Promotion to manager can actually lead to a loss of meaning at work

An employee of transport network (RATP) metro wearing a protective face mask drives a metro as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of…
An employee of transport network (RATP) metro wearing a protective face mask drives a metro as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of…
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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Striving for promotion—more responsibility, more status, and often more money—is one of the most common tropes of modern work. But it’s also not uncommon for newly-minted managers to feel less satisfied with their new role than they did before. The experience has been documented most notably in practical professions like medicine, engineering, and journalism, where rising through the ranks means giving up some of the hands-on responsibilities (like treating people, building things, or writing stories) that drew a person to their occupation in the first place.

A study from Nishani Bourmault of NEOMA business school in France and Michel Anteby of Boston University has shed some light on why exactly a new manager might feel disappointed in their promoted status, and even seek to leave it. It depends, according to the researchers, on where an employee found meaning in work before the promotion, and whether the new responsibilities rob them of that source of meaning.

Bourmault and Anteby studied Paris subway drivers and station agents (who sell tickets and solve customer problems) who were promoted to become station managers responsible for a cohort of subway drivers and agents. For the most part, only the former agents felt satisfied in their new roles. The study was based on in-depth interviews and work-shadowing with 29 former drivers and 25 former station agents and was published in Organization Science in 2020.

The majority of former drivers, it turned out, felt a sense of diminished responsibility in their new roles, despite now managing dozens of people instead of largely working alone. That’s because, the researchers concluded, personal responsibility for the lives of their passengers was a strong ethic they had “imprinted” while working as drivers, often for many years. The former agents, meanwhile, had no such feelings about their jobs selling tickets and troubleshooting station problems. They reported being very happy and challenged in their new roles as supervisors.

The researchers identified two different kinds of responsibility felt by their subjects: personal (the responsibility of keeping passengers in a train safe, for example) and administrative (the responsibility of making a station run smoothly.) The expectation of what responsibility should feel like, for the former drivers, meant that they experienced their new managerial jobs as less meaningful, while the agents, who hadn’t developed such a specific sense of personal responsibility in their former work, felt satisfied.

“Why do some feel fulfilled, whereas others feel disenchantment, when moving into the managerial ranks?” the researchers asked.  Their findings suggest that those of us who struggle to embrace a promotion to manager might need to interrogate where it is we find meaning at work, where we have found it before, and where—in a new role, if we want to stick with it—it might be possible to find it again.

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