Organizations can’t promote everyone; there will always be high-performing employees who want to get promoted in situations where promotion isn’t possible or requires waiting. This creates a problem for managers and leaders who want to retain top talent, but don’t have flexibility in promotions. The solution is to develop interim strategies to help these employees get their underlying needs met. For example, by narrowing down what the promotion signifies or enables for a given employee, managers can then scan for opportunities that could lead to uniquely meaningful work experiences.
In many work environments, promotions serve as one of the few indicators of career success and advancement. But promotions have a long feedback loop. They often take years to happen, which means they mask the growth happening across the months and years before a promotion is conferred. Promotions are also not entirely under an employee’s or their manager’s control. Sometimes a higher scope of work is not available, or leadership roles are limited in number.
The bottom line is, organizations can’t promote everyone. There will always be high-performing employees who want to get promoted in situations where promotion isn’t possible or requires waiting. This creates a problem for managers who want to retain top talent; a recent survey found the number one reason for voluntary employee departures is a lack of career mobility.
What should managers do to help employees with unmet desires for promotion?
When talented employees feel demoralized by slow upward advancement, managers need to develop interim strategies to help these employees get their underlying needs met.
First, even if an employee is a top performer, there may be certain skills or performance deficits that are holding them back from a desired promotion. If there are ways the employee can address and remedy these skill or experience gaps, talk with them and share your thoughts. Give them time to process your feedback on ways to improve, and make it clear in your conversation that there is nothing wrong with a desire for promotion.
Then start digging into what a promotion actually means to them. It could be some combination of the following, or something completely different:
A public form of reward
A greater scope of responsibilities
A greater scope of influence within the department or organization
A perceived opportunity for greater impact on broader outcomes
An opportunity to manage direct reports
Better monetary rewards
By narrowing down what the promotion signifies or enables for a given employee, managers can then scan for opportunities that could lead to uniquely meaningful work experiences. For example, higher pay may be the primary motivator for many employees. To the extent that your organization’s compensation planning allows for manager discretion, consider allocating more significant monetary rewards for high performers who have been passed up for promotion.
Consider other examples:
If an employee wants to have more influence as part of their work, ask yourself how you can help them have more impact with clients and stakeholders. Are there meetings the employee can join to help them learn what’s on leaders’ minds or further steer the direction of a project?
Maybe your employee wants to have more public recognition. Are there opportunities to position the employee’s work to be more visible and celebrated? Can the employee apply or be nominated for professional awards or have their contributions called out in public communication channels?
As a final example, maybe becoming a people manager is important to your employee. Consider whether you can appoint the employee as an informal lead of the team before they are officially promoted to a people manager. Are there opportunities to give them increased exposure to managerial activities, like leading hiring for the team or coaching more junior employees?
An important caveat: Even as you partner with these employees to create work experiences that match their underlying motivations, don’t expect them to wait indefinitely for a promotion. Give them feedback that will help them develop, and be as transparent as possible about the realities of promotion decision-making. Taking action to support the underlying needs of frustrated high performers will go a long way in the short term, but should occur in tandem with efforts to advocate for their advancement.
Why this approach works
By encouraging employees to talk more deeply about what matters in their career, managers can take a more nuanced approach to helping the employee design a career that works for them.
Discussing underlying motivations can also help high performers feel heard, whether or not a promotion is possible. This in turn positions managers as active partners in solving for career success, rather than gatekeepers.