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Getting passed over for a promotion is tough. Here's how to handle it

October 21, 2022 - 14 min read

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Subtle signs you’re not getting promoted

Are you holding yourself back?

What to do if you (still) don’t get the promotion

Your journey doesn’t stop here

After mastering your daily tasks, learning new skills, and earning extra certifications, you might feel like you’ve plateaued. And that’s completely normal. Most professionals reach this point eventually, usually within five years.

That means you’re ready for a promotion. 

Promotions exist to reward employees for their exceptional performance and put qualified team members in senior roles. You usually receive more responsibility, a higher salary, and a privileged status within your organization. This makes a promotion a worthy goal for those who value career growth.

But moving up the ranks is never a sure thing. Promotions are less common than they used to be due to a combination of company culture, budget caps, and office politics, which can hold you back from reaching your career goals.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You wouldn’t be the first to quit your job due to a lack of professional development, but that should be your last resort. Instead, use this as an opportunity to shift your mindset, develop new skills, nurture your professional relationships, and prove yourself as a skilled problem-solver.

Here’s what to do if you don’t get a promotion to set yourself up for the next one.

 

Subtle signs you’re not getting promoted 

You may not be getting promoted for several reasons. In a perfect world, your boss would tell. But sometimes, you have to piece together the story yourself. Here are some subtle signs you’re being passed up for a promotion.

  1. Your leadership team isn’t going anywhere. Some organizations, like tech startups and not-for-profits, have small teams and flat leadership structures. Higher-ups stick around for a long time, leaving little opportunity for advancement if you’re hoping to advance to the next level.
  2. No one’s receiving promotions. If your superiors don’t tap anyone for new positions, you may have a company culture problem. Some organizations prioritize external hires versus internal promotions, which keeps all existing employees where they currently are.
  3. Your colleagues are receiving promotions. If everyone is climbing the ladder but you, it’s time to wonder why. They may possess skills that you don’t or have better relationships with their bosses. But if you’ve been around for too long, your manager may find you more valuable in your current position.
  4. You don’t receive any feedback. In some cases, no news is good news. If you never receive negative comments from your boss, you’re performing at a satisfactory level. But zero constructive criticism could mean they don’t care to see you improve. Everyone deserves to grow. You just might have to self-advocate for those learning opportunities.

The first and second points may be difficult to address without leaving your job. You can try having an honest conversation with your boss about their promotion practices. But it may be time to start your job search if it’s a small company with few advancement opportunities or leaders who don’t value promotions.

The third and four points are completely within your control. It’s normal to have a bad day once in a while. Still, if you don’t minimize your mistakes and excel in your role, your colleagues will continue to earn promotions instead of you.

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Are you holding yourself back?

It’s not fun to think about, but try to remember your last performance review. Did you receive glowing feedback, or did your boss have a long list of desired improvements? If no one has expressed interest in promoting you, it’s because you haven’t fixed these issues.

Before sending an angry letter to your manager for not getting promoted, consider whether you’ve really stepped up. Here are some reasons you might not be moving up the corporate ladder.

1. You don’t take feedback well

Modesty goes a long way in all facets of life. This is especially true in the business world. But if you recoil at the fact you’re imperfect, it’s time to reframe how you approach criticism. Even if you think you know everything about your job, there’s always room to improve — especially if you want to take on more responsibility in a management role.

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Developing a beginner’s mind can help you here. This means letting go of your ego and approaching constructive criticism with curiosity. Then you can internalize the feedback, make a plan to address it, and steadily improve in your job.

2. You lack leadership skills

Leadership is about more than asking people to do things. You have to use soft skills like active listening, develop your empathy, and learn how to motivate others. These things don’t come naturally to everyone, but they can be learned. If you want to earn a promotion, becoming a better leader will set you up for success.

3. You’re not much of a team player

If you’re always fighting with your coworkers, you’ll have a hard time convincing your boss you deserve a promotion. And even if you don’t hate your colleagues, your apathy towards them can read as disengagement at work. 

Making small talk and attending staff social events will help improve how others perceive you and show you care about the team. Plus, you may even make friends or learn to have more fun at work.

4. You present problems but not solutions

Flagging issues is a vital part of any job. This kind of transparency helps prevent small problems from becoming big ones, which saves everyone a lot of grief.

But if you flag issues without also pitching a solution, you’re merely offloading your troubles onto someone else — usually your boss. Getting the ball rolling will help others see you as a keen contributor to the team who knows how to problem-solve.

Innovation-is-at-the-core-of-his-plans-what-to-do-if-you-don’t-get-a-promotion

5. You don’t communicate your needs

A lack of communication could be holding you back at work. On one level, effectively exchanging information with your colleagues is a marker of good performance.

This means setting goals together, assigning tasks, and keeping each other informed on your progress when collaborating on a project. When everyone communicates, you and your team are less likely to make mistakes and more likely to deliver results within your preferred time frame.

You also may not have communicated your desire for a promotion to your boss. They may think you’re an exceptional employee and would love to see you in a higher position — but they think you’re not interested because you never said you were.

What to do if you (still) don’t get the promotion

The above points should give you a clear roadmap for how to improve. If you can be a better communicator and leader and get along well with your colleagues, you should receive positive feedback from your superiors.

But even then, it’s possible to receive good performance reviews but no promotion. It can be painful when this happens. You might feel like you put in all of this effort for nothing, but this isn’t true.

Everything you learned doesn’t magically disappear when you’re denied a job; this skillset can help you move forward to a new job offer or to a better work-life balance in your current role.

Take a moment to be sad and process your emotions. Once you’ve licked your wounds, here’s what to do and what to avoid.

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Do:

  • Express thanks. Show your boss gratitude for letting you go through the consideration process. They may feel bad about turning you down, and saying thanks can help defuse any lingering awkwardness.
  • Ask for feedback. Now that you’ve mastered the art of taking criticism, it’s time to hear it. Your manager can give you good career feedback on how to improve for future promotion opportunities or a new job altogether.
  • Stay positive. You’ve come a long way, and you should be proud of that. Focus on all things you did right to avoid feeling demoralized. This will help motivate you to keep improving.
  • Focus on yourself. You won’t change your boss’ mind by arguing with them. Focus on improving yourself so you’re ready for your next opportunity.
  • Find comfort in your colleagues. They’re your team, after all. Let them know you didn’t get the promotion and that you appreciate the support they gave you (if any).

Don’t:

  • Act impulsively. If you feel slighted, you might become emotional. This can lead to damaging decisions like rage quitting. Take a moment to calibrate before doing something regretful.
  • Be jealous. If you didn’t get that promotion, someone you know might have. They deserve the job as much as you do, so make sure to congratulate them. They’ll appreciate your positivity.
  • Overblow the decision. Realistically, being denied a promotion doesn’t change much. You still have your current role, but now with more skills. This is a small bump in the long road of your career — no more, no less. You can focus on turning your attitude around in the short term to match your long-term goals.

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Your journey doesn’t stop here

It’s hard to know what to do if you don’t get a promotion. You put so much time and energy into landing the role that defeat leaves you feeling sad and unmotivated. And that’s okay. You should process your emotions and take time for self-care. Then, when you’re feeling better, start planning your next move.

Promotions aren’t the be-all, end-all of your career path. Being denied could be a blessing in disguise, pushing you toward more appropriate and brand new opportunities. This could mean anything from transferring to your New York office or finding a leadership role at a new company. But if you’re committed to hard work, your next role could be your dream job.

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Published October 21, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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