Turning Down an Employee Who's Not Ready for a Promotion

“People are definitely a company’s greatest asset. It doesn’t make any difference whether the product is cars or cosmetics. A company is only as good as the people it keeps.” — Mary Kay Ash

March is Women's History Month, so we've been celebrating the words of some great women leaders and taking a look at the impact and influence of your own leadership. The way you lead makes a huge difference in your team members' difficult moments. Today, let's look at a really tricky one: What should you do when an employee wants a promotion but just isn't ready? How you lead through this situation can help determine whether the employee keeps improving and stays with your company or disengages and moves on.

Leaders have to get skilled at the art of tough conversations, and this one is among the toughest I see my clients face. If you're currently dreading having a talk like this with an employee, I have three ideas that can make the conversation easier for you both and more likely to help your team member's career growth.



1. Set the stage.

How you frame this conversation is crucial. Communicate that you are here to help your team member succeed and that you're vested in her leadership development and her success. The key thing here is not just telling your employee that you're an ally, but reminding her of the evidence of how you've helped her develop and grow.

2. Agree on the criteria.

Lay out what the company is looking for from people at the level where she'd like to be. Then talk about your employee's strengths and where her gaps are. Maybe she's great at building a high-performing team, but she needs to improve her ability to focus on what matters most. Or she tends to get "in the weeds" with her direct reports while the position she wants requires more strategic thinking. Getting clear on criteria helps the conversation feel more objective and less personal.

3. Bring in the big picture.

People who are set on getting promoted often make the mistake of looking at it (and communicating about it) only from the standpoint of their own career path, not what's best for the company as a whole. If that's true of your employee, help her shift her thinking. The company is interested in making the highest and best use of her skills, and helping her grow and advance. It may seem a little counterintuitive to her, but when she focuses less on getting promoted and more on what’s best for the company, she will become more promotable.

If you have an employee who wants to move up but isn't ready, I encourage you to have this conversation as soon as you can. This is a difficult situation, but one where your leadership can really make the difference for the company and for your team member. In my online store, you can find many more resources to help your team members' leadership development, including the WOW! Highlight AudioSM.