Getting passed over for a promotion can be disheartening and even humiliating. Whether you thought you deserved the job or were promised it, no one likes hearing that they didn't meet the mark. The reality is that it happens all the time, perhaps more so in a tough economy when companies hesitate to give out promotions or raises. The good news is that it's possible to survive the experience with both your reputation and ego intact, and to become a better employee because of it.
What the Experts Say
If you're told you aren't going to advance, you can't let the disappointment stunt your performance or your career. Instead, you need to act. "Things will only be better in the future if we do something about it," says Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at University of Michigan and a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. In fact, failing to get a promotion can be a great opportunity to learn as long as you keep it in perspective. "It's possible to reframe these setbacks as disappointment rather than devastation," says Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game and founder of Dattner Consulting. Here are five ways to not only endure the situation, but to make the most of it.
"The first thing is to not act impulsively, emotionally or reflexively," says Dattner, who is also the co-author of the HBR article, "Can You Handle Failure?" Don't compound the issue by acting petulant or entitled. "It's not always possible to make things better, but it is always possible to make things worse," adds Dattner. Instead, let yourself feel the emotions that come up, the whole range of them. You are likely to feel disappointment and anger but you may also feel some relief. Do this long enough to cool down but don't wallow in the feelings. "Getting angry and depressed will not get you another promotion," says Peterson.
Gather others' perspectives
Peterson suggests that once you've had a chance to calm down, find out why it happened. If possible, talk with the decision maker. Just listen and don't get defensive. "There are always reasons, even if they aren't justified," says Dattner. Take this as an opportunity to learn about yourself and your place in the company. Peterson cautions that you may not get a straight answer from the person in charge. If that's the case, "seek out a trusted and knowledgeable person you can get advice from," says Peterson. You may even want to get an outside perspective from a headhunter in your industry as to whether you have the right skills and experience for the job. "What we think we deserve is different from what others think we deserve," says Dattner.
Act instead of complain
The squeaky wheel may get the grease in many organizations but it won't serve you to complain or make accusations at your boss or HR. "You don't want to squander good will," says Dattner. You may only make them defensive and angry, and further justify their decision not to promote you. Of course, you don't need to hide your emotions either. "There's nothing wrong with saying, 'I'm really disappointed. I wanted this to happen'," says Peterson. But also be sure to enlist their help. Try saying something like, "How can we work together to make sure I get promoted in the future?" And then take action on their advice. If you were passed up because you lack substantive expertise, look for ways to get the expertise through training or a lateral job move. If you are thought of as slow to act or overly controlling, work on changing that perception.
Perhaps most importantly, be empathetic and graceful to the person who did win the promotion. "The worst thing you can do is tear down the person who got the job," says Dattner.
Reframe the experience
Dattner suggests that rather than thinking of the experience as horrible, frame it as an opportunity to learn and grow. "People often look back on setbacks in their careers and see them as great moments," he says. Keep it in perspective and try to see it from a different angle. Perhaps there were good reasons you didn't get the job and you now have the impetus to work on improving your skills and gathering new experiences. Maybe you were complacent and this is an incentive to start focusing more.
Ask yourself what you really wanted from the promotion. Some people get overly fixated on advancing because they want to prove themselves. If you get passed over, ask yourself whether you really wanted it. Or, were you spared something? Would the job have required more hours or entailed more stress? If you conclude that you indeed did want it, ask yourself what about the promotion you most coveted: the respect, the title, the money. There may be other ways to get those things without the promotion.
Keep your network active
After a setback like this, your first instinct may be look for another job. Sending out resumes may be in order if you were promised the promotion or if you didn't get for reasons you positively can't change. Though the reasons are rarely that straightforward, "you can be open to other opportunities," says Dattner. He suggests you keep your network open and active so the next opportunity — either inside or outside your organization — can find you.
Principles to Remember
- Find out why you didn't get the promotion and take action on that feedback
- Look to others to help you evaluate what you need to do to get a promotion next time around
- Continue to network so you know of new opportunities
- Act right away — wait until you've had time to cool off before you do anything
- Badmouth the person who got the job or those involved in making the decision
- Make the situation into a devastating experience — recognize it for what it is: a disappointment
Case Study #1: From non-promotable to top 10%
Nick Simon* switched careers in his late 20s and entered a two-year management rotation program at a telecom company. The expectation was that at the end of two years, the program participants would be promoted to the next level. But when the two years were up, all of Nick's peers advanced — and he didn't. When he found out, his boss, Laura*, gave him feedback and several examples of why he didn't make the grade. Nick disagreed with what he heard. But, instead of getting defensive, he told her he was disappointed and asked if they could talk about it further once he had time to process it.
Nick then went to a few senior colleagues to ask for their advice. They told him the feedback may feel off to him, but the perception of his performance mattered. He needed to change the way he was seen. He spoke with Laura again and asked for her blessing to talk to her boss — the head of the department (as Nick said, "This is not the time to go over your boss's head.") "I spoke to senior managers to let them know that although I found the feedback confusing, I accepted it and asked for their support, specifically to pull me aside if they saw me acting in ways that were not helpful," he says.
Despite how bad it felt, he knew he wasn't ready to leave the organization. It was too early in his new career to make a productive move. "Although it was perceived as humiliating by others, I was able to compartmentalize it, and decided to learn what I could from the experience and move on," he says. Six months later he applied for an international role that involved a promotion and he got it. He thrived in this new job. "I went from non-promotable to the top 10% can't-lose list in a year's timeframe," he said. Looking back, Nick sees the experience as worthwhile. "I actually don't regret it, because it helped me better understand how to navigate the political landscape, to really trust myself and not allow others' opinions to influence my own sense of self-worth," he says.
*Not his real name
Case Study #2: Taking action after disappointment
Lisa Su* has worked at a Boston-based technology company for six years. She came in as a manager and was quickly promoted to senior manager within her first year. She expected to keep moving up at that same pace. However, many of her colleagues warned her that the next level — director — was harder to reach because the title came with many more benefits and responsibilities.
To get this promotion, Lisa had to be nominated by her boss. Applications then go to a committee, which makes a recommendation to the CEO who makes the final decision. Lisa was twice nominated for the director position. The first time, she was not surprised to learn she didn't get it. A lot of people don't make it the first time around. The feedback from the committee was that she was a high performer but the economy made it difficult for them to grant many promotions. The second time she was passed over she was more disappointed. She saw that many of her peers were promoted, including someone who had come into the organization after her. This time she got the feedback that her role wasn't "director-worthy." This was difficult feedback because she wasn't sure how she could change it. "That's been the most frustrating thing. There's nothing specifically I can do," she says.
She turned to a friend and colleague for advice. He told her that the company's leadership wanted directors that contribute to the bottom line. He encouraged her to find ways to map her work directly to the company's financial goals. Lisa recently moved to another role under a different manager who has a reputation for helping people get promoted. He's worked with her to increase the visibility of her work, get her credit for her ideas, and to articulate how they contribute to the company's goals.
Lisa also keeps her network working for her. After the second denial, she put one feeler out and several interviews, and eventually job offers, came of it. But Lisa would rather stay with her current employer. "I really like my job. I just don't like the fact that I didn't get the promotion," she says. Lisa is hopeful that she will be nominated again this December.
*Not her real name