Organizations cannot improve everything; there are always high performing employees who want to be promoted in situations where promotion is not possible or requires waiting. This creates a problem for managers and leaders who want to retain top talent, but have no flexibility in promotions. The solution is to develop interim strategies to help these employees meet their needs. For example, by narrowing down what promotion means or can do for a given employee, managers can scan for opportunities that can lead to uniquely meaningful work experiences.
In many work environments, promotions serve as one of the few indicators of success and career advancement. But promotions have a long feedback loop. These often take years to occur, which means they hide growth that happened in the months and years before a promotion was given. Promotions are also not completely under the control of the employee or their manager. Sometimes a higher scope of work is not available, or leadership roles are limited in number.
The bottom line is, organizations can’t improve everything. There are always high performing employees who want to be promoted in situations where promotion is not possible or requires waiting. This creates a problem for managers who want to retain top talent; a recent survey found that the number one reason for voluntary employee departure is lack of career mobility.
What should managers do to help employees with unsatisfied desires for promotion?
When talented employees feel demoralized due to slow progress, managers must develop interim strategies to help these employees meet their needs.
First, even if an employee is a top performer, there may be some skills or performance deficiencies that prevent them from the desired promotion. If there are ways the employee can address and improve this skill or experience gaps, talk to 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 wanting a promotion.
Then start digging into what the promotion really means to them. It can be a combination of the following, or something completely different:
- Workplace status
- Occupational status
- A public form of reward
- 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 cash rewards
By narrowing down what promotion means or triggers for a given employee, managers can scan for opportunities that can lead to uniquely meaningful work experiences. For example, a higher salary may be the main motivator for many employees. To the extent that your organization’s compensation planning allows for managerial discretion, consider allocating more significant cash rewards for high performers who are passed over for promotion.
Consider other examples:
If an employee wants to have more influence as part of their job, ask yourself how you can help them have more impact with clients and stakeholders. Are there meetings that employees can participate in to help them learn what leaders have in mind or further oversee the direction of a project?
Maybe your employee wants more public recognition. Are there opportunities to position the employee’s work to be more visible and celebrated? Can the employee apply for or be nominated for professional awards or call for their contributions in public communication channels?
As a final example, perhaps being a people manager is important to your employee. Consider whether you can appoint the employee as an informal team leader before they are officially promoted to a people manager. Are there opportunities to give them more exposure to management activities, such as leading hiring for the team or mentoring more junior employees?
One important caveat: Even if you partner with these employees to create work experiences that match their underlying motivations, don’t expect them to wait forever for a promotion. Give them feedback that helps them improve, and be as transparent as possible about the facts when making a promotion decision. Taking action to support the underlying needs of frustrated high performers can go a long way in the short term, but must occur alongside efforts to promote their development.
Why this method works
By encouraging employees to talk more deeply about what is important in their career, managers can take a more nuanced approach to helping employees design a career that works for them.
Discussing underlying motivations also helps high performers feel heard, whether or not a promotion is possible. This in turn places managers as active partners in solving for career success, rather than gatekeepers.