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The Promotion Paradox: Why Focusing on Your Next Promotion May Prevent It from Happening

Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people who have wanted promotions. They’ve worked really hard, proven their ability to deliver, made sacrifices for work, and wonder why the promotion isn’t happening. They often ask themselves: What am I missing?


The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. The path to promotion can vary greatly from person to person and company to company. In some cases, we may receive valuable feedback that is actionable; in other words, we know what to work on and can choose whether or not to do so. This feedback can be empowering.  


However, in the absence of clear and constructive feedback, we are left to craft our own narratives about why we are not advancing. These self-generated stories fall into familiar categories and rarely make us feel better. Furthermore, they shape our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors in significant ways. We may tell ourselves the company or manager doesn’t value us, we don’t have the right personality or that we would have to sacrifice our authenticity in order to move up. Likely, this is not empowering. 


More importantly, I believe asking ourselves “What am I missing?” i’s the wrong question and inadvertently creates a barrier to getting promoted. 


First of all, it can quickly lead us to compare-and-despair, where we compare ourselves to the ones being promoted and find ourselves lacking. Or, we may compare and believe we are superior, thereby becoming resentful. 


Second, it makes us focus on our perceived faults, potentially adding pressure and making us hyper-sensitive in situations where our faults are more likely to pop up. This self-centric approach can inadvertently make us perform poorly or focus on the wrong problem. If we aren’t sure why we haven’t been promoted, why focus on our flaws? 


Third, focusing on ourselves narrows our vision. When we focus too much on ourselves and on getting promoted, we miss the bigger picture. It can be helpful to move away from a mindset of self-promotion and self-interest and toward a mindset of service and contribution. For example, asking ourselves these questions might give us more interesting insights and point us in a more productive direction: 

  • What would make life easier for your manager or for your team? 

  • What does the company (or your team/department/organization) need most? 

  • What problem is the company struggling to solve and what is the root cause of it?

  • How could your skills and knowledge help solve this issue or an issue that contributes to the root cause? 


Maybe you’ve already done all of the above and are getting impatient. My question for you is: What are you making a promotion mean about you? What I often hear is some version of, “If I get promoted, it means I’m valued, appreciated, respected and it means I did a good job.” Unfortunately, when we don’t get promoted, we tend to believe the converse is true: “I’m not valued, appreciated, respected, and it means I didn’t do a good enough job.” And that can sour us on our jobs quickly. It is hard to maintain motivation and a positive attitude when this is what we believe. 


By focusing on adding value, serving others, and contributing to the overall success of the organization, we can position ourselves as indispensable assets and increase the chances of promotion. 


Don’t get me wrong, I do believe it is really important to ask for feedback until you get some that is helpful. The problem is that by asking a question that focuses on what we are doing wrong, we miss an opportunity to think more creatively and find a more satisfying solution.



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