Why didn't I get a promotion?

Aside from “I quit”, the worst thing a manager can hear from someone on their team is: “Why didn’t I get a promotion?”

This is something I’ve run into a few times in my management career, and it’s always a tough one to explain. It’s a tough one for someone to understand (notably if you’re the one asking why you weren’t promoted). That one question exposes all sorts of issues, not the least of which are communication, transparency, process, skill, value/worth, responsibility, and objectivity.

The problem, as a manager, is that you have a decidedly different view on these things than your employee. It’s a point of view that you’ve learned over years of managing, often going through the same pains that you’re now seeing from someone else. You’d think it would be easier to explain.

You’d think that, right?

Sadly, it doesn’t. There’s no way to account for the different ways people think. And whatever reasons you have will not resonate with them. Even if you could tell them the exact reasons why there was no promotion (which you can’t always do), those are your reasons — not their’s.

I’ve run into this scenario a few times. First as a developer myself, back when I started at the bottom. I didn’t understand what took so long for me to get to the next level. Every time there was a round of promotions, I felt like I was being left behind. I even argued my way into a promotion (sort of) when I debated a decision to hire from outside when I saw perfectly valid candidates in the company (I hadn’t even be arguing for myself ).I got what I wanted, and an internal person was promoted — me. Along with a good dressing-down for my behaviour and disrespect (and rightfully so).

I also watched as a co-worker while others were passed over for (what appeared to be) unknown reasons. While not directly connected, I sometimes found it really hard to comprehend the reasons why a promotion wasn’t being given.

When the day came that I had to tell someone else why they weren’t being promoted, I suddenly began to understand. It wasn’t so much an epiphany so much as it was a moment to see the remainder of the picture I’d struggled so long to see. While I still didn’t have access to the full set of details, there was more than enough information — and history through experience — that taught me what I needed to know.

For me, a promotion is not a title. A promotion is a change in role. It’s addition of responsibility and additional tasks and duties that are bestowed upon the newly-promoted individual. Their job changes, and they need to start showing more leadership towards others than they had before. (Mind you, in most cases, they already act as that next level, and the promotion recognises those abilities.)

My mentor, Allard Losier, helped me come to understand what goes into a successful promotion, and those points are absolutely critical to ensuring a good promotion path not just for the person, but for the team as a whole. And it really boils down to two words:

Appropriateness and Availability.

To promote someone, thus giving them more responsibility, they need to be the right person for the job. That means you need to trust them to handle the work you’re about to give them. (Would you promote someone you didn’t trust to do the job?) You need to know that they’ll not just do the job, but back you up as their manager, and ensure that the team is supported. That means an ability to lead, to work well with others, to communicate clearly and effectively, to teach their skills to others, and to accept responsibility when things don’t go according to plan.

And even if they’re the right person, you need a place to put them. Promoting someone without an available position for them to fill conveys absolutely no meaning. The title becomes pointless and their contribution to the team is minimised. I know companies that bestow titles like prizes in a box of Cracker Jacks. I’m glad I don’t work for them. Having a pointless title that doesn’t add to the holistic view of a team serves no actual purpose.

Okay, sure, you can give a title as a reward, and I’ve seen that happen. But I’ll also argue that a promotion that misses one (or both) of Appropriateness and Availability is irresponsible. You do a disservice to the team by demonstrating that you don’t pay enough attention to their needs or care enough to put the right person in place. You also do a disservice to the person, since you’ve just set them up to do a job they might not even be prepared to handle — you’re setting them up to fail.

And even these points, when explained in detail, will never account for disappointment. Everyone passed over for a promotion — real or perceived — will feel that sense of rejection. That they were somehow not good enough, or that you were unable to see a quality that made them ideal for a given role.

It’s a hard thing to tell someone that they weren’t promoted. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to tell someone that it’s not their time. But being human, we expect more. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. That way, you see what people are hoping for, how they think, and know whether or not they’re actually ready.

So that one day, you can tell them differently.

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