To Promote High-Potential Workers, Squelch Office Politics

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

No manager could disagree in the abstract with the necessity of promoting high-potential employees, but office politics can get in the way.

The trouble is what’s good for an organization as a whole might not be in a manager’s short-term interests, or the manager’s judgment may be skewed, management consultants say.

The problem is “prevalent,” Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer at Delray Beach, Fla.-based consulting firm Brandon Hall, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 1. “But it’s different from old school. People used to get derailed” from their upward career track because the decision-maker “had someone in mind; they were pushing their pony.”

While this still happens, he said, the problems now with high-potentials getting stuck tend to be more “strategic” and are often due to “unconscious bias.” For example, he said, an all-male group of decision-makers might decide they want to promote “a go-getter” who is willing to sacrifice work-life balance for the job, and they unconsciously assume that “a woman can’t do that.”

But even apart from unintended bias against gender, racial, or ethnic groups, the goal should also be “to move away from preferential bias of people you like,” Rochelle said. The inverse of this is a problem, too, he noted; managers are often reluctant to lose their best high-potential subordinate to another group.

The latter is a frequent refrain. The problem is, managers have to understand that high-potential employees are a “corporate asset” rather than being a part of their “personal fiefdom,” Rebecca Ray, an executive vice president and human capital practice leader at the Conference Board in New York, told Bloomberg Law Nov. 1.

As a Harvard Business Review article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, CEO of Hogan Assessments, and management consultant Abhijit Bhaduri puts it, “Those in charge of spotting potential are usually more interested in their own career than others’, and they tend to perceive a personal cost to promoting people who are a key asset, particularly when those people are better than the spotters.”

Wisdom of Management Crowds

The solution, Ray said, is to have “a wide and deep pool of possible candidates” who are reviewed by “multiple leaders who can then speak to their interactions and the candidates’ qualities and competencies.” Organizations should ensure that nominations come from multiples sources—not just one’s own manager—they are submitted according to agreed-upon criteria, and enough time is given to discussing them, Ray said.

Rochelle suggested a number of improvements to the promotion process for high-potential employees, including relying more on data science coupled with artificial intelligence, and training and coaching to get managers to recognize their unconscious bias.

“Design a vetting and selection process with a cross-section of current leaders,” Ray suggested. “Start with a clear understanding of what high potential means and, in particular, what competencies/capabilities are going to be critical to your organization and where is it headed.”

She added that “you may want to have a third-party facilitator for the first few sessions, as they can ask the ‘innocent’ questions that make sure that the process is rigorous and inclusive.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com; Jo-el Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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