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Does time in role really matter?

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28th Mar 2017
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This article was co-written by Aoife Kilduff, Research Consultant, YSC UK and Nikita D'Souza, Research Consultant, YSC India.

Role tenure is one of the most readily available metrics in organizations. However, there are mixed views as to whether time spent in a particular role is related to performance.

To understand how organisations are thinking about role tenure, we interviewed over 20 HR leaders from a wide range of industries.

Time in role is contextual

Over 60% of the HR leaders interviewed reported that they use role tenure data alongside other talent metrics to make people decisions. However most agree that ideal time in role is contextual.

There were three areas in particular where longer time in role appears beneficial:

  1. For roles that require technical proficiency. Research shows that job performance is associated with greater role tenure if the role requires employees to gain technical skills or specific expertise to perform their jobs better over time. However, for other generalist roles, lateral movement across businesses create breadth of experience and build proficiency.
  2. To encourage a focus on driving long term sustainable growth. Quick movement across roles encourages leaders to be focused on their own performance and delivering short-term goals. They are likely to be less focused on doing what is right for the organisation in the long-term as they won’t be around to reap the rewards.  
  3. When implementing change. A recent meta-analysis found that job tenure was not related to creativity but it was significantly positively related to measures of idea generation, dissemination and implementation. While staying in the same job for a long time may dampen employees’ creativity, longer job tenure may enhance employees’ abilities to facilitate and implement change more effectively.

However there were a further two areas where longer role tenure is unlikely to be associated with higher performance:

  1. In start-up or entrepreneurial organisations. Organizations in the start-up phase grow rapidly each year and typically have short role tenures than mature organisations. They tend to constantly create new roles to keep up with business needs and have shorter term initiatives. They define success differently from more traditional, stable organizations valuing agility and the ability to deal with ambiguity rather than mastery and expertise.
  2. For high potential individuals. A majority of companies put their HiPos on a fast track programme where they spend an average of 25-40% less time in role as compared to the average employee. This is done because organizations see HiPos learning faster and hence advancing to roles quicker as compared to the average employee.

Despite these contextual differences, most organisations agreed that performance typically peaks between 2-3 years, plateaus after 3 years and that longer tenure often negatively impacts job performance. Research has shown that longer job tenure contributesto lower motivation, increased mistakes and higher levels of job boredom1.

Burch’s model of Conscious Competence

Burch’s model of Conscious Competence2 offers a useful frame to review where individuals sit in the role life cycle.

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However as we have discovered, ideal time in role is context specific. There are 5 factors in particular you may want to consider before making decisions based on role tenure:

  1. What stage has the individual come into the role at? e.g. if they came in at Conscious Competence they may need less time in role.
  2. How difficult are the skills needed in the role to learn? If it is a technical specialist role, the time between Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence could be longer.
  3. Is the individual a HiPo? If so it may take them less time to move between Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence.
  4. If no roles are available for individuals in the Conscious Competence stage what other opportunities can you offer them to keep them engaged e.g. cross functional projects, lateral moves, mentoring etc.
  5. Are there any business critical roles where the incumbent is in the unconscious competence stage? What can be done to address this?

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