David Heinemeier Hansson

June 1, 2023

When promotions become punishment

The world is full of talented, capable people who'd rather put their own efforts to direct use than manage others. But the natural inclination is to promote senior contributors up a managerial ladder, and out of the trenches. This often ends poorly, turning the promotion into a punishment.

It's usually not that these potential managers don't like working with others. Quite the contrary. I've found that nothing motivates ambitious people like working close together with other talented individuals. It's also usually not that they're uncomfortable being senior, in terms of setting a direction for the work. It's that they don't want the responsibility, and associated guilt, that comes with managing others. Especially when there's a need for correction.

I've witnessed time and again how someone new to management will agonize endlessly over having to provide corrective feedback to someone, and damn near fall into the pits of despair if they actually have to let them go.

To be an effective manager, you have to be empathetic, but not too empathetic. Because if you can't separate yourself emotionally from the process, at least in part, you can't make the difficult-but-necessary decisions required to service the broader team. And it's really hard to know whether you have this in you until you're faced with the reality of a tough situation.

It's a tricky balance. On the one hand, there's a lot of evidence that people respond best to the kind of managers and leaders who come from the ranks of the most talented, capable individual contributors. And you have anecdotes from the likes of Steve Jobs and others in spades to back this up. But on the other hand, it'll serve nobody if the stress of managing is so severe that it produces paralyzing anxiety.

This is one of the key reasons to pursue minimalist management. By setting up processes that handle much of the mechanics of reporting, and clearly reveals someone's progress for all to see, as well as distributing the human elements, like mentorship, you can reap much of the benefit of letting senior people provide parts of the management work without the dreaded promotion into management per se.

You still need some managers. People comfortable acting on the data that's being produced by the processes, and the testimony of mentors. But you can get by with fewer of them, without turning the whole thing into a flat free for all. And you can condemn fewer of the most talented, capable, senior people to positions where they must reluctantly hold the careers of others in their hands.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.