• Jim Kelly

How to get promoted

Updated: Apr 19, 2020

"Employees want more clarity about how promotions get decided."

I’ve sat through dozens of management meetings that start with that assertion. We spend the next hour discussing how we can explain the process better or tweak it to be more transparent. We take action items that keep us busy for days or weeks. We roll out communication plans and implement process changes. And six months later, we’re all back in the same room having the same conversation.

This sort of meeting is a good reason to stay out of management. You spend too much of your time sitting in the same meetings trying to find answers to the wrong questions.

Employees may indeed be asking “How do promotions get decided?” But what they really mean is, “How do I get promoted?” And what they mean by that is “How do I get you to pay me more?”

Good employees are hard to attract, train, and retain. Though it might not be obvious, managers fall all over themselves trying to keep people like you happy and productive. In this case that means having weird meta-meetings like this one, where they plan what to tell you about their future promotion decision meeting, which is itself just a planning meeting for giving you career feedback. It’s a meeting about a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.

If you nevertheless come away nonplussed by your performance review, it’s not for lack of meetings.

How they tell you promotions get decided

Your company probably puts great effort into making promotion decisions look objective. Someone from Human Resources presented slides containing tables of job tiers, and what’s expected at each level. They’re filled with phrases like “communicates effectively” and “consistently exceeds expectations” that have no particular meaning.

If you’d like to make yourself unpopular with HR, ask how these phrases are put into effect in a promotion review meeting. How many expectations does the company have of you? Who is in charge of itemizing them? Who grades you against each? What fraction must be graded “exceeds” to meet the standard of “consistently?” If promotion meetings really run off an expectations report card, why don’t employees ever see the cards? What evidence can HR offer that what’s on this slide has any relationship to promotion decisions or is relevant or useful to my career growth?

In fact you should ask those questions. You’re an important part of the company too, and you should have expectations of HR. They shouldn’t waste your time with nonsense they just made up, especially about something as important to you as your career development.

The truth is HR is filled with people who have never had your job, nor any job on your career track. They don’t make promotion decisions. They may help organize performance review processes, but they have no idea what you have to do to get promoted. They fill slide decks with vague, misleading advice because they hope it will help them get promoted.

How promotions actually get decided

Promotion decisions are not only subjective, they’re political — meaning they hinge on some degree of consensus among a group of people. Your boss probably holds the most important opinion, but even if he supports your promotion, he’s unlikely to get it through against the objections of other people who matter.

At some level, they all want to promote you. You’re all part of the same company. They want you to succeed, to get a bigger title and to take a bigger share of the load. They’d love to pay you more money, which is after all coming out of the company’s pocket rather than their own.

On the other hand, they’re wrestling with reasons not to promote you, some having nothing to do with you. Maybe there isn’t room for another person a level up, or maybe they’re grooming their own candidate for the job. Maybe they reckon there are too many people of your gender at that level. Maybe you remind them of their ex, who took the dog.

But the reasons not to promote you are usually about your competencies.

Higher job levels demand different skills. No matter what field you’re in, the next level probably involves making higher-stakes decisions, resolving more ambiguity, influencing more people, persevering through more negative feedback. It usually demands more hours every week, and more variable hours at that. Although you get a little more control, you’re accountable for a lot more outcomes. You face more no-win situations, and you’re on your own to choose which sort of loss you prefer and to find your own job satisfaction in it. With every step up the ladder you get closer to loneliest job in the company: the CEO’s.

A good manager worries about promoting you too early for three reasons. He needs the job done decently, of course. Everyone makes mistakes, but if you’re not ready for the role you’ll make more than your share, and that will cause headaches for him.

He worries about the rest of the team’s reaction. If your coworkers don’t perceive you as contributing at the next level, they’ll resent your promotion. They may lose faith in the boss’s judgement. Some will demand promotions of their own. They may dislike having to carry the load of someone who’s in a bigger job than they can handle, and they may leave.

Finally, he worries about undermining your career momentum and confidence. You’re a star in your current role, which is why he’d even consider promoting you. But the next level will be more demanding, and at your next performance review you’ll be compared to other people who have already been at it a while. If you were only marginally qualified to join them, through no fault of your own you’ll be the worst one on the team. Then what’s he going to do, fire you? He will have turned a success story to a performance problem in just a few months, which is a disaster for both of you.

For all those reasons, a promotion shouldn’t be a leap of faith. Your boss may be your biggest fan, who believe you’re a fast learner and will quickly get up to speed in the new role. But to promote you largely on hope is to gamble with your career. The right time is when you’re not only starting to do what people at the next level do, but you’re in the middle of the pack. A promotion should be a recognition of what already is.

That’s a lot of words about what isn’t. The promotion isn’t an objective decision. It’s not simply up to your boss, nor any identifiable group. There’s no one you can negotiate with, who can commit that if you do X and Y you’ll be promoted. It’s a group consensus based on guesses and fears.

How to get promoted at work is under your control

The good news is what really decides promotions was under your control all along: your reputation.

You’re going to become known among your coworkers for something. They think of you as the person who solved the delivery problem or who keeps the website running smoothly. Or maybe as that guy they see around the office but they don’t know what you’ve gotten done. Maybe you’re that girl who attends meetings but never says anything.

There’s no magic to it. Your name will get attached to whatever behaviors your coworkers see. You build your reputation hour by hour in how you choose to spend your time. To make yourself promotable, choose carefully.

First, own things. Adopt problems or processes or projects or whatever needs an owner. Make sure you’re the go-to person for something important. Don’t let all your effort get dispersed among a thousand tiny tasks that no one notices. Any job will involve some gravel, but make sure you own a few boulders.

Second, if your name is on it, make sure it runs well. If people regard you as the owner of the bug tracking system, and they run into the same annoying glitches month after month, your reputation will suffer. It doesn’t matter if your boss told you to work on something else. To own something is to take its success or failure personally.

Third, make yourself visible. Your coworkers — and even your boss — don’t have time to follow you around and research what value you’re adding. Don’t be that guy with a reputation for constant self-promotion, but neither keep your contributions secret. Form opinions. Speak in meetings. If you never disagree or have friction with anyone, you’re not being present enough.

Finally, don’t obsess over the referee’s calls. How much you’re worth professionally depends on your skill at solving problems for customers, not at getting praise — or even promotions — from the boss. Only the most junior employees measure their success based on feedback they get. By the time you’re a few years into your career, you should have figured out what external goals matter and developed your own sense of how well you’re doing. That’s a more reliable guide to how to spend your time from day to day.

It’s useful to understand how promotions are and are not decided, but the best way to get one is not to seek it. Spend your day-to-day focus on refining your craft— on making yourself more worthy of promotion — and you’ll find the promotion takes care of itself.

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