Stressed For Success

By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D.

A promotion is usually cause for celebration and pride. But for some, it's a source of deep anxiety, so scary that it eclipses life-altering occurrences like the death of a loved one or divorce. That's what almost 1 out of 5 business leaders said in a recent survey when asked to choose their "most challenging" life event. What can you do if landing on a higher rung has left you miserable?

There are several ways to understand why your promotion may paradoxically be undermining your confidence. For one thing, you may feel, correctly, that no one has prepared you for your new role. That's fairly common, if my experience with Corporate America is any guide. Someone has judged you qualified and ready—and pretty much left it at that. To get the support you need, you're going to have to set pride aside and ask for it directly. In a face-to-face conversation with the person who made the decision to move you up (don't use e-mail, which can get passed around), say that you're excited about your new opportunity and that in the interest of living up to expectations, you'll be asking for help. Be as specific as possible.

It's also helpful for you to understand the complex emotions that can be stirred up by success. The more these anxieties are acknowledged and normalized, the less they will interfere with the transition to your new position. For instance, it's important to admit that along with the gain, promotions involve losses. You lose the comfort of a familiar role and the relationships that went with that. You may also harbor fears of being exposed as an imposter (revisiting the childhood dread that spurs those dreams about taking a test while totally unprepared). It's not unusual for the newly promoted to worry that their inadequacies were just hidden before and that they'll now be suddenly revealed. Another common reaction: guilt. A promotion means becoming boss to former peers, or defeating other contenders, after all.

THESE STRANGE, uncomfortable feelings will pass with time. That's another thing to remember. Meanwhile, since some of your old buddies might now be your direct reports—or because you might not want to reveal vulnerability to anyone at the office—you'll need to be able to tolerate the relative aloneness of facing your new challenge. And the best way to do that is to share your feelings safely, with an external confidant: a professional or a trusted former colleague. One of the worst mistakes executives make on being promoted is to compensate for the stress by denying their feelings and believing they know everything they need to know. Such denial is a good way to undo your one step forward with a step backward.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at analyzethis@businessweek.com

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