Does being promoted to a management position suit you?

This is the second coaching letter in a series offered as part of my regular column. It
responds to real questions managers in small or medium enterprises have asked me, and
offers ideas to anyone in a similar situation, or to managers wanting to adopt a coaching
style. Personal details have been changed.

This is what I wrote to a new manager grappling with whether or not management suits her:

A promotion is generally welcome news; but not for everyone. A brain surgeon, for example,
is highly qualified and earns an excellent salary, but manages no one and probably prefers
doing brain surgery to managing a hospital. Progression in a career can mean either
promotion or professional advancement, and sensible companies provide for both.

Which suits you better? Promotion usually means higher status, more power, more
autonomy and better perks. But it also usually means longer hours, more stress, and less
opportunity to do the professional work you trained for.

According to the organisational psychologist David McClelland, we are all driven by three
motivators: Need for Achievement, Need for Power and Need for Affiliation. All three matter,
but I think your dominant driver is Need for Achievement. You described it as being inwardly
focused – your career decisions are based on doing what you enjoy, find meaningful and do

So for you a management position is only attractive if it helps you achieve more of what you
value. As long as you are treated fairly and your contribution is appreciated in your current
role, promotion might even get in the way.

People with a high Need for Power thrive on control, competitiveness and status – great
qualities for management, provided they are harnessed for the common good. I doubt you
would enjoy being a manager in a large, political company, but fortunately your smaller
company has less of the political jockeying for position that infects many large companies.

You have wonderful people skills, but I don’t think you have too high a Need for Affiliation
either. Otherwise the need to be liked could fatally limit your ability to take difficult decisions
or give honest feedback, creating stress for yourself and others.

But taking independent, risky and maybe confrontational decisions could be stressful for
you. You explained very insightfully that a lack of structure can feel overwhelming, because
you enjoy clarity about what you are responsible for and what you can let go for others. The
higher you climb, the more you will have to create structure both for yourself and others,
without stifling the creativity and autonomy of those who thrive on flexibility.

In our recent conversation, I was impressed how well you know yourself and your
aspirations. You said you don’t aspire to be a CEO. More important to you is to live a life of
balance and to impact peoples’ lives positively.

So does this promotion match what you value most in yourself? Of course we are not static
beings, and up to a point you can choose whether or not management will suit you. A
promotion offers a threshold into a new identity as a leader. As we climb in seniority, both
our self-image and our public identity subtly change to match our new responsibilities.
Learning to lead includes choosing what elements of your identity you want to retain, and what to change.

Who do you want to become? Don’t be restricted by your own current picture of yourself, nor
by what others value as important. You are highly talented in so many ways and can
probably achieve more than you dream possible, both professionally and in leading others.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 28 June 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-06-27-jonathan-cook-does-being-promoted-to-a-management-position-suit-you/).

If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit

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