Its implications for organizations

Article By

Beliz Ülgen
Beliz Ülgen
Beliz Ülgen is Head of Business Administration at Istanbul Ticaret University and has been a Visiting Professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management. She specialises in organizational behaviour and human resource management.

In many organizations, the promotion process is not always managed under fair conditions. Why is this?  

There are a variety of reasons. Often it is due to an organization not building the correct association between the requirements of the position and the qualifications of the employee. In some organizations the qualifications and the characteristics of managerial candidates are not taken into consideration in the performance evaluation process. Sometimes it is due to not using the appropriate performance evaluation methods to measure the employees’ achievements or failures fairly. In their evaluation, organizations may prefer one-sided (manager-subordinate) evaluations that are likely to be subjective or biased rather than receiving feedback from different actors (peers, customers, suppliers, team members). Still too often, too many organizations use unfair promotion approaches such as nepotism, favouritism and cronyism.  

As a result, employees who are promoted do not have the mindset and appropriate leadership capacities to carry out the responsibilities of the position and manage their relations with others—often changing their attitudes and behaviour negatively towards colleagues when they become a manager. This negative change occurs due to the newly acquired managerial position and is what I call the ‘Chair Effect’ (The chair being one of the major symbols representing managerial positions).  

Employees who are promoted often change their attitudes and behaviour negatively towards colleagues when they become a manager. What I call the ‘Chair Effect’

In this article I introduce the phenomenon of the ‘Chair Effect’ and outline how organizations can avoid it happening. It is based on research with colleagues across a range of different industries. This qualitative research was conducted with twelve professionals who have directly experienced a manager’s behaviour and attitudes pre – and post-promotion.  

The research points to the chair effect being caused by three types of factors:

  • Individual factors (hubris syndrome, power, personality, and sense of revenge)
  • Organizational factors (organizational culture and role models)
  • Contextual factors (country culture and social environment).  

Individual factors  

Hubris syndrome and power  

Coming from Greek Mythology, the term hubris means exaggerated self-confidence or pride. The three basic factors that cause hubris in work settings, are having a high degree of power, reduced limitation in using authority, and the length of time that the managers/leaders have been using this authority. Hubristic managers consider their abilities, performance, physical and mental characteristics superior to those of others, and they accept others as average in comparison with themselves.  

As their status rises, some managers may experience the intoxication of power, or hubris syndrome

When individuals get promoted to managerial positions, their positions in the organizational hierarchy may influence their use of power and the degree to which they are affected by power. As it is known, although it changes depending on the sector and scale of the organizations, there is a significant difference between the position of the department manager and the general manager in terms of the field of power that they cover and the opportunities they offer. As their status rises, some managers may experience the intoxication of power, or hubris syndrome, by being adversely affected with all the advantages of that power (such as managing more subordinates, having more influence in the decision-making process, earning a larger salary, having a larger office or more luxurious executive car, etc.) and they may easily get caught in the Chair Effect.  

In our research, hubris syndrome was observed particularly in managers who were promoted to upper-level positions (such as C-level executive positions: CEO, CFO, CIOs. V-level executive positions: VP, SVP and D-level executive positions: Director of Sales, Director of Finance).  

Personality traits  

According to the research results, personality traits are seen as the premier reason why people get caught in the Chair Effect and the two concepts related to personality traits are emphasised by the participants. One is the mature/immature characteristics and the other is dark traits.

The maturity characteristics such as being independent, active, having a high level of self-awareness and control or immaturity characteristics, including being dependent, shallow interest in job content, and having a short-term perspective are essential parts of personality when they are associated with the Chair Effect. As employees’ personality traits mature, they can cope with the challenges of managerial positions better. But in some organizations, people become managers despite their immature characteristics. Immature characteristics are fertile ground for the symptoms of the Chair Effect to be seen prominently. Another prominent theme related to personality is dark traits. Some people hide their dark traits until they are promoted but after the promotion they show these traits in different ways such as as holding their interests above others, exhibiting narcissistic behaviours, competing with unethical methods, and belittling others. These are classic behaviours that nurture the Chair Effect.  

Sense of revenge  

Among executive candidates, those who are exposed to the harmful effects of power, unfair management practices, and high levels of damage of self-interests may increase their revenge motivations. If an offender’s damaging practices and behaviour are not dealt with by the organization, revenge comes to prominence as an unofficial solution by the victim.  

In some cases, the victim delays revenge because of the risks related to benefits such as bonuses, social interactions, company- paid life and health insurances, profit sharing, wellness support, etc.) and promotion opportunities that come from the organization. On the other hand, the offender’s position in the organization relative to the victim may strengthen, delay, or prevent the occurrence of the revenge. Offenders with high-sta- tus have more influence on victims than the ones at equal or low status. Due to this, sometimes, the victim waits until gaining at least the same power as the offender, and after achieving this he/she may experience the Chair Effect with this feeling of revenge.  

Some people hide their dark traits until they are promoted – then they exhibit narcissistic behaviours, competing with unethical methods, and belittling others.

Organizational factors  

Organizational culture  

In the interaction between organizational culture and employees, organizational culture leads, forms, and influences the employees’ attitudes and behaviour. Therefore, mismanagement practices and negative culture can cause negative employee behaviour. In such organizations, some employees might consider mismanagement practices or negative behaviour as necessities for promotion. If a majority of the employees accept these wrong practices, it can lead to others in the minority group becoming influenced by these attitudes and behaviours and so try to copy them. Often this is done unconsciously.  

Role model  

Managers being positive role models may inspire employees by their personality traits, work-life principles and successes. Alternatively, positive behaviours can be generated by people who are the victims of negative behaviours from their bosses. It is possible that some people will be startled from these negative outcomes and determine not to make the same errors, so take precautions and show a tendency to do the right, legal, and beneficial things. Or, if the poor behaviours of negative role models are not punished, employees may perceive all these wrong-doings as acceptable and legitimate, and see advantages in behaving like their negative role model managers. As a result, the employees who are affected by negative role model managers may get caught in the Chair Effect more than ones affected by positive role model managers.  

Unfair promotions, especially nepotism, favouritism, cronyism, and the lack of a fair promotion system within the organization were emphasized as other important drivers of the Chair Effect when we spoke to interviewees about the organizational factors that made most impact. Managers who have insufficient qualifications but are promoted only because of their good relations with their superior, or are on the same political side, get caught in the Chair Effect easily.  

Contextual factors  

Country culture  

The Chair Effect can often be caused by the cultural values in which people grow-up. In this context, the chair effect is associated with three aspects (Individualism versus Collectivism, Power Distance, Masculinity versus Femininity,) of the six cultural dimensions of Geert Hofstede’s cultural typology. In highly individualistic countries, primarily north European and Anglo-Saxon cultures, there is a tendency to build weak relationships, and support individual achievement. In contrast, collectivism places much greater importance on group cohesiveness and shared responsibility. In individualistic cultures, solidarity is replaced by competition, and managers influenced by this culture can experience the Chair Effect easily to protect their interests, pursue their achievements, and save their power and status.  

In cultures with high power distance, there is a high degree of respect for authority, as well as an inequality of power distribution, dependency, less autonomy, and centralized decision- making. In organizations and institutions which have more hierarchical structures, the formal and power-oriented relationship between managers and subordinates is most often observed. In low power distance cultures, there is more equal distribution of power and authority, independence, autonomy, and low hierarchy. Managerial positions are not as concerned with status symbols. Decentralized decision-making, open communication, involved management approaches, caring equality and fairness are the other main characteristics of these cultures. People who most likely come from a low power distance culture will continue to focus on some basic concepts, such as equality, merit, talent, and expertise, after becoming managers. Whereas people who are influenced by the high-power cultures in which the intensity of respect increases in compliance with the degrees of power and authority, are more likely to experience the Chair Effect.  

Our research shows that power distance is observed as a significant dimension of the Chair Effect. High power distance increases the privileges of managers against subordinates. It is observed that some of the managers who get caught in the Chair Effect used privileges negatively to protect their status and power and to show themselves as superior to others.  

Cultures with a high femininity ranking, display specific characteristics such as humility, social care, cooperation, sensitiveness to interpersonal relations, and concerning quality of life, in contrast to masculine cultures where power, materialist values, competition, not caring for other people, and ambition are more important than human relationships. We see that people who grow up under more masculine cultural environments, may be more likely to experience the Chair Effect when they are promoted to managerial positions.  

Social environment  

Social environment includes all the factors of immediate physical surroundings such as family size and family networks, wealth, education, social equalities and ethnicity/race. The characteristics of the social environment can influence the behaviour of people , and even their health directly or indirectly . In light of this research, the negative characteristics of the social environment where managers were born and grown up may also influence the Chair Effect.  

In individualistic cultures, solidarity is replaced by competition, and managers influenced by this culture can experience the Chair Effect easily

Suggestions of how organizations can tackle the Chair Effect  

For organizations to foster effective management not only depends on the achievement of organizational goals but positive relationship management with all employees. Good relations between managers and employees leads to success, collaboration, creativity, competitive advantage, and cooperation.  

On the other hand, incompatibility leads to many unfavourable outcomes. One of the main reasons for incompatibility is improper and unfair practices in the decision-making process around promotions. What can organizations do to avoid this?  

I suggest six elements that can lessen the chance of managers being promoted into roles that they do not have the appropriate people skills for, and so reduce the risk of the Chair Effect occurring. The first three are already practiced in many organizations to varying extents, but a more consistent and comprehensive approach would bring wide benefits.  

The final three are perhaps less familiar, though easily implementable, offering opportunity to significantly and positively impact the promotion process, and making the Chair Effect a much rarer issue.

• First, there is a need to manage the promotion process fairly and evaluate meticulously the qualitative characteristics of candidates, such as their personality traits and their success in relationship management. This is in addition to quantitative characteristics, such as their performance score and relative seniority. Observation-based information should also be taken into account. Besides how well they get along with their peers, clients, or superiors, their attitudes and behaviours in conflicts and tense moments should be observed and noted.

• Second, although it is not reliable nor sufficient on its own, feedback from different actors regarding the candidates should not be ignored. Especially for managers who manage a large group of subordinates, it may not be easy to make comprehensive observations of their subordinates.  

For this reason, feedback of all the actors with whom the subordinates communicate and work together are helpful elements in a manager’s evaluation. 360-degree Performance  

Evaluation can be a useful method for providing feedback to employees communicating with many different actors and especially working in departments such as sales, marketing, and corporate communications.

• Third, in the evaluation process observing manager candidates through assessment centre practices is useful to obtain clues about their qualitative characteristics. For this reason, their participation in these practices should be observed carefully and evaluated. The content of all these practices – such as role-playing scenarios and group work – should be arranged in a thorough way for observing the candidates’ qualitative characteristics.

• Fourth, careful management of those with immature characteristics. A manager who has immature characteristics may display selfish or self-oriented behaviours towards their subordinates to preserve their chair or status. They tend to build immature relationships that are based on closed communication (e.g. rarely conducting face-to-face meetings with subordinates, often interrupting others when they are talking, listening to what they are saying without caring) and lack of socio-emotional sharing (e.g. displaying non-empathetic approaches, not concerning or recognising if someone is sad, supporting competition-oriented relationships instead of social interactions) in the workplace environment. Organizations have an important effect on the transformation of these characteristics into mature ones. It is not easy for employees to develop their immature characteristics in organizations where central authority, rigid rules, and fear culture dominate. Organizational cultures where employees have more autonomy, independence and creativity have more opportunities to develop their immature characteristics into mature ones.

• Fifth, implementing a probationary period of at least one year after promotion may be useful in observing the possible Chair Effect risk and preventing any possible negativities. Just as a probationary period is applied for newly recruited employees, this period should be implemented for managerial positions. It is assumed that as the rank of the position increases, the risk of the manager getting caught in the Chair Effect may be high due to reasons such as having more power, managing more subordinates, or having more financial packages. For this reason, the probationary periods can be extended as the seniority of the position increases.

• Lastly, the inclusion of the Chair Effect in the training and development activities of an organization will increase awareness amongst employees about its negative effects. This should include mentoring and management processes as well as career development training.

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