When you have a staff member who’s pushing harder for promotion – or even just for bigger projects or responsibilities – and you’re convinced they’re not ready, how can you manage the situation without demotivating them?
The risk here, of course, is that people in this situation can end up disengaging from their work, or even becoming resentful. They might feel unappreciated and wonder if they have a future on your team. That makes this a key moment that you need to navigate skillfully so that you don’t lose the person or have their productivity plummet. So, what to do?
First, be honest. The kindest thing that you can do for a staff member in this position – not to mention the most effective from a long-term management perspective – is to be as honest as possible about why you’re not promoting them right now. Sometimes managers are tempted to shade the truth so that it becomes an easier message to deliver, such as saying that another candidate had stronger skills in X or Y, even though X and Y weren’t the real reasons you didn’t promote your staff member. Resist that temptation and do the person the professional courtesy of being as candid as you can be. If the employee is great at what she does currently but doesn’t have the political skills that a higher-level position would require, tell her. If she has great skills but has damaged too many relationships with higher-ups, let her know. Explain it in a kind way, of course, but it’s your job to deliver the message. If you try to hide it, you risk your cover story not ringing true or being uncovered down the road. (For example, if you say that you needed a candidate with more skills in X and then the person you hire rarely ends up using those skills, you’re going to have a disillusioned and unhappy staff member on your hands).
Second, let the employee know that she’s valued. Often when people are turned down for a promotion, they end up feeling unappreciated – that the company doesn’t recognize their strengths and value. Make sure that’s not the case here. Talk in specific terms about the contributions the staff member has made and will continue to make, and what value the person brings.
Most importantly, talk about what a path to promotion in the future would look like. You don’t want to leave the employee feeling like she’s permanently stuck where she is; that’s a recipe for driving people to start looking outside the company. Instead, talk about what would position her more strongly for promotion in the future. Are there classes she should take, skills she should work on developing, relationships she should cultivate, or behaviors she should change? And how can you help with those things? For example, you might offer to give her experience leading more projects or playing a different role with clients, or to coach her around leading meetings, or to let her manage an intern – whatever you can do to help your employee get the kind of experience and skill development that genuinely will make her a more attractive candidate in the future.
(Of course, if the truth is that there really isn’t much of a path to promotion for the person, you want to be honest about that too. It’s better for people to know that than to have false hope, and they’re more likely to end up resentful if they keep thinking a promotion is just around the corner but it never happens.)
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