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The promotion that makes you feel bad

Receiving an unexpected professional status bump doesn't always feel good, especially if it wasn't really earned. Companies need to be aware of potential problems with unearned status gain, and be ready with solutions, says Tsedal Neeley

Published: Aug 14, 2015 06:42:21 AM IST
Updated: Aug 14, 2015 12:07:20 PM IST
The promotion that makes you feel bad
Image: {Shutterstock}

Companies change strategy, operational processes, and policies all the time, each shift creating a new group of winners and losers.

When Steve Jobs became CEO of Apple for the second time, the culture shifted, with designers enjoying elevated status, perhaps at the expense of engineers.

Harvard Business School Associate Professor Tsedal Neeley and her research colleagues call this "unearned status gain," which can cause problems for those who achieve it. Feelings of guilt, perhaps, that their unearned leg up hurts not-so-fortunate colleagues. Or the uneasy realization that their status boost could disappear as quickly as it appeared.

In short, receiving an unexpected bump in prestige doesn't always feel good. Companies need to be aware of potential problems and be ready with solutions.

With large numbers of global firms adopting company-wide English-only policies, Neeley has spent years studying how the policy affects non-native English speakers. For example, her research into a Japanese company that required all workers to conduct business in English found that the policy created not only frustrated employees among Japanese speakers, but also affected their work performance and promotions.


Her most recent research, though, flipped the question on its head. Her research team delved into how that same English mandate changed the fortunes of native English speakers in two of the company's US subsidiaries. The mandate, Neeley says, gave the American workers an unexpected—and unearned—boost in their perceived status or worth within the company, which she refers to by the pseudonym GlobalMoves.

"Life changed for the better without any of their individual efforts just because one day the strategy shifted, and they happened to be on the favored side of that strategy," Neeley says of the US workers. "This happens in organizations all the time."

Neeley and Tracy L. Dumas, an assistant professor at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, describe their findings in the paper Unearned Status Gain: Evidence from a Global Language Mandate, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal (available online ahead of print).

"Language is so powerful and so fundamental to everything that an organization does that when you start to introduce a shift in the language, as many companies do, we need to understand how it plays out for the individual, for groups and teams, for divisions and units, and for the organization as a whole," Neeley says. "Millions of people are affected by this topic."

An estimated 50 percent of multinationals use English as their common company language, Neeley says. Countless more have the same policy on an unofficial basis, she adds.

After the CEO of GlobalMoves launched the English mandate in 2010, Neeley began to study the effects on non-native English speakers. She interviewed the US-based employees a year after the policy was announced, and was surprised by what she found.

"They were almost euphoric, giddy, and excited and felt like 'We have arrived.' There was a very strong narrative around luck," she says. "A year and a half in, I went back and visited these people again, and that euphoria had come down."

Initially, the workers felt lucky that the language was changed to their own native language. They were buoyed by more frequent collaboration, a greater sense of belonging, and more optimism around possible promotions. However, a large subset of the group—67 out of the 90 US workers interviewed—felt bad on some level about the change. The subset consisted of those workers who had regular contact with their Japanese colleagues and could tell they were struggling with the mandate.

The American workers were sympathetic yet relieved that the situation wasn't reversed, with the Americans having to learn Japanese. They also engaged in what Neeley calls status rationalization—expressing the feeling that the policy would be good for their Japanese colleagues by making them more marketable. "There's a lot of rationalization around if they work hard enough, they too can reap the benefits of this English nirvana," Neeley says.

Lastly, the native English speakers worried their status boost could disappear as quickly as it came.

"The most important thing I learned from this is that there's actually a cost of privilege," Neeley says. "People often think that they need to cater only to those who they perceive are on the losing end of something that is spurred by an organizational change. This study shows that in fact you have to look at the entire system."

Executives need to understand that employees on the favored side of a policy shift could experience anxiety or insecurity, even though it seems counterintuitive.

"They know about those who are disfavored, but seldom do they recognize that those who are favored may have concerns as well. So it's a new idea," Neeley says.

Language mandates aren't the only type of strategic shift that can cause a sudden boost to one group within an organization. A shift in focus from one geographic region to another or a new emphasis on a particular skill also creates winners and losers. And global companies make those types of strategic changes often, as they strive to adapt and stay competitive.

Neeley points to the Steve Jobs example. Apple engineers were the highest-powered group until Jobs shifted the focus to design.

"When he very publicly elevated the designers and said this is going to be the emphasis, suddenly the designers were elevated, the engineers were diminished—just like that," Neeley says, snapping her fingers to underscore her point. "It happens all the time, but research hadn't really pinned it down and labeled it as unearned status gain."

When companies devise a change strategy, they need to take winners and losers into consideration. Both groups need to be encouraged and included in the implementation process, and reassured of their value and worth to the company, Neeley says.

For the favored group specifically, Neeley suggests getting those employees more involved in the company's core activities. Executives also should try to replace the feeling of luck the favored group has with one of responsibility instead. In the GlobalMoves case, executives could have asked the native speakers to help colleagues who are struggling with the mandate, which could have eased the favored group's sense of insecurity.

Neeley is continuing to study impacts of language and globalization, including ongoing research at two US companies facing the challenge of integrating non-US subsidiaries.

"Communication is the most fundamental means for an organization to achieve its global imperative," Neeley says. "If your people can't talk to one another, it's a nonstarter."

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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