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Effective Leadership Skills When Employees Want Promotions But Aren’t Ready

Posted by Sandy Yu on 8.20.2019


Promotions are earned. This is something most leaders and employees have a mutual understanding of.  What sends this communication off the rails is when an employee believes they’ve earned a promotion before you feel they’re ready.

This uncomfortable situation is happening more frequently, especially with Gen Z in the workplace. In fact, more than 75 percent of Gen Z members believe they should be promoted in their first year, according to an InsideOut Development report. The same report revealed that more than 40 percent of Gen Zers believe they'll make more than $100k per year at the height of their career, and half of those believe they'll clear more than $150k per year.

Of course, this incredibly ambitious attribute is a positive one. However, not being on the same page about a promotion leads to tension in the office. It’s only with effective leadership skills that you can appropriately address the situation. 

Here are the effective leadership skills you need when an employee expects a promotion and you can’t offer it:

Be empathetic

Maybe you’ve never been passed-up for a promotion. Or perhaps you never really expected to receive one before leadership opened the opportunity to you. No matter what your experiences are, this is a difficult situation for everyone involved. 

You have to tell an employee they’re not going to hit a goal they so profoundly desire -- at least not right now. They, on the other hand, are facing rejection and will likely feel a variety of unpleasant emotions, including embarrassment and anger. 

Keep this in mind when having this type of conversation. Remember that they’re feeling strong emotions in this moment and have a right to those emotions. Don’t downplay them by saying things like, “Please don’t feel discouraged” or “You’ll be OK.” 

Instead, practice empathy by first listening to why they feel they deserved the promotion. Empathy is also void of assumptions. Ask direct questions to find out exactly what they’re feeling. Then you can use responses that include, “I understand you’re feeling…” and “That’s perfectly understandable and you have a right to…”

These statements show that you’re understanding. Right now may not be the time to dig into the details depending on the reaction. Read the situation and, if necessary, allow them to have time before furthering explaining why they can’t be promoted at this time. 

Be clear about why they’re not ready

Effective leadership skills revolve around word choices and directness. Your employees deserve to understand exactly why they’re not moving up the ladder right now. Not being clear about the situation is a disservice to your employees. And, it will actually inhibit their ability to reach that promotion in the future. 

“Direct,” however, isn’t a synonym for blunt. Plan out as much of your conversation as possible to prevent the unintentional usage of harmful words. Determine the exact reasons they’re not getting the job, write down the wording you want to use, and stick to your list. 

Don’t talk yourself into a corner

Nerves often lead to overtalking. Saying too much is always more harmful than not saying enough in the moment. 

In this situation, it’s easy to talk yourself into a corner. When an employee is visibly upset, it’s easy to try to comfort them by overtalking and even overpromising. For example, you could promise a promotion in six months even if you’re unsure this is an actual possibility. 

Layout your talking points. When employees take you away from those points, don’t be afraid to take a moment to really think or even suggest coming back to the topic later. Steer clear from making any form of promises for the future during these tough conversations.

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Topics: employee communications, employee communication, workplace communication, leadership communication

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