Why Didn’t You Get That Promotion

By Michele Porterfield,

Many people would like to think that there is some objective, data driven formula for determining who gets promoted and who doesn’t…that the process and decisions are easy to decipher and scientific by nature. Let’s be real and admit that this is simply not the case. This is not to suggest that organizations make promotional decisions in an irresponsible manner – in fact I work with many of them who think long and hard about what matters and who ultimately gets the nod. I am only saying that there are often more nuanced dimensions that come into play, and that leaders need to acknowledge that it is an imperfect process over which they may sometimes have no control. If leaders can recognize and accept some of these realities, they can more easily manage their feelings and potentially their disappointment when the decision does not go in their favor. Here are some of the more important ones:

1. Different Rules

One of the less esoteric realities is simply that the rules of the game, or the criteria for promotion, change from one level to the next.  As the saying goes “what got you here, won’t get you there”. It is sometimes hard to swallow that the very essence of what got rewarded and recognized early on in your career (e.g., hard work, being a knowledgeable expert, etc.) may not be the most important criteria for advancing to a job at the next level – particularly when moving from mid-management to the executive ranks.

2. Chemistry Counts

Let’s face it, promotional decisions are sometimes based on the chemistry people have with one another. Do you see things the same way as the hiring manager? Does the hiring manager feel like they can trust you with sensitive information? Does the hiring manager feel like they would enjoy sitting next to you on a long plane ride without getting bored or feeling awkward? Can you get along well without butting heads?  Not many bosses want to hire someone who, while competent, is going to be difficult or challenging from a relationship perspective.

3. Legacy

The cousin to chemistry is legacy. Sometimes people get selected based on a long-standing history they have with the decision maker. They may have worked together for many, many years and been through trying times in a way that you simply can’t compete with. They may be personal friends from a long way back – again something that you simply can’t replicate overnight no matter how competent and capable you are.   Focusing on the elements you can control and accepting those that you can’t is key.

4. A Different Lens

Sometimes, even if you have all the right background and a long history with the organization, they choose an outsider over you. They want the one who looks shiny and new. This is not uncommon, and in fact sometimes is done very intentionally to ensure that the organization does not become stale.  They want someone who will bring a fresh perspective and a different set of experiences to bear. I have seen many organizations who value promotion from within, but still aim to balance this with ensuring that they do not become too insular, particularly in a competitive landscape. It is hard to argue that this does not make good business sense.

5. The Numbers Game

In some instances, not getting the promotion has nothing to do with your capabilities per se, but rather about the fact that there are only a limited number of “slots”. This often happens in large consulting firms and law firms where Senior Manager level consultants get frustrated when they do not get selected for Partner.  They are likely among a large group of professionals, all of whom are quite capable and talented. In this instance, there may be absolutely nothing you can do other than let the process play out, be patient for your turn, and not try not to take it so personally.

In the end, let’s admit that who gets the nod can be a bit of a mystery, but is not without reasoning of some kind – even if that reasoning is more qualitative or does not seem fair. Sometimes the decision will make sense to you and sometimes it won’t. But, if you can accept such realities as inevitable truths, you will have a far easier time managing your initial emotions and getting over the hump until you get another shot. Focus on the elements that you can control and leave the rest up to fate.

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