All Articles Leadership Inspiration Battling the bulge: Handling the expectations of too many employees for too few promotions

Battling the bulge: Handling the expectations of too many employees for too few promotions

4 min read


Many organizations today are fighting a battle of the bulge. No, it has nothing to do with wellness programs, insurance premiums or weight-loss competitions. But it is a huge health hazard for business.

Over the past decade, many companies and institutions have suffered downsizing, right sizing, outsourcing, rationalizing and a whole lot of other “zings” that have changed the organizational landscape. Structures are meaner and leaner. Baby boomers are waiting longer to retire. The old corporate ladder has toppled.

Yet many organizations have continued to hire and set expectations with employees that, if they perform well, they’ll enjoy growth via perpetual promotions. Employees have done their part and now expect the organization to do its. As a result, there’s a bulge of talent in many companies — too many skillful, prepared employees for too few new roles. What’s an organization to do?

First, we must help everyone understand that it’s a whole new world at work. The corporate ladder has been replaced with any number of other metaphors for career growth: lattices, jungle gyms, climbing walls, etc. Upward mobility that represented success in the past has given way to a focus on lateral moves, and greater value is placed on broadening one’s perspective.

But at the same time that we help employees reframe their definitions of career development, we must also deliver on our commitment, offering them opportunities to grow and expand their capacity. Though in the past this frequently happened through promotions and moves, today’s leaders must use the only means universally available to them: the role that the employee currently occupies. And the good news is that there are countless ways to expand current roles and enhance them with greater responsibility, complexity, novelty or opportunity. Consider the options — from A to Z.

Arrange an off-site meeting, conference or mission.

Be a change agent, taking on responsibility for championing a new initiative.

Create a staff involvement improvement team or community of practice.

Deliberate with human resources and hiring managers to select a new staff member.

Evaluate the results of a project or initiative.

Facilitate a conflict-resolution conversation or meeting.

Generate a request for proposal (RFP).

Handle the interface between a consultant or contractor and the organization.

Integrate diverse systems, processes or procedures across departments, groups or countries.

Join a nonprofit board.

Kick around (job shadow) with someone else with specialized knowledge or experience.

Lead a team facing ambiguity.

Manage a diverse team of individuals very different from one’s self.

Negotiate or be part of a negotiation team charged with securing services for the organization.

Offer mentoring to a junior staff member.

Prepare and present a proposal to senior leadership.

Quiz an expert in another part of the organization to identify best practices and success factors.

Run a cost-cutting project or effort.

Study an emerging issue, challenge or problem.

Train or teach others.

Uncover an opportunity for improvement and propose an alternative.

Volunteer to temporarily fill an open role.

Write a speech or talking points for a senior leader.

eXpand skills by attending a workshop or conference.

Yield greater volume or depth within the current scope of work.

Zero in on ways to strategically leverage community service and volunteer opportunities for professional development.

During this time of transition — as employees and leaders alike come to terms with a landscape with fewer upward opportunities — it’s critical to actively manage the bulge of talent and expectations. One of the most effective ways to do so is to ensure the highest possible levels of engagement and contribution with a generous commitment to growth and development.

Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at

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