A promotion presents a public reward and affirmation for the person promoted, of course—and it’s a powerful opportunity to promote workplace values and culture.
When done right and granted to deserving team members, promotions can motivate your entire team and reinforce your company culture.
According to a Harvard Business Review survey of more than 400,000 U.S. workers, when people feel promotions are handled well, “they’re more than twice as likely to give extra effort at work and to plan a long-term future with their company. They are also five times as likely to believe leaders act with integrity.”
But when handled poorly, promotions can lower morale and spark resentment and feelings of injustice. Tensions over perceived pay inequity, favoritism, recognition and promotions can be challenging for businesses of all sizes. So what are some best practices for keeping spirits and motivation high after promotions are announced?
Prepare your rationale. Before sharing details of a promotion, think about who could feel overlooked or resentful, and make sure you can objectively state the reasons they were not selected. No need to be defensive. Keep it tangible: lack of training or a specific skill set, along with concrete suggestions for steps they can take to be considered in the future. At the same time, highlight and praise the contributions they do make to the team.
Acknowledge disappointment. Again, before you announce the news, sit down with all who were interested in the position and tell them who you selected. Be open to their concerns and let them share their frustrations. Compliment their strengths. And let them know which capabilities they need to develop to prepare for another opportunity. Be honest and realistic: If you don’t think you’ll ever consider them for a promotion, reinforce how much you appreciate their work, but don’t offer false hope. Let them ask questions. And listen.
Develop a plan of action. Along with expressing empathy and support when explaining to a team member why they were not selected, show them you have their back and discuss the training they might need to take the next step. Help them put together a plan of action. Take it a step further and advocate for any necessary training or development experiences. Or perhaps look at other opportunities, like a horizontal move or transfer within your company that allows them to develop new skills.
Consider alternative recognition. Sometimes promotions don’t make sense. Sometimes talented team members don’t want to manage others. For example, often designers and engineers are more valuable to your organization—and more personally rewarded—when they can simply design and engineer rather than manage a team. And sometimes the economy doesn’t allow you to promote someone who really deserves a promotion. In these cases, you might consider parallel career paths: one for high-performing “individual contributors” and one for managers. The individual contributors do not supervise others, but are in senior level roles and receive similar financial packages as the managers.
Avoid the problem altogether with consistent communication. Let’s be real: When people are miffed by news of a promotion, chances are, they’re upset and perhaps surprised because either they think the person doesn’t deserve the promotion and/or because they weren’t selected for the role, right? You can avoid both situations by holding frequent reviews, one-on-ones and informal check-ins. When managers communicate regularly with their team members, discussing both strengths and weaknesses, and providing opportunities for growth, people are more likely to feel they are on track with their career goals.
Know your team members. Every manager should have a clear understanding of the career goals of each person who reports to them. Keep these in mind as your company evolves and look for opportunities to support each person’s goals by providing visible, increasingly more challenging projects and responsibilities. When people witness a colleague’s growth and success, they’re more likely to see that person’s promotion as earned and deserved.
Promote the opportunities. This is critical, especially in companies without formal promotion processes like posting open positions and publishing hiring criteria. In these environments, sometimes people feel in the dark or that they don’t have a chance. So be sure to announce openings and encourage people to apply, even if they don’t volunteer. Their reluctance could be misguided—like thinking you’re set on hiring an outsider or a personal favorite.
Provide peer recognition mechanisms. Promotions are just one way to publicly recognize someone. To reduce concerns about fairness, give your team members the ability to recognize each other.
For managers, awarding a promotion is one of the most exciting, gratifying and rewarding parts of the job. Promotions create individual and companywide benefits, too, like encouraging retention, competitive spirit, loyalty and a culture of belonging. But you can’t give everyone a promotion and you can’t promote people every day. So use other methods of recognizing individual team members’ capabilities and achievements.
And when you do have occasion to offer a promotion, enjoy it as the icing on the cake of helping your team members develop, grow and achieve their goals—and helping your company achieve its goals, which is something everyone can celebrate.
Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a best place to work.