Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Promotions

There are two schools of thought on how promotions should work. They can be summarized as prescriptive and descriptive:

  • Prescriptive promotions are given to folks that have worked hard and deserve recognition. They come with a new set of responsibilities, and expectations of performance at that next level over time.
  • Descriptive promotions are given when the individual is already at that next level, and is already performing in that additional capacity.

Let’s take, for instance, a super-simplified simple leveling system for software engineers. The levels may look like this:

  1. Builds functions to spec with tests
  2. Builds modules that work with other modules in the system
  3. Builds libraries and integrates with external systems
  4. Architects systems holistically

In the prescriptive scenario, a new engineer may spend a few months working on small well-defined tasks, then get promoted and starts thinking of the classes hierarchies needed to tackle more ambiguous problems. In the descriptive case, the engineer would already be tackling the bigger issues within a year, and be promoted after having shown that they have been doing the higher-level work.

The advantages of the former are that the differences between levels tend to be well-defined, and that it mirrors other types of transitions — most notably, transitioning into a completely new role or a new job. The main advantage of the latter is avoiding the Peter Principle, where the worker is no longer good at their job because they’re not ready for the additional responsibilities. Prescription is also friendlier to the employee in terms of receiving title and compensation improvements sooner.

Most managers that I’ve seen and worked with, however, prefer the descriptive system. Moreso than just saving the company a little money, I think descriptive promotions reinforce recognition and rewards work done as opposed to potential work ahead. The conversations and debates around a promotion candidate then revolve around what they’ve accomplished, not what they may accomplish if given the additional level1.

Reality, of course, is much less black-and-white. A newly-promoted individual, even under the descriptive promotions system, will still likely be given additional responsibilities and expanded scope. A prescriptive promotion-ee probably already did some of the things which made them attractive in the first place. There are also transitions — individual contributor to management comes to mind — where descriptive movement is all but impossible; more on that in a future post.

  1. The irony here is that hiring candidates are judged in part on interviewers’ perceptions of potential within their teams.

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