A Looming Succession Problem: New Research Shows Individual Contributors Shun Management in Favor of Free Time
Is the corporate ladder broken? New research reveals employees are hesitant to become people managers or enter the C-suite.
In the era Fortune dubs “quiet ambition,” employees are starting to draw a firm line between their jobs and personal lives. Instead of orienting their lives around their careers, employees want to clock off at 5 p.m. and retreat from the corporate grind. They see the work their bosses are doing and realize they don’t want their role or responsibilities.
But what does this shift in priorities mean for employers? Is there truly a lack of ambition, and will it threaten the corporate ladder?
As a leader in people analytics, Visier wanted to find out how employees actually feel about climbing the ranks. In August 2023, we surveyed 1,000 U.S.-based full-time employees who identify as individual contributors about whether they want to become people managers and their ambitions inside and outside the workplace.
The survey revealed that the quiet ambition trend is indeed a real threat to an organization’s corporate pipeline—and employers need to prepare now for the leadership gap that’s coming their way.
A succession problem is looming
Business leaders might have a succession problem on their hands: Individual contributors generally don’t want to become people managers. Only 38% of individual contributors are interested in becoming a people manager at their current organization. The remaining 62% would prefer to stay as individual contributors. When broken down by gender, the data becomes even more alarming: 44% of men are interested in becoming people managers at their current organization versus only 32% of women.
Similarly, only 36% of individual contributors are interested in becoming a people manager at a different organization, indicating that it's not the organization that makes a difference in wanting to become a people manager, rather it's the prospect of the role and associated responsibilities.
When it comes to why individual contributors don’t want to become people managers, 91% cite some sort of barrier—whether it’s expectations for increased stress and pressure or simply being satisfied with their current roles.
Reasons that deter individual contributors from becoming people managers:
Expectations for increased stress and pressure: 40%
The prospect of working longer/more hours: 39%
I’m happy with my current role and don’t want it to change: 37%
Lack of interest in leadership responsibilities: 30%
Personal commitments or interests outside of work that I want to prioritize: 28%
Administrative aspects of a managerial role: 20%
Lack of confidence in my ability to lead and manage a team effectively: 17%
Personal past experiences with poor management: 15%
I have low/no expectations that my company will promote me to a managerial role: 14%
Nothing would deter me from becoming a people manager: 9%
Individual contributors don’t want to become people managers, but do they still want to climb the corporate ladder? Only 37% of respondents agree that they want their boss’s job someday. Additionally, only 35% of respondents agree that they want to enter the C-suite someday. When broken down by gender, our research reveals a significant problem when it comes to achieving parity in leadership roles—men are more likely to agree they want to enter the C-suite someday (42%) than women (29%).
Employees’ ambitions lie outside the workplace
If the majority of employees aren’t interested in people management, promotions, or entering the C-suite, what are they aiming for? Our research confirms that employees are shifting their priorities away from work. Workplace-related ambitions did not even crack the top three ambitions for respondents. Instead, the list includes spending time with family and friends (67%), being physically/mentally healthy (64%), and traveling (58%). Getting a raise came in fourth, with 54% of respondents reporting that ambition—highlighting the importance employees place on pay. Only 9% list becoming a people manager and only 4% say becoming a C-suite executive.
Employees’ top ambitions:
Spending time with my family and friends: 67%
Being physically/mentally healthy: 64%
Getting a raise: 54%
TIE: Doing well in my hobbies: 29%
TIE: Working at a company that offers flexibility: 29%
Getting promoted at work: 23%
Building a family: 22%
Volunteering for a good cause: 20%
Starting my own business: 15%
Becoming a people manager: 9%
Becoming a C-suite executive: 4%
This deprioritization of work is further reflected in the data. When asked how motivated they are to be successful at their current organization, 63% of respondents say, “I care about doing well but I won't compromise my work-life balance,” and only 4% say “I do the least possible to get by.” Thirty-three percent of respondents say “I'm a high achiever and will do whatever it takes to achieve my goals.”
While in the past there may have been optics-related pressure about becoming a people manager, that largely isn't the case today. Only 34% of respondents agree they are concerned they would look unambitious, or it would hurt their career, if they did not take a people manager role. And 32% strongly disagree with this statement.
Employers need to better align benefits and support
So, what are employees looking for in the workplace, and how can business leaders encourage individual contributors to become people managers?
Fortunately for employers, only 12% of respondents say nothing would convince them to become people managers. Unsurprisingly, pay is the primary motivator for respondents—with 71% saying better compensation would incentivize them to become people managers. Forty-five percent say better benefits and 26% say more opportunities for career advancement.
Top incentives to become a people manager:
Better compensation: 71%
Better benefits: 45%
More opportunities for career advancement: 26%
The ability to influence my team's direction and success: 22%
Increased flexibility and autonomy: 20%
Leadership training and support: 18%
TIE: Less task-oriented work: 12%
TIE: None of the above: 12%
Personal prestige and status: 10%
Over half (55%) of respondents say a positive work-life balance is a quality they look for in a workplace. Forty-one percent of respondents say flexible work arrangements, and 37% say a relaxed work environment. The ability to manage people came in last place on the list of qualities, with only 10% of respondents saying they look for it.
Qualities employees look for in a workplace:
A positive work-life balance: 55%
Flexible work arrangements: 41%
A relaxed work environment: 37%
Opportunities for professional growth: 30%
The ability to remain an individual contributor: 24%
The ability to always log off on time: 20%
The ability to rise through the ranks quickly: 16%
A collaborative team: 15%
A company with the same values as my own: 12%
The ability to manage people: 10%
In addition to pay increases and more flexible work environments, employers should consider providing more support and training to their employees—especially younger generations and women—to bolster their management and C-suite pipelines.
Gender and age callouts:
Gen Z lacks confidence: Contrary to popular belief, Gen Z employees are open to becoming people managers—more than half (55%) of Gen Z respondents say they are interested in becoming people managers at their current organization. However, Gen Z employees are approximately twice as likely to say a deterrent to becoming a people manager is a lack of confidence in their ability to lead and manage a team effectively compared to other generations. In fact, this was Gen Z’s No. 2 deterrent.
Gen Z respondents are also 10 percentage points more likely than millennials to be concerned about failing in the role when considering the next promotion/role above them. The variation is even greater when compared against Gen X and baby boomer respondents.
Women want more support: To become a people manager, women (21%) are slightly more likely to be motivated by leadership training and support compared to men (14%). Additionally, the factors deterring men and women from becoming people managers are similar but there are slight differences. The No. 1 reason for women is concerns about increased stress/pressure while for men it’s that they’re happy in their current role.
Leaders must examine how to fix their organizations’ corporate ladders
Our research shows that the corporate ladder is in jeopardy as employees trade fancy titles for free time. Considering organizations are already facing a shortage of talent entering management and the C-suite, employers need to reevaluate their strategies to future-proof their leadership pipeline as baby boomers and Gen X retire.
But remember not to lose sight of the value of the high-potential individual contributor. As a reminder, 12% of respondents said nothing would convince them to become a people manager. In fact, 31% of respondents agree that they would consider quitting their job if they were made a people manager.
By intentionally providing more support and aligning benefits with what employees want, business leaders can encourage workers—especially younger generations and women—to become people managers and fill the C-suite pipeline. However, it’s also important that HR and business leaders are willing to adapt and meet their people where they’re at—whether it’s traditional managerial roles or reorganizing their career paths for individual growth.