I'm not sure I have a problem but my wife said I should write to you. I've had a pretty easy run in my career: I'm about to turn 40 and, mortgage-wise, we're doing well. My wife and I both work four days a week and we have great family support with our son, who has Down syndrome.
One of the guys in my team has been pushing me for while, however, to seek a promotion. He's, said in a joking-but-serious way, that I'm holding him up professionally, which I don't want to do. I don't really want to have to deal with any politicking and I don't want to lose the daily contact with a great group of people – turnover is low in my teams and some of us have worked together for years.
Should I count my blessings and stay where I am, or try for the promotion just to test the waters?
Coaching the supervisor:
Whether you move on or stay put, counting your blessings is always a good gambit. So let's. You're a good manager of people (low turnover is a conclusive tell). You and your wife not only have flexible work arrangements, you have family support to share both the joy and the challenge of raising your child. You sound exactly like the kind of middle manager most organisations need: responsible, relational and motivated by group rather than personal goals. Your main prompt to think about promotion is a desire to keep someone else (your ambitious direct report) happy – so it's tempting to side with you on the question of whether to climb further up the corporate ladder. You make a very good impression of someone who doesn't really want to.
Tempting, but not wholly. Let's take your wife's perspective, since the view of a family member about what you hide from yourself might be worth more than all the tea in China. What's she seeing that you're not? "Happy wife, happy life" might be true in a warm feather doona kind of way, but "perceptive wife, examined life" is way better if you care about the character that's on display to that lovely child of yours, that wife of yours, that team you value so highly.
Decisions made from clarity add up to a life entirely different from a life lived on autopilot, in the grip of your habits and untested assumptions. And your letter leaves traces of a tendency to avoid taking your own needs and interests seriously, and prioritising the needs of others over your own. If that's so, this tendency might have been compounded by the pressures of raising a child with a disability. There's so much to admire in your story.
One litmus test of authentic service is cynicism: if you're using caretaking as a way out of knowing and then acting on what you want, this avoidance will show up in your life over time as an aftertaste of resignation or even cynicism about the motives of the people around you. What happens if you try to connect to what's possible for you beyond the wants of all the people you now watch over? Can you, even? Or do you feel an instinctive fear when you even think about going there?
You can't be selectively numb: damping down on your honest sense of the man you could be will leave you with low voltage across the board. If this resonates, you might have some reflecting to do on what your life might look like if you let yourself have what you want once in a while. Start with ice cream or really great shoes, and work up from there in responsible increments. You'll need to confront your fear of disappointing others (and a temporary sense of disorientation) if you want to go down this road, so take a good read of how much appetite you have for the hard work of self-confrontation and measure the scale of your change accordingly. Small moves, as always, when you're working toward new habits at home or at work.
Coaching the direct report:
In a coaching conversation, you're asking your direct report to move their focus from you to themselves, as the solution to a problem. If you'd like to practise a coaching approach, you could try questions like "What would you like to do more or less of?" or "If we could change one thing about the team, what would it be?" or "How can we better connect the work you/we do with the aims of the organisation?" The pressure from below sounds like a useful prompt for a bigger conversation about what needs to happen for everyone to feel more engaged at work – rather than a reason to step out the way for someone who might also lack clarity about the cause of his current malaise at work.
If, at the end of all that introspection, a promotion doesn't make sense to you, there'd be no compelling reason to seek one. On the other hand, Down syndrome kids are highly enthusiastic. Your son might have a few things to teach you about what's stirring in the deep of your professional – and personal – life.