Responding to a promotion rejection

This was first published on my mailing list The Looking Glass. Every week, I answer a reader’s question.

Photo by Anne Worner

Q: How can I rebuild the trust of my manager after I asked for a promotion and was rejected?

I believe that “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re probably spending too much time at the airport.” While this approach has led to some stressful sprints to the gate, it has also helped me avoid many mundane moments waiting to board my plan.

In the same vein, if you’ve never been rejected for a promotion, you likely spending too much time in your comfort zone. A necessary part of career growth is leaning into your discomfort zone and making requests or taking on challenges where you might fail.

So, congratulations on taking an important step — you asked for a promotion. That’s a sign of ambition and self-advocacy, and shows you’re willing to take risks to reach your goals. But your request was denied. How can you move forward?

Respond, don’t react

It’s understandable if you’re feeling angry, sad, or frustrated. You really wanted a promotion, either for the financial reward or the personal pride that would come with increased responsibility. And you likely have good reasons why you feel you deserve a promotion — you’ve been working hard, burning the midnight oil, producing solid work you’re proud of.

If you let your negative thoughts take control, spinning up a story in your head saying “My boss doesn’t value me”, or “I’m not very good”, or “Maybe I should quit”, you’ll almost certainly feel worse than you do already.

10% of life is what happens to you. 90% is your attitude and how you respond. And in this situation, reacting with anger or sadness simply isn’t going to help, and you know it.

Build the skill of self-awareness

Take a day to regain your composure, and then take an objective look at your situation. You’re no worse off than you were before — you’re in the same job. Life goes on.

Unless your manager is being arbitrary or biased, you didn’t actually deserve a promotion yet. It’s hard to hear, but by assuming best intentions from your manager and looking back towards yourself at the things under your control, you actually regain power over the situation. You likely have more power in your career than you realize.

The situation: There’s currently a mismatch between where you believe you should be (promoted) and where your manager feels you are (not promoted).

This promotion rejection is just another form of feedback that can help you be more self-aware. Take this feedback impersonally and begin to seek more feedback, from more people, more frequently. What are you doing effectively? Where do you need to improve? What does work look like to perform at the next level, and where is your work falling short?

Through gathering more feedback and being more self-aware of the gaps between where you are and where you want to be, you’ll get a stronger sense for the opportunities for improvement, and be able to focus on building the most important skills you’re lacking, or investing your time towards more important initiatives within the company.

Get clear on expectations with your manager

Going back to your original question, you don’t need to worry about rebuilding the trust of your manager. In all likelihood, it was hard for her to reject your promotion request. No one likes to deliver bad news. Your manager’s job is to build a strong team, part of which is supporting you in being a successful contributor.

So, just like you are now being self-aware, evaluating how you can improve your skills and increase your impact, your manager should be thinking about how to follow up to your promotion request with a concrete set of next steps to support you in reaching your career goals.

Promotions typically aren’t a leap of faith on an untested employee. Rather, they happen after you’ve already performing at the next level consistently. They are a lagging indicator, something that happens once your manager believes you will continue contributing with greater seniority than your current title and role suggest.

It’s possible your company has a well documented list of career expectations at each level, but even such frameworks are open for interpretation and subject to the nuance of each individual situation. So, you’ll need to do some work to define your path to being promoted, figure out what timeframe is realistic, and understand what other factors need to be taken into account (e.g. things outside your control, like changes occurring in the team, dependencies on external partners, etc…) The key here is to eliminate uncertainty as much as possible so you don’t go into each new cycle hoping for a promotion, unsure whether you’re there yet.

Rather than putting this entirely on your manager, saying “What do I need to do to get a promotion?”, it’s more productive and appreciated to draft this yourself. This is best framed as a list of skills you need to improve, and even more important, the results you’d need to drive. In addition to winning “employee of the year” in terms of self-awareness, you won’t need to view your manager as judging you, but rather you can work together as collaborators on the same team. After all, if you become a more senior contributor, then your manager and the team will be more successful. Growing people is never a zero-sum game.

Thank you for your question, and have a great week filled with honest feedback and a growth mindset.

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