There’s a certain type of person in the workplace who often carries a loathsome reputation: the colleague who succeeds in big ways despite not being good at their job. These people have “failed upwards,” meaning they’ve attained undue success, sometimes from sheer luck, or maybe thanks to a savvy networking ability or certain workplace alliances.
Most people who fail upwards don’t necessarily do so consciously — nobody really wants to admit that their successes are undeserved — but a minority might feel uneasy about their achievements, particularly those who struggle with imposter syndrome. If you’ve grappled with the feeling that you’ve scaled the corporate ladder undeservingly, there are ways to cope in order to free yourself from a nagging sense of guilt — and it involves helping those around you.
Why do people fail upwards?
The modern workplace isn’t a meritocracy, which is why plenty of people get promoted or win awards while the hard work of their colleagues goes unrecognised. Sometimes, the reasons are born of pure nepotism, like a boss promoting a lacklustre worker only because they share the same alma mater. Other times, a shared trait, belief system, or identity between manager and worker informs the reasoning behind an undeserved promotion — a phenomenon that sociologists call “culture matching.”
Some people are particularly crafty when it comes to navigating the social dynamics of the workplace. Charisma can be especially intoxicating, as evidenced by the number of corporate leaders who’ve leveraged their social IQ to reach certain heights in the businesses realm, despite having checkered resumes and personal histories. Certain personality types tend to be blind to their own incompetence, which is a kind of cognitive bias researched and later popularised as the Duning-Kruger Effect by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
However, it’s a subjective phenomenon. No two workplaces are going to be identical, meaning that those who fail upwards do so because of different reasons and due to different circumstances. Still, for those with a modicum of self-awareness, feeling as though you’ve failed upward can lead to imposter syndrome, or a crippling sense of self-doubt.
What to do if you’ve failed upward
For those willing to honestly assess the merit of their own success, the notion of failing upward tends to evoke a sense of guilt. A good example might be someone who survives a round of layoffs only to be promoted to supervisor the following month. “When you look at others who haven’t had the same luck, you are inundated with survivor’s guilt…or thriver’s guilt,” Dr. Perpetua Neo, a psychologist and leadership coach, tells Lifehacker.
If those around you are murmuring about you failing up, it might not necessarily be your fault, however, and this can complicate and compound your guilt. This sense of guilt can feel paralyzing, Neo says, leading to a feeling that “incinerates your energy” on the job and beyond.
But much of that guilt can be overcome by recognising the teachable qualities of failure — that stumbling blocks can help you carve out more success in the future. As Neo says: “The time will pass anyway, so make the ‘failures’ you have pay dividends for you — learn from them instead of wallowing or beating yourself up. Capitalise on them.”
Primarily, if you recognise your success as the product of luck, it’s good to focus on helping those colleagues who’ve been less lucky, particularly the younger ones. Part of this comes from recognising your own strengths, even if deep down you think you’ve been afforded opportunity unfairly.
“When you can also acknowledge your own gifts and credit your effort in failing upwards,” Neo says, “you create more energy for yourself, meaning you have more to pay it forward.”
Neo implores anyone in this situation to imagine themselves at an earlier point in their career. “When you consider your younger self having gone through that hell of failing, be that champion [your younger colleagues] never had,” she says. In that way, it’s possible to nullify the creeping sense of guilt that might come with high achievement, and to learn that you don’t need to feel guilty after all.