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10 Things You’d Never Know About Job Promotions

10 Things You’d Never Know About Job Promotions

job promotion

Job promotions in the workplace can be a complete mystery. It’s also really hard to achieve if you don’t know what to expect.

As someone who has been promoted a bunch of times, and has been a part of innumerable promotion conversations, my personal and professional experience spans both wide and deep. The one thing that is pretty consistent is how much is unknown to employees.

In this post, we give you ten things you’d never know about job promotions in the workplace.

job promotion


Job promotions are pretty exciting to receive. Yes, it generally means additional work with expanded scope and responsibilities. But it also means you’ve done a great job and your potential didn’t go unnoticed.

Most managers have an idea of who’s ready for promotion and will act accordingly to make it happen. For others, the path or process isn’t as clear. Not knowing what’s in your locus of control can be a frustrating feeling. However, once you have more visibility into the inner-workings, you’ll be empowered to make some power moves.

1. You may be an outstanding employee, but a job promotion still isn’t possible.

Normally we think of promotions from a one sided vantage point—ours. We know we’re ready for increased responsibility. We know we’ve been doing exceptionally strong work, but we don’t know if there’s an opportunity for growth at the next level.

Allow me to explain.

In order to truly grasp this concept, you’ll need a quick and dirty intro into Compensation 101.

Let’s talk about job leveling and families.

Each role is a part of a job family — a group of related jobs in the same or similar function. Each job family has a series of levels ranging from junior levels all the way through executive level positions. Job levels account for the complexity of scope, range of tasks and responsibility, years of experience, etc. This all sounds good, but there’s a big caveat I have yet to mention and that’s level limitation. In other words, there’s a finite amount of levels meaning you may eventually reach the terminal level in your job family.

Most solid mid-career professionals fall somewhere in the middle leveling wise leaving lots of room for upward growth. But if you’re reaching the apex, there literally is no where else to promote you!

This is usually happens with senior individual contributors (IC) and senior executives. If you’re an IC, an easy reasonable fix is moving over to a management position. For senior executives, it’s a little easier. They probably aren’t looking to get promoted so it’s less of an issue for this demographic.

The takeaway here is find out what your current level is and what options are open to you for promotions. 

2. Too many promotion options can mean no one gets promoted.

I know this one is a tough pill to swallow.

When I sit with senior leaders and we’re discussing standout talent, every so often we have a great problem. Several people are ready for a career promotion at the same time.

Obviously, this is not a bad thing for any organization — on the surface, at least.

Naturally it’s hard for any leader to make the business case that several people, doing the same job, needing to be promoted at the same time. And to be honest, the work probably doesn’t support this decision either.

So what happens now?

We would critically assess various elements of each person work output. We also try to determine their potential at a more senior level if this is a lagging promotion. If it’s still too close, it might be best to hold off on promotions another cycle. This allows more time for the strongest performers to pull ahead.

You will never know if you fell into this bucket. I recommend you chat with your manager before your performance reviews to see where you stand.

3. Your manager has limits.

I’ve worked in organizations that really prescriptive and strict in their promotion strategy. I’ve also worked in places where anything goes. Both have their pros and cons, but when there’s a lack in structure, it makes a mess later to undo.

In those more strict environments, leaders are given a set number of promotion slots. It is their decision on where and how they use them. If they have enough slots, they can can spread the love easier. The trouble comes when there’s fewer openings than needed.

I recall one situation when there were about 18 very strong promotion cases for only one opening. This felt like an impossible decision. The person who had one slight advantage, tenure, got the promotion.

Again, that was an extreme example, but it’s still the case with lots of employers.


Understand your manager may not know their “numbers” until it’s time to review everyone. If competition is fierce, there’s very little you can do other than continue to have strong performance and have regular ongoing conversations with your manager.

4. It’s not about you, the business need(s) will always win.

The needs of the business will always rank #1.

This may not come as a surprise, but we work so our respective companies are successful in their industries.

The work to do that happens varies in complexity and will always require a variety of skill sets to keep it competitive in the market. Therefore, the work and long-term organizational strategy determines how it hires and promotes.

To illustrate this, think about this:

Operational work, by default, doesn’t need big visionary, strategic thinkers— usually your executives and senior leaders. This type of work needs people who are able to execute quickly and hit aggressive metrics. These are your operators who do well when given a tactical task that is often repeated day in and out.

These positions are great for entry level people, or those who love predictable work. The downside is that there probably isn’t a need for this role at very senior level positions. Sure, there’s some big overseeing the work from afar, but there’s only one of those big wigs.

This means that promotions will come, but only up to a certain point. You can expect to max out sooner than in other job families.

5. Your hard work may not on the right radars.

I hate to say this, but hard work can unfortunately go unnoticed.

Do you remember in school where if you did well on a test, your teacher, at the very least gave you a sticker? Yeah, those rules no longer apply.

Some managers get so fixated on getting things pushed to finished, they forget about the people doing the work, their motivations, or long term career goals. That said, the onus is on you to keep it top of mind for them. You have my full permission to share your expectations and wants. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee anything, but you would have at least put a voice to your thoughts.

Assuming you’re a high performer, your manager will want to try their hardest to keep you engaged and actively work to retain you. Use that to your advantage. Again, this works in cases where you are a consistently high performer worth keeping on the roster.

6. Your manager thinks you will never be promotion-ready. career promotion

This is another killer.

Job promotions come as a result of your manager thinking you’re ready to hold a job with expanded scope. This inevitably means the risk is higher for them as you will be leading more work they are responsible for.

They literally have to trust you more than ever.

Although you will take more work off their plate, it’s now on you lead its execution. Your manager has to trust that you will execute the work to some relative level of success. There’s many reasons why you may not be promoted, if this is among the top reasons, a promotion will never happen— and I’m sure you know how difficult it is to rebuild trust once it’s been broken.

Make yourself a real chance by over delivering where you can (not to be confused with hustle culture). If you’re having trouble making deadlines or completing your tasks, it’s best to over communicate to find the best path forward. More importantly, your manager will hopefully find value in this.

Lastly, find allies who can also attest to your work on your behalf.

7. Professional maturity starts to matter the higher you move up the ladder.

This dovetails from the previous point. As you gain more seniority, the stakes are higher. You may have more visibility, and tougher stakeholders to manage. This is where professional mature needs to be at its highest.

I cannot tell you how many time while discussing promotions, a manager brought up severe concerns about placing an employee in front of the CEO, CFO, SVP of Sales, some unwieldy, wild, difficult client, or [fill in the blank].

Now, one can argue even the most tenured, senior level people aren’t always mature — trust me, I’m in HR, I know this is totally true.

While I’m not trying to make excuses, but the difference here is that they’ve cleared the hurdles you’re just getting to. You need to evaluate how you behave in certain situations. Every interaction matters. How you respond to the good, bad, and ugly starts to really matter. If you looking to make a jump into management, how you will manage others will definitely be important.

8. Your manager isn’t interested in keeping you around.

I know, another tough one to hear, but let’s talk about it.

See Also
imposter syndrome at work

Everything could be perfect and ideal from a business perspective. Meaning there’s a more advance career level to promote you into, there’s more than enough work at that next level, and there’s an identified business need.

Amazing, right?!

Well, do they want you to hold that job?

This is different from the bullet points above. This goes beyond the trust thing. Your professional maturity isn’t a factor, whatsoever.

What gives might you ask?

You may not be their ideal employee. One could also argue that they just don’t like you. Should these elements come into play regarding your ability to do the work?

Nope. 10,000% it should be totally irrelevant.

But if the thought of you being promoted makes the manager’s life one iota more difficult, or you just aren’t a good person or employee, you’re all but ineligible.

9. Your manager said yes, but the leadership team said nu-uh.


These cases are always so, so hard.

Let’s say, again, all the stars aligned and your manager is all in on your promotion. They made a strong promotion case for you and it works well with the needs of the team and organization.

Once it leaves their hands, it usually goes to several additional layers of approval—sometimes all the way up through the CEO. Each approval is an opportunity for your promotion to go dead in the water for any number of reasons.

Luckily, this happens at more senior level promotions but can happen in more junior level promotions as well. There’s no way to safeguard against this happening because it’s out of theirs and HR’s hands.

I get called in to prep the managers to deliver the hard news but I will share it never gets easy to tell someone their promotion was denied by someone totally unfamiliar with them or their work.

At the upper approval checkpoints, sometimes it becomes a numbers game. It’s less about the person and more about the bottom line and what makes sense from a global, organizational level.

10. You might be ready, but you’re too new, or just had a promotion.

I love ambition, it’s what keeps innovation moving forward.

But just like everything else, there can be a downside. With promotions in the workplace, it’s entirely possible to ascend too quickly. If you’re a new hire, don’t expect to get promoted during your first review cycle. It’ll not only upset a lot of your colleagues and peers that a newbie has grown wings, we also probably haven’t had an opportunity to see you flex in a wide variety of work situations. You know, the ones that come with time.

Similarly, if you were promoted recently, you can’t expect to have another one come your way for at least another 1-2 years, if not longer. You have to master your current role before you can ascend to the next level.

I know this seems obvious, but a lot of people feel these things should come yearly.

There is one exception to the rule. It’s in those industries where promotions timelines are predetermined. This is common in up-or-out environments, like consulting, or the legal field. They know how long you should be at each level and they give work to test your readiness and aptitude for subsequent levels. And nearly every single person goes through the same process.


There you have it.

10 things you never knew about promotions. There’s always more to learn, but this gives you a solid footing as you enter performance review cycles.

We’d love to hear from you!

Tell us about your last promotion and if any of these things came as a surprise to you.

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