I’m getting great feedback but can’t get more responsibility

A reader writes:

Ahead of my last performance review, I asked if my manager would support me if I asked for a promotion. I respect his evaluation of my work, and it was a genuine question; I made it clear that I would be happy if the answer was “no, you still need to work on ______.”  Happily, my manager said he would support a promotion for me; he said my work had been very strong, that I had grown in my role and that he felt I had earned one.

However, when he took it to upper management, the answer came back that there was no room in the management structure for a promotion for me. Apparently creating a new role would mean the company had to create a similar role in all other departments structured like mine, of which there are four, and there isn’t money for four new junior manager positions.

When he told me this, I asked for a new job title instead. He agreed and said I could use a new job title on my email signature and professional groups such as LinkedIn, but not on any material the company puts out, as it “wasn’t a real promotion.”

In my official performance review, I remembered your advice about how to move up in a company and asked if there was any more work I could take on to prove my abilities and train up. My manager said that I should come up with ideas for additional responsibility on my own and propose them, rather than simply asking him for more work to do.

I came up with three ideas: assisting with our department’s side of a major project (vetoed: my manager wants to keep control of this, which is fair enough); taking managerial responsibility for training new team members; and managing freelancers and temp employees (both vetoed: my manager thought it would be confusing for the employees). Trying to get an idea of what would be useful so I wasn’t just shooting in the dark, I asked him if there were any aspects of his workload that I could help with. He said no and reiterated that ideas for more responsibility needed to come from me, not him.

In my review I was awarded a 5% pay raise, which I was extremely pleased about. However, in the actual review, although I asked for solid benchmarks and guidance, the goals my manager suggested simply read “continue to improve on [job task], [job task] and [job task]” – which in other places he says I excel at.

Last week I learned that one of my colleagues on my level has been doing some work with another department on an interesting project, which would offer some useful experience for me outside my core skills. I asked if they needed more help, and I was told they did, as they had some temps in who were not doing optimal work. I asked my department head whether it was possible for me to contribute to this project, and was told that it was an upper management policy not to have people working across departments too much, as it “might distract employees from our core areas”.

I am really at my wits’ end on how to try to grow in my career and gain more skills at this company. I really like my co-workers, the culture and the content of the work, so I’m not ready to jump ship yet (although I have been looking around for new work). I honestly wouldn’t mind if I was told I needed to improve in my current position, or that I wasn’t ready to move forward, but all the feedback I have gotten is that I am doing a superlative job and that I would do very well with more responsibility. I’ve tried asking if there is anything in my current role my manager is worried about, or if there is any aspect of my work that he thinks might suffer if I took on more work, but he says no.

I just can’t figure out how to get more responsibility and experience when every time I ask for it, it seems to be vetoed for one reason or another. I’d like to acquire more professional skills and move forward, or learn where I need to improve and do that, but I can’t figure out how!

Well, you might not be able to do that in this job, but it’s worth a few additional steps before you conclude that.

First, it’s possible that you just need to aim your sights slightly lower. Okay, you can’t train new employees or supervise temps, but could you write a manual that would help train them to do their jobs? Could you create FAQs for the departments? Are there other needs that you can spot if you look around, things where you think “it would be really helpful if we had __”?  You might try suggesting some things like this and see if it gets you anywhere.

But if not, then you need to have a candid conversation with your manager to find out what’s going on.

Now, ideally, your manager would be working with you to figure out how you can develop within your current position. But he’s excluding himself from that process, presumably because he doesn’t see it as a top priority for him to spend time thinking about. That could indicate that he’s generally swamped with other things, or that he’s someone who doesn’t get the value of retaining great employees by providing them with opportunities to grow, or that he’s honestly not all that concerned about retaining you. Or it could indicate that this role just isn’t conducive to the types of development opportunities you want, and he’s too wimpy to just tell you that directly.

But since he told you to come up with proposals on your own and you did that and got shot down each time, it’s reasonable to go back to him to raise the subject again. This conversation isn’t to force him to help you identify what new responsibilities you can take on; it’s to find out if that’s even possible in your role. Explain that you’ve been trying to take his advice and propose new responsibilities on your own but that all of them have been vetoed so far, and then say this: “I heard you when you said I should propose these on my own, but since it sounds like none of them have been what you were envisioning, I hoped we could talk about what types of things would work on your end. I don’t want to keep bothering you with requests that you need to turn down.”

If he’s still unwilling to make suggestions or do any thinking about this himself, then say this: “Realistically, do you think there’s anything I could propose that will work? If the reality is that my current role just isn’t one that allows for that, I’m okay with hearing that.”

If you just get “grumble grumble figure it out yourself,” then I’d conclude that you’re probably not going to be taking on many new responsibilities in this position. So then you need to figure out if you want to stay in this position knowing that, or if that makes you want to look for a different job somewhere else.

While it’s true that good managers help their best people grow, it’s also true that not every situation allows for that — either because of a bad manager, or because of the nature of the job, or because there are simply limited advancement opportunities at that employer. Figure out if that’s what you’re dealing with, and then proceed accordingly.

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