Getting the news that you’ve been passed over for promotion can be disheartening. And the follow-up discussion with your boss—the one that should help you understand why you’ve been passed over—more often than not just leaves you with a bruised ego and no idea what to do next.
The fact is, your boss is probably just as uncomfortable delivering bad news as you are with receiving it. (I’ve found that most supervisors actually expend a lot of energy actively dreading these exchanges.) Is it really any mystery, then, why we walk away from being passed up with no clue why the decision didn’t go the other way?
To get some insight, I interviewed 20 of my favorite executives to find out why so many up-and-comers were finding themselves part-way-and-stuck. Straight from their (anonymous) mouths, here’s what bosses are trying to tell us in those less-than-fun meetings.
1. You Lack the Skills Necessary to do the Job
“Julie is very efficient and effective in the completion of her daily tasks. The position she was hoping to get, however, requires strong analytical skills she doesn’t have.”
One of the most common misconceptions employees have about promotion decisions is that they’re based solely on performance in their current role. While that’s certainly a consideration, success in one area doesn’t always translate to success in another. For instance, someone who excels at data entry may need additional education or training to become a data analyst, a job that requires strategic thinking and problem solving abilities.
The secret to getting ahead? Become familiar with the requirements of the job you want, and determine what skills you need to improve upon if you’re going to succeed in it. Then, talk to your boss. Let her know you’re interested in moving up, and ask for her advice on how to get there.
2. You Lack the Soft Skills Necessary to do the Job
“Pam is extremely accomplished, technically. Before we can promote her, though, we’d like for her to spend some time developing her leadership and teamwork skills.”
Here’s something else The Powers That Be (TPTB) don’t tell you up front: These skills aren’t always technical. Particularly if you’re moving up to management, you’ll need to have mastered some soft skills—like conflict negotiation, diplomacy, and business communication—and coming up short might very well be a deal breaker.
Develop the soft skills you’ll need to succeed in the job you want, then highlight them through your involvement in programs that are important (and visible) to TBTP. Perhaps you can become an informal mentor to a newer employee, or volunteer to lead a presentation or training. Whichever method you choose, you’ll be signaling to your boss that you’re ready for management.
3. You Don’t Take Feedback
“I’ve really tried to develop Mary, to get her ready for a promotion. But she gets very defensive when I give her constructive feedback. I feel like she spends more time trying to prove me wrong than she does trying to improve.”
I doubt there is a woman among us that hasn’t struggled to keep her composure when receiving “constructive” criticism. But remember—feedback is not always a bad thing. Is it possible that your boss has some valid points? She’s telling you how to improve your performance—and this is good information to have when you’re gunning for a promotion.
When you receive feedback, whether in your review or in the hallway, resist the urge to defend yourself. Try to take it in and see what you can learn from it, instead.
4. You Lack Professionalism
“What frustrates me more than anything else is employees who are consistently negative about the company. What they don’t understand is, the things they say—they get back to us. Why would we promote anyone who behaves like that?”
It’s not unreasonable to expect that, as you move up the career ladder, you’ll begin to conduct yourself more professionally—and not just when the boss is looking. This came up several times in different contexts—from an inability to maintain confidentiality to participation in office gossip—and was identified by executives as the most difficult challenge for employees to overcome.
This may seem obvious, but how you behave in the company of co-workers is just as important, if not more so, as how you behave around management. For example, you can and should identify problems within your department and company, but you should not pontificate about those problems in the break room—which gives the impression that you’re looking for an audience, instead of a solution.
5. You Don’t Take Initiative
“Jennifer is quick to recognize areas that could use improvement, but we can’t get her to go beyond lodging the complaint. We’d really like to see her take the initiative to come up with solutions, not just expect everything to be fixed by management.”
Becoming a problem solver shows that you care—not only about your own career, but about the long-term health of the business as well. Don’t just document the problems you see, analyze the issues and find ways to get involved in developing the solutions. Collaborating with others to create positive change will identify you as a leader in your organization. Remember, anyone can drop a complaint into the suggestion box.
6. You Think Like an Employee—Not a Manager
“Craig is good at his job, but it seems like he’s more committed to getting on the freeway by 10 ’til than he is to the success of his department.”
Remember, TPTB are anointing future leaders here. If you’re giving them the impression you’re only showing up for a paycheck, it’s not likely that you’ll be high on their list of candidates. No, you don’t have to become a workaholic or start hanging out long past five or six just to “be seen,” but it’s a good idea to express interest in the things that happen when the meter isn’t running.
7. You Expect It
“Sean has made it clear that he expects to be promoted. The problem is, I feel like he expects to be promoted based on only his length of service. There are others on his team that are more focused on their career development, and even though they’ve not been here as long, it’s likely that they will be promoted before him.”
Lastly, recognize that in today’s environment, tenure is no longer the primary factor in promotion decisions, and is best left out of any arguments you might make on your own behalf. These days, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been there six months or six years—it’s all about your contribution.
Being passed over for a promotion doesn’t need to be the end of the world. In fact, it can be a huge learning opportunity—and sometimes, it can also be just the kick in the pants you need to get you started down the right path. So take these lessons, learn from the past, and keep that promotion in your sights.