, his position and eventually his life.
Sophocles’ Ajax shows the complexities of reward. Ajax, like Coriolanus, is a tremendous warrior. Like Coriolanus, he too is full of ego and hubris, apparently these traits serve warriors well. When Odysseus is awarded Achilles’ armor, Ajax feels slighted. He felt he deserved it. Perhaps he did and perhaps he did not, but he felt so strongly that he did, that it drove him insane and eventually resulted in his suicide. In this case, the leaders had to chose who would get the reward of the armor. Within that process, it had to be understood that there was only one set of armor and the army was likely to lose the warrior who was not rewarded. In this case, Odysseus’s future contributions were regarded as more valuable than Ajax’s.
Little has changed, rewards and promotions are rarely simple. They must fit the recipient, the organization and the situation. In today’s world, managers and leaders are too often set up to fail. a stellar salesman is not always a great manager and vice versa. There is often, if not always, a cost. A promotion to management may not fit an employee, therefore breeding discontent. A perceived imbalance in the bonus structure could cost a good employee or a strong producer. That is the job of a leader, to weigh the costs and benefits of promotions and rewards and understand the potential ramifications of any decision made. For whatever pleasure may come to a leader for bestowing a reward or a promotion, there is a secondary side where somebody did not get the reward or promotion. How the leader deals with those who “didn’t get” is the true test of a leader.
Similarly, founders and other leaders often find themselves wearing too many hats or the wrong hats. In a startup, founders may be subject matter experts and have amazingly creative ideas, but often fall short leading people or navigating the funding landscape. Like Coriolanus, a failure recognize these shortcomings will eventually cost the founder, the startup, and all the people in it to fail.
Rewards and promotions drive motivation. Organizations thrive when they are managed well. Good leaders understand both sides of this equation.