New research from the Harvard Business Review has highlighted an intrinsic relationship between staff wellbeing and the management of promotions.

In a survey of 400,000 US workers, the journal found that when staff believe that promotions are well managed, they are twice as likely to put extra effort into their tasks and to commit themselves to their organisations for the long haul.

Furthermore, employees were five times more likely to perceive integrity among their leaders – so if bosses promote individuals with high ethical standards, it will reflect positively on their own reputations.

HBR stresses: “Promotions are highly personal. At their core, they are both relationship driven and among the most important indicators of how well leaders’ actions align to the company’s stated values. A solid promotions process allows leaders to elevate each employee to their full potential – while showing the company what type of results and behaviours are valued.

“However, if promotions aren’t managed well, one person’s success can foster feelings of resentment in others, and the career aspirations of employees across the company can be left unrealised.”

Indeed, the researchers point out that, among Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, only 75% of employees think that promotions go to those who most deserve them. While HBR acknowledges that this sounds like a high figure, it notes that it’s actually the third-lowest score among 58, separate employee-satisfaction indicators it evaluates.

With all that in mind, what measures can leaders take to ensure that promotions are managed effectively?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The things that come to mind here are the value of openness, and the importance of providing tangible evidence that people are achieving in their outcomes. So not only is the selection process for promotions transparent – rather than being carried out behind closed doors, like some sort of ‘fix’ – but the things you’re required to do to evidence your eligibility are conveyed with absolute clarity.”

Cooper explains: “If you look at the Civil Service and the police in this context, that idea of having to pass periodic exams in order to demonstrate your eligibility for the next phase of your career is admirable. If we take Adams’ Equity Theory into account, there are few things more demoralising or deflating in the workplace than the sense that someone is receiving a greater reward for putting in the same, or even less, effort than you are. That resentment only deepens if it’s linked to promotions – given all the associations they have with enhanced remuneration and other perks.

She adds: “In the Institute’s 2017 research report on authenticity, we explored to what extent leaders have ‘favourites’ – and how favouritism, while all very nice for those who are on the receiving end, leaves less fortunate souls feeling somewhat alienated. Favouritism essentially creates two categories: favourites, and non-favourites. If you feel like you’ve been lumped into the latter category, it is not going to work wonders for your motivation – and overall, it is far from the most effective recipe for unifying a staff base.

“That is why it is so vital to allow your people to have a visible evidence basis for their claims of merit and success.”

For further thoughts on integrity in leadership, check out these learning resources from the Institute