How to Lead a Staffer Who Doesn’t Want That Promotion

Not every employee thinks of “promotion” the same way. For execs, that’s an opportunity to rethink how you assess staff and set goals for them.

If you’re a leader, you want to get the best out of the people you lead. And it seems fairly obvious about how to go about doing that: Give employees opportunities to stretch, give them meaningful performance reviews, and offer incentives such as raises, bonuses, and promotions.

But if you’re a leader, you’re probably also aware that employees can be complicated people, and that what seems to be an obvious incentive often isn’t. Consider promotions. It makes a certain sense that people ultimately want more autonomy and authority the longer they remain in an organization. But in many cases, employees have already found a perch that’s perfect for them—and staying put doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re stagnating.

A staffer who enjoys wearing those many hats may not want that gig as VP of membership.

“I’ve seen many people who had strong reservations about being promoted allow themselves to be put into a bigger job because it was what others wanted for them,” corporate consultant Patricia Thompson wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2019. “In a lot of cases it didn’t turn out well.” Thompson’s article is written from the perspective of an employee concerned about multiple implications of taking promotions, from personal comfort, professional goals, caregiving responsibilities, and more. Leaders would do well to attend to those as well.

I often think about this in the context of journalism, where the lower rungs of the career ladder at newspapers involve covering floods, fires, and crime; the hours are long, but you’re rarely bored. As one climbs the ladder, you’re “promoted” into gigs covering, say, the statehouse, where you endure legislative procedures and dry press conferences. It’s hard to begrudge an employee who doesn’t want to trade the former for the ladder.

And that can be just as true in associations, where a person who genuinely enjoys wearing those proverbial many hats might feel restricted if they’re “promoted” into a role as VP of membership. If you’re leading an employee you want to reward, your pitch doesn’t just involve selling the benefits of the promotion; it also means understanding what the employee thinks is a meaningful promotion.

Often, they don’t have a clear answer. “It’s easy to be charmed by more money or prestige, but those rewards might not be in line with what you truly want out of your career,” Anna Goldfarb wrote in a 2019 New York Times article about employees second-guessing their promotions. A promotion, especially for younger employees, might be the first time they’ve felt real pressure to think about their career goals.

What Do Employees Value Most?

The recent shifts in work—the pandemic, the move to remote work—have people rethinking the idea of promotions at all costs. A October 2021 Gartner survey found that 65 percent of respondents were rethinking the role that work had in their lives, while 56 percent had a desire to contribute more to society.

“This translates into soul searching over whether you feel valued in your work or whether you are merely creating outcomes and value to benefit others,” wrote Gartner contributor Jackie Wiles. “Dissatisfaction with the answers increases intent to leave your job.”

While every leader is itching to get the org chart set—especially given the current crisis in middle management—it’s worth having a conversation about those goals rather than investing in a change that’ll wind up being a poor fit. The Times article cautioned employees to “keep an open mind and think about the doors that might open if you take the job. You could contribute to an exciting project, break into an emerging industry, or learn a new skill set.” And if you sense the employee is looking to break out in that way, the pitch becomes easier.

But it’s also fair for you, as a leader, to know that if an employee passes on a promotion, that they’re still committed to growing and learning new skills. “Demonstrate that you’re still motivated by explaining that you want to continue [to] develop in your role,” Thompson advised. A leader can help an employee identify what that development might look like—new projects, different applications of current skills, different forms of goal-setting and feedback.

Both Thompson and Goldfarb conceded that an employee might resist a promotion less out of comfort than fear. Sussing out if that’s the case may require a bit more hand-holding than you’re inclined to give. But that might say something, too, about the feedback processes that you already have in place. Thompson challenged employees on the fence to find out whether colleagues think they’re ready to take on more. Part of leadership is letting the right employee understand where they’re best equipped to improve, without worrying about if it’s good form to ask.

How have you handled promotions at your organization, or worked with employees looking for alternate ways to advance and improve? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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