From a young age, we’re told that the key to success is to work hard, be dependable and to make yourself indispensable. The reality, however, can be very different.
Sometimes, it is those who are professionally middling – who do the bare minimum, repeatedly make mistakes or who lack essential people skills – who find themselves in the top jobs. It’s called “failing up” – and it’s more common than we realise.
“We’ll have all been in situations where we’ve seen fellow employees get a promotion or a pay rise that we don’t think they deserve,” explains Ayesha Murray, a career and life coach. “Failing up is the perception that an employee is progressing despite being mediocre, whether that be a pay rise, a promotion or more positive exposure within the business.”
There are several reasons why sub-par employees may be first in line for promotions and pay rises. One of the key factors, says Murray, is that it’s easy for people to become blinded by charismatic displays of overconfidence.
“In my own experience, there are certain workplaces where the louder you shout, the more you tend to get,” she says. “Overconfidence reaps rewards and the quiet stars in the corner get overlooked.
“This can be problematic for the naturally introverted characters who aren’t comfortable blowing their own trumpet or who rely on their results to prove themselves,” Murray explains. “When someone in the same team is failing up, it can have a profound negative effect on the self-confidence and self-belief of others, leading to a cycle that’s hard to break.”
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Most people tend to overestimate their own abilities, research has found, with those of lesser skill more likely to have an inflated view of themselves. It’s referred to in psychology as the Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias stating that people with low ability at a task tend to believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are.
However, inflated confidence isn’t something that affects us equally. Research suggests men may have a propensity to be overconfident in their own abilities, more so than women. In 2018, researchers at Arizona State University reviewed more than 20 published papers to determine that men tend to overestimate their intelligence in STEM courses, while women underestimate their abilities.
And if you do make a serious mistake, whether you get away with it or not can depend on your gender. Women are judged more harshly at work than their male counterparts, multiple studies have shown, particularly when it comes to errors. A 2017 study by Korn Ferry International found women who led large public and private companies faced greater scrutiny because of their gender. In another 2019 study, researchers at the University of Virginia found female CEOs were judged more harshly than men for workplace failures.
Whether or not someone fails up can also depend on unconscious bias, which can cause us to make decisions in favour of certain people, regardless of their shortcomings. Although we like to think we are open-minded, research consistently shows we are biased when selecting other people to hire or promote.
In fact, we’re likely to have a more favourable opinion of people similar to us. Skill and ability become less important than whether someone looks or sounds like us or whether they come from a similar background. As such, a person’s gender, race or class can determine whether they’re more likely to be selected for a promotion or raise – regardless of their competence.
Of course, whether you’re more likely to advance in your career can depend on your connections too. Some people are always going to be lucky when it comes to getting ahead at work. Sometimes, all it takes is being at the right place at the right time. Others, who may be more competent, may miss out.
“It’s about who you know, not what you know so the employees being more socially active, putting themselves out there are the ones who seemingly benefit,” says Murray.
So what can employers do to prevent people from failing up? To ensure workers are rewarded fairly for their efforts, it’s important for managers to recognise their own biases. This involves thinking carefully about whether a ‘good feeling’ about promoting someone is because they deserve it, or whether they simply seem to be a ‘good fit’ – which can be a red flag.
According to Murray, it’s about understanding what “each person brings to the table” and giving employees an “equal chance” to prove themselves. “More and more employers understand that to have a thriving company, you need diversity of thought, which comes from having a mix of characters and personalities,” she says.
“The best modern leaders know how to get the best out of all their people, allowing everyone to have a voice that will be listened to, and affording everyone the same opportunities. Promotions and pay rises are dealt with fairly across the board and there’s transparency in the process.”