Didn't Get That Promotion? Three Reasons Why You Should Thank Your Boss

Didn't Get That Promotion? Three Reasons Why You Should Thank Your Boss

04.07.17Ron Ashkenas

Think about it differently

Most of us think about our careers in terms of an upward trajectory. If we do a good job then we are in line for more responsibility, a more impressive title, greater respect from others, increased compensation, and all sorts of perks. That’s why we work hard, try to impress the right people, take outside courses, and promote ourselves at every opportunity. We want to move up the ladder, ever higher, always advancing.

But what happens when we hit a ceiling and can’t go any further? The reality of hierarchical structures – which still characterize most organizations – is that advancement gets tougher and more competitive as you move to higher and higher levels. There are simply fewer slots for more and more people. Remember that there are only 500 CEO’s who run the top 500 companies – and millions of people who report to them. So not everyone gets to the top. It’s a giant game of musical chairs, with fewer and fewer chairs at each rung of the corporate ladder. This means that statistically, almost everyone reaches a point where the music stops and you don’t get a seat.

The other reality to keep in mind is that your ability to advance to a higher level isn’t always dependent on capability, track record, and merit. Let’s face it: The organizational world isn’t fair or predictable. While competence and skill certainly is a factor, it’s not the only one. Many of the CEO’s that I’ve talked to over the years have told me that they got their jobs at least partly because they were in the right place at the right time, which is a matter of luck. Others of course, at all levels, get promotions because of loyalty, connections, political considerations, or extraneous characteristics that have nothing to do with what it takes to do the job.

Yet despite the reality that the opportunities are increasingly limited and the competition isn’t always fair, most of us keep trying to make it to the next level, and we are deeply disappointed when we don’t succeed. In fact, most of the managers that I’ve worked with over the years who didn’t get the promotions that they wanted have taken it personally, as though they did something wrong, or weren’t good enough. All too often, missing out on a promotion is a blow to the ego – even though in many cases the decision isn’t due to lack of ability, but rather the other factors described above.

Not getting a promotion however shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. In fact, it might be the best thing that could ever happen to you – for three reasons:

First, being turned down for a promotion gives you a great opportunity to assess your career. Are you doing what you want to do and are you in an organization that you feel good about? Maybe there are alternatives that you haven’t explored because you’ve been trying to move up? Are there lateral moves? Can you take your skills elsewhere or work on your own? In other words, not getting a promotion can liberate you to think differently about the kind of work that will be most fulfilling.

The second reason why not getting a promotion might be beneficial is that it can give you a vehicle for soliciting honest and constructive feedback that you can turn to your advantage. Find out why you didn’t get the job or why the person who did get it was deemed “more qualified”. Are you missing some key skills that might be worth developing? Are there gaps in your resume that you need to fill? And even if you don’t get clear feedback about what you need to do, you might get insights into your company, and what it takes to be successful there. In other words, not getting a promotion can be a very powerful learning experience if you’re open to listening.

And finally, not getting a promotion can give you perspective on how you want to manage the balance between career advancement and personal satisfaction. Many of us are unaware that we are on an ever faster treadmill with an upward incline – and that staying on the treadmill requires more and more energy, which takes away from personal relationships, family, and all sorts of other pursuits. Not getting a promotion stops the treadmill, at least temporarily – and in that moment you have a chance to breath and look not just at your career, but also at your life. What’s important, what are your priorities, and how do you want to allocate your time and energy? These are questions that we often don’t ask ourselves – but when they are triggered by a career setback they can be very powerful.

So yes, when your boss tells you that you haven’t gotten the promotion that you wanted, it can be disappointing and painful. On the other hand, it can be an opportunity to reassess your career, your development, and your life. So take it as a gift, and thank your boss for giving it to you.

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.

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