Early Career Advancement Leads to Short-term Stress, Self-esteem Splits — and Lasting Emotional Resiliency

That first promotion to a leadership position at work — with more responsibilities, an exciting new challenge, a raise, and fresh confidence that your boss believes in your work and trusts you to deliver results — is the stuff of classic movie moments and sparkling toasts of celebration.

But a new study from Keaton Fletcher and Kimberly French, a duo of assistant professors in the School of Psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology, may force some new thinking about how early career advancement can temporarily throw off well-being and shake up feelings of self-esteem in the short-term and long run. 

Using data accumulated on 184 workers over a 12-year period, the new research suggests that taking on a first formal leadership role at work is, in the first year, a stressful experience for all workers — one that can negatively impact men’s self-esteem more than women’s in that period. However, for years after taking on that first leadership role, both men and women report experiencing increased positivity and self-esteem. 

Fletcher and French’s new paper, “Longitudinal Effects of Transitioning Into a First-Time Leadership Position on Wellbeing and Self-Concept,” is published online in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology

The tough first year of leadership

The researchers reviewed data that was part of an archival Youth Development Study dataset collected by Jeylan Mortimer of the University of Minnesota. The data, which studied formative experiences among adolescents and young adults, was for a wide range of jobs in small and large organizations, but most were considered traditional office positions. 

“We were capturing people toward the beginning of their development as young adults,” French says. “That is a prime time, when work has a major impact on how we feel about ourselves.”

To better understand an employee’s first-time transition to leadership, the study drew upon a concept known as role theory. People take on different social roles throughout their lives, “and they affect everything from how we perceive ourselves, to how others perceive us, how we behave, our mental health,” Fletcher says. The identity-driven roles can be permanent and lasting, such as the concept of being an adult or a parent, “or they can be more transient roles, like the role of a manager or that of a partner in a relationship.”

The data that Fletcher and French analyzed included information on tension (think: feeling stressed), depression, emotional well-being, self-esteem, feelings of control, and job satisfaction before and after people took on their very first supervisory role. 

The researchers unexpectedly found that “men experienced a significant drop in self-esteem at the point of transition compared to women, but otherwise, there were no significant gender differences at the time of, or following, a leadership transition.”

Internalizing societal expectations for leaders

“We were surprised,” Fletcher says. “Because of role theory, we thought women would suffer more in transition to leadership and get fewer benefits out of it” because of certain social expectations that are often internalized.

“Society tells me as a man, I’m a natural leader and should be good at it,” Fletcher explains. “Then when I run into inevitable challenges as a first-time supervisor, I’m going to take those challenges personally, and they’ll challenge my self-esteem. With men, leadership is part of that role. It’s sort of expected that you’re more dominant and effective at being a leader, and what we see during the first year of transition is that’s it’s stressful — and men may feel like they’re failing, and men see that as a challenge to their self-esteem.”

In contrast, Fletcher says that women have a divergent set of societal norms and expectations that could help explain the durability of their self-esteem in a leadership role. “They haven’t internalized that perspective.”

And French explains there’s much more scientific literature on gender and work relationships than there are studies looking at gender and the experience of being a leader. Her research focuses on how managing work and family affects the health and well-being of individuals and their family members, “and there’s a lot of gendered research there because work and family are gendered domains.”

“The question we posed is pretty unique,” she adds. “Most of what we have is looking at perceived effectiveness of leadership, women or men, and how gendered expectations align with expectations for leaders. It was less on how men and women differentially react to events like becoming a leader.” 

Leadership stresses and the 'Great Resignation'

Although the archival data studied was collected from 2000-2011, both Fletcher and French speculate that difficult first-year leadership transitions may have a part to play in the so-called “Great Resignation,” which is a current trend among office workers who are leaving their jobs or beginning to seek out new roles after the pandemic may have forced reappraisals of their employment situations. The employment expert who coined the term “Great Resignation” also came up with “pandemic epiphanies” to describe workers reevaluating work lives, and Fletcher believes first-year leadership stress contributes.

“We are seeing people taking on leadership roles right now when companies are in crisis, and still in remote work because of Covid,” Fletcher says. “If you were making that leadership transition now, you might not see that long-term benefit because in the short term, it’s very stressful, and you won’t see those benefits right away. People may be doing mental calculus of ‘is this worth it?’ and in the short term the answer may be no.”

But, because the years following a transition to leadership can bring increases in emotional well-being and self-esteem, “just taking on this role sets people on a positive trajectory for how they view themselves and the world,” Fletcher says. 

Advice for employers: start small, share support

That’s why Fletcher and French recommend that organizations offer more support to those chosen for leadership, including a gradual assignment of more responsibilities. 

“Based on our study, more opportunities for informal leadership — before you take on a formal role — should help,” he adds. “Then you run into those challenges on a lower level where the stakes are not so high. And during that year of transition, making sure that the company acts as a mentor. Your supervisor is helping you, giving you guidance, and making sure you’re not taking challenges personally, so you can reframe the experience as beneficial.”

Fletcher adds that, because toxic feelings experienced by new supervisors can be passed down to other workers, companies should provide more help when they present opportunities to employees to lead. 

“Helping people be better people should be a goal of an organization — to better society, not just make money,” French says. “The benefits to self-concept are there. The outcome in and of itself, making workers better people, is a valued outcome."