We’ve all been trained to climb the ladder in our careers: Do well, hit your goals, get promoted, and repeat until you find yourself in a corner office.
In reality, however, there are only so many management positions any company can sustain, and the idea that we all should be working our way toward those few allotted management roles at all times is illogical. Those who are left to beat down a less linear career path are discouraged by their perceived failure to hit each rung of the ladder.
For those who do make it to the almighty corner office, it often turns out to be less than ideal. Management isn’t a calling for everyone, and corporate America’s assumption that a high performer is automatically a great manager can be, at best, ill-advised. Those who make it to management positions lament the lack of work-life balance or the bottom-line impact a raise may actually have on their net worth. Perhaps as a result, only 16 percent of workers are willing to go the extra mile because they anticipate small raises and fewer promotions, according to a 2017 Gartner survey.
We are setting ourselves up for failure by championing a system that’s dependent upon linear job progression. It’s time to turn our focus toward a system that mimics what has increasingly become a more natural alternative in bolstering strong companies, teams, and individual contributors: a nonlinear, exponential growth mindset.
Craving Structure and Opportunity Simultaneously
Hierarchies are attractive to us because we crave structure. Structures and routines give us a rhythm to fall into and a semblance of control. As author and professor of psychology Alva Noë explains, it’s how we become who we are.
But that desire for delineated lines and clear patterns can keep us in a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher on motivation and the author of “Mindset,” developed the concept of fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. “People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that…people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are,” Dweck says. “They have something to prove to themselves and others.”
Growth-oriented thinkers, however, believe they have innate traits but can develop their abilities through effort and practice. “A growth mindset is crucial to not just individuals, but also organizations,” explains Curt Cronin, a former Navy SEAL and the CEO of consulting firm
Ridgeline Partners. “Fixed hierarchical setups have limited information flow and rigid lines of communication, but growth-focused web structures function more like networks, efficiently allocating resources and providing just enough flexibility to create exponential growth.”
Exponential growth, Cronin says, is often misleading because it gets a slow start, which can be perceived as disappointing. This growth-oriented approach takes time to build as people and processes develop; once it hits an inflection point, it outpaces linear growth. Linear growth seems appealing because it gets a faster start; but its transactional and incremental approach results in a consistent line on a chart — not peak performance.
Finding Our Way to Exponential Growth
Knowing that exponential growth better positions us for peak performance doesn’t necessarily make it easier to move away from linear structures. There are, however, a few ways leaders can embrace exponential growth to push their companies — and employees — forward.
Emphasize career development that’s not at the mercy of promotions.
If a company sets up prize titles above all else, workers will see promotions as their route to leadership. A business’s words and actions have to be in alignment. It must embrace career development that doesn’t lead to a straight series of promotions to get its employees to adopt a similar attitude.
Alternative career development should focus on building skills and accomplishments, benefiting both the company and the employee. This can include additional educational or training opportunities (both in-house and external), project lead opportunities, lateral moves, and travel and networking outlets. It can also include cross-training, enabling a graphic designer to learn coding, for example. This type of career development can boost employee contributions and keep them around longer; in some cases, decrease turnover by one third, according to CEB research.
Allow people to fail.
This sounds counterintuitive — every manager wants to see her people succeed. However, creating an environment where failure isn’t feared helps both employee and company growth. People who are afraid to fail won’t try new things, step outside their comfort zone, or make suggestions, even when they sense those ideas could result in a big payoff.
Career expert and author Katherine Brooks says failure is a sign that you’re growing, and leaders need to push people to grow. One way to do this is by directly soliciting suggestions and contributions, whether in brainstorming meetings or through company contests. Another is to pair up people with differing skill sets on a project. This allows them to fumble their way through — and possibly create something amazing. The key is to provide input when requested; while allowing employees to build their skills on low-stakes efforts to build confidence to take big swings.
Make collaboration the norm.
Another way to boost employees’ confidence and skills is by making collaboration common within your organization. Bringing together people from different departments is a great way to assemble new processes and approaches. That means nonlinear thinking is championed companywide; it will have a trickle-down effect on other things people are thinking about.
Projects and brainstorming meetings are great ways to continue building this skill. Asking employees to work together on a proposal or to suggest three ways the company could improve social media engagement. When people treat collaboration as a default process, people move past the mindset of earning a promotion; they move into the mindset of building skills.
Leaders need to embrace nonlinear thinking to see growth — for themselves, their employees, and their companies. While we might wish that work transitions smoothly from Point A to Point B, that’s not how it actually works; we do a disservice to ourselves and our teams when we pretend it’s the norm. By embracing an exponential over linear mindset, we end up getting exactly what we need: sustainable growth.