Promote Imperfect People

You’ve likely experienced it: “You’re above and beyond everything we’re asking. There’s no promotion this round but all you need to do is ___”. Insert a semi-important but not absolutely necessary thing. Even worse if it’s something you’re really not good at.

One of the most demotivating things that an organization or manager can do is requiring “perfection” for a promotion. It’s a problem with two main dimensions:

  • It’s incommensurate with the value being added to the business.
  • Perfection is subjective.

Incommensurate with Value-Add

Ultimately all performance comes down to one thing: how much value are you adding to the business? Examples of where forcing perfection gets things out of whack:

  • I coded up a feature that brought in $10M to the business this year. I wasn’t promoted because they said I don’t speak enough in meetings.
  • I saved the company from collapse because I was the only one who knew how to debug the system when it was melting. I wasn’t promoted because they said I show up too late every day.
  • I identified a winning strategy for the entire business that drove us to another echelon of success. I wasn’t promoted because my design docs have typos.

All that matters is the value being added to the business. There are nuances where behavior can set bad examples or cause issues for others, but that detracts from value added to the business and should be considered. The unfortunate and unbelievably common case is that some sort of benign missing strength is held against people.

Perfection is Subjective

When managers go down the rabbit whole of chasing perfect promotions they’re much more likely to be biased. In reality, most people’s internal picture of a perfect candidate for a promotion is something like “what did I look like when I got promoted?” That’s often the closest image a manager has of what a promotion at that level looks like.

In mild cases you get things like “when I got promoted I had to walk in the snow to work, uphill both ways.”

In more severe cases you get things like:

  • Men who don’t promote women because they’re not “aggressive enough” or they “don’t speak up enough”
  • Extroverts who don’t promote introverts because they don’t like public speaking.
  • Non-parents who don’t promote parents because they don’t work until midnight in the office.

Promote people based on impact to the business, not their style of delivery. Don’t hold people down because they deliver value in a way that isn’t comfortable, known, or practiced by you.


In promotions and growth, focus more on amplifying strengths than fixing “weaknesses”. You’ll find it’s much easier and much more fruitful to have people play to their strengths.

Promote imperfect people - that’s all you’ve got.