What if you don't want to be the boss?
Even if you love your job, chances are that you're hoping to move beyond it someday. Ideally, you want that movement to be in the direction of the tasks and experiences you like the most about your working life right now, and away from what annoys you. There's just one problem: at most organizations, moving up the ladder means moving into management, and not everyone wants to be a manager.
"As I rose through the executive ranks to my last incarnation, EVP and Worldwide Creative Director for Nickelodeon, instead of feeling directly connected to the creation of our programming and other content, I found myself spending nearly all my time in meetings with corporate peers and higher-ups," writes Anne Kreamer at Harvard Business Review. "In theory, I should have been happy. I was working with good, creative people (many of whom remain my close friends), I was earning a great income, and the company made cool stuff that my own young kids loved. But. But. I was merely managing the people who actually did and made things."
If this describes your worst nightmare, the goal is to head things off at the pass, before you wind up promoted to your highest level of professional discontent.
1. Be clear with yourself on why you don't want to lead.
Maybe you love your day-to-day work, or maybe you hate what you see when you look at an average day in the life of managers at your organization. Whatever the reason, you need to be honest with yourself about why you don't want to move up.
Remember that taking an inventory of your career goals and passions isn't the same as admitting your professional aspirations to the boss. It's better to face the truth in private, before you start thinking about confiding in mentor or leader.
2. Make sure fear isn't a factor.
Years ago, a female executive told me that one of the biggest internal obstacles preventing women from attaining leadership roles was fear of managing a budget – and that without that financial responsibility, they could never hope to rise to the top of their department.
Faced with a choice like that, some workers decide to give up on the promotion in order to avoid facing their discomfort. That's not a great way to make a career decision.
3. Know the corporate culture.
"...[T]he reality is that some places really do get nervous if you don't move up (or out) after a certain amount of time, and you want to get a clearer picture of how your company sees that," writes Alison Green at Ask a Manager.
In some organizations, it's a matter of budget, because there's only so much room for raises for a person who doesn't want to move up; in others, it's perceptions about ambition. If your company praises workers who keep moving, you'll need to be a shark as well.
4. Be transparent with your own manager.
When it comes time to let your own boss into your confidence, be honest. Now is not the time to apologize for what you want or to make excuses for why you're not interested in that promotion.
Green's advice to a reader with a similar problem provides a good template of how to approach the conversation:
"I don't want to move into management; I have huge respect for people who do, but it's just not me. I love my current work and want to focus on getting better and better at it. Is that something that you can see working well here?"
5. Make a change if you need to.
The median tenure of workers at their current job was 4.6 years in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Odds are, you aren't going to stay in one place for decades, even if you love your job. If you're getting too much pressure to accept a promotion you don't want, or being treated like a pariah because you're not angling for a higher position on the corporate ladder, it might be time to move on.
When you do start interviewing, pay attention to how long workers stay in their positions at your prospective employer, and how many workers focus on projects and deliverables – that is, on work, rather than managing the work of others. Do a little digging before moving on, and you'll find a place that appreciates what you have to offer, without trying to force you into a role you'd rather avoid.
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