What can I say to someone who isn't ready for promotion?

When an employee is impatient to be promoted but their performance doesn't warrant it yet, it can be a tricky but necessary conversation.

⏳ 3min read — enough time to drink 0.3 cups of Earl Grey (no milk) 🍵
Author is therapist Graham Landi
Author
Graham Landi,
Spill Therapist & Manager Trainer

Imagine it's your child's first day at school.

You're waiting at the gates and your little one rushes towards you, a big beaming smile, clutching a painting they've done in class.

You look at the painting, a random collection of indecipherable brush strokes in garish colours, and you say,

"What a beautiful picture, aren't you clever?"

In order to deal with the problem of career impatience we need to understand some things about the way we bring our children up and how they think about themselves as adults.

In order to deal with the problem of career impatience we need to understand some things about the way we bring our children up and how they think about themselves as adults.


In modern society it's easy to feel invisible. That's why social media is so full of people curating the highlight reels of their lives, ensuring that they're noticed in a positive way.

It's possible then that there is an underlying fear in employees. That without demonstrable evidence of progress and achievement it will become hard to see themselves as valuable.

In this context, career progression becomes a very alluring way of proving that we're worth something. 

No wonder employees are impatient for progress.

In their white paper on attracting and retaining millennials,
recruitment company Robert Walters found that 91% expect rapid career progression.

It is, of course, impossible to accede to this demand for everyone, but if we dig a little deeper psychologically it doesn't look like so much of a lost cause.

Robert Walters' research also found that over 90% of millennials want regular feedback, something they rated much more highly than employers. It found that only a quarter state money as the reason for changing jobs, and that two-thirds want a clear progression plan, all things that are probably true for the majority of us.

What we're really being told here is that employees want to feel valued and to have it demonstrated to them. It's certainly a message we hear from Spill users every single day.

What we're really being told here is that employees want to feel valued and to have it demonstrated to them. It's certainly a message we hear from Spill users every single day.


Let's consider that desire to have a clear progression plan as an example.

In a piece of research on Time discounting,
Lowenstein et al. found that if people are offered a large reward in a year's time versus a small reward tomorrow they will generally opt for the small reward. However, if offered a small reward in a year and a large reward in two years, they will more often choose to wait for the large reward.

It seems then that being clear with people about what you have planned for them, that they matter, and showing them how they can make progress in the medium term is more important than immediate gratification and may have a bigger impact than we might imagine.

Impatience has a bad reputation but it's actually our natural state. It's patience that's unusual.

The reptilian brain that has protected us physically and emotionally for millennia wants to be ahead, seen as strong and powerful, and to be admired. Learning how to temper impatience and use it wisely is what people really need.

As a therapist, helping clients notice the signs of impatience — the anger, frustration, irritability, and unmanageable levels of stress — and then supporting them in developing an understanding about where it's coming from, why, and how to use it, makes a noticeable difference to clients' lives.

We have to show clients that discomfort resulting from impatience is not created by outside stimuli, but rather is a response to it that comes from within. It is a story we are telling ourselves about the situation such as, "They don't rate me," or "I've no future here."

If we can help people to self-regulate, the payoffs are significant. Higher levels of optimism, increased self-esteem, and better physical health.

If we can help people to self-regulate, the payoffs are significant.


But we also need to break this invisible but destructive bond between value and achievement so that employees understand both to be important but unrelated.

Back at the school gates, what looks like a loving and supportive gesture from a doting parent might actually be where the trouble began.

By fawning over the beauty of the picture we are missing the beauty of the child. In one simple moment we are conveying the idea that the child is precious BECAUSE of their painting, rather than in spite of it.

When you think of all the ways in which parents might reinforce this belief in the years that follow, it's not surprising that we grow up thinking that what we achieve is the arbiter of our value.

At work, we can't always make our employees feel good by offering them promotions and higher salaries but, in order for that to be accepted, we need to be better at helping them to see their value more broadly and deeply — and try to ensure that they feel it too.


Spill's 5 tips for putting all that into practice...


⛑.  Demonstrate to them that they matter in other ways.
Unconditional praise is a great way to show this: describe the traits that you and the team hugely value in that person.

🗣   Give them lots of constructive feedback.
People want to know how they can improve, and often an outcry for promotion is a silent cry for more feedback and recognition.

🔭.  Make it clear you are thinking about their future.
Show them a progression plan, an org chart, or something that demonstrates that there are options open to them.

⏰.  Remember the principle of time discounting.
Showing employees how they can make progress in the medium term is more gratifying than giving them a smaller but immediate reward.

🧞‍♀️  Help them understand that 'promotion frustration' comes from within.
Often it's the stories we tell ourselves that are leading to the frustration. Exploring this with a therapist can be a great place to start.