The Best Way to Tell an Employee They Are Not Ready for a Promotion

It seems like everyone is waiting for their next big promotion when they haven’t even mastered the current one. The manager obsesses about their promotion and wastes their precious time and energy to find a way to speak to their manager and show them why they deserve it, the manager has no clue of the expectations cooking up in their minds. Some managers completely avoid the topic since they don’t want their employees to feel bad or hurt their feelings. They look for excuses to avoid doing the right thing: “This one’s going to hurt”

Vinita Bansal Hacker Noon profile picture

Vinita Bansal

Author Upgrade Your Mindset Scaling products → Scaling thinking. Former AVP Engineering @Swiggy

One of the biggest challenges managers face at work concerns promotions. It seems like everyone is waiting for their next big promotion when they haven’t even mastered the current one. Once the performance appraisal season kicks in, a good part of a manager’s time goes into managing unhappy employees – those who were expecting a promotion and didn’t get one and even those who weren’t expecting a promotion but nevertheless feel sad when others around them get promoted. 

The truth is most people believe they are ready for a promotion while their manager thinks otherwise. As the employee obsesses about their promotion and wastes their precious time and energy to find a way to speak to their manager and show them why they deserve it, the manager has no clue of the expectations cooking up in their minds. It’s a clash of opinions with the employee believing “I clearly deserve that promotion” to the manager thinking, “No, you don’t.” 

Inevitably, the employee thinks their manager is biased, incapable or someone who simply doesn’t care about their growth. The feeling that they have been treated unfairly interferes with their ability to see the situation objectively.  

Particularly challenging are the employees who are doing really well in their current role. Consistent positive feedback and performance ratings creates the expectation that they are ready for a promotion. They may be doing a really awesome job checking all the boxes of their current role, but delivering consistent results reliably does not automatically qualify them to handle challenges of the next level. 

Getting promoted by doing a solid job at the current level without building the skills required to excel at the next level is signing up for failure. If you are a manager who really cares about their employees and their success, you don’t want them placed in a role where they are predisposed to fail. I get that. It’s the right thing to do. Your criteria for promotion shouldn’t be based on what your employee thinks about their promotion, it should be an objective measure based on their actual skills and readiness. 

What’s more crucial than not promoting the person who isn’t ready for one? The right kind of communication. Because this is where most managers fail to do their job. 

Every manager deals with the fear of having to tell an employee they aren’t ready for a promotion at some point. The disconnect between the expectation and the reality happens because the manager doesn’t take steps to bridge the gap between the two. Their fear gets in the way. 

The Wrong Kind of Communication

The biggest source of frustration at work for most people is feeling stuck in their job. When they clearly see themselves ready for the next level role and constantly wonder about what to do next to get that promotion they so clearly deserve. 

There are two extreme reactions to managing this expectation:

Avoid conversation: Some managers completely avoid the topic since they don’t want their employees to feel bad or hurt their feelings or they simply don’t know how to handle the discomfort that comes with managing difficult conversations. They look for excuses to avoid doing the right thing:

  1. This one’s going to hurt. Better to say nothing.
  2. People don’t want to know bad news.
  3. It’s too early to tell.
  4. It’s not the right time.
  5. They will realize it on their own. 

Up the motivation: Others create false hope with the fear of losing them “Don’t worry! You will be promoted next time!” They think that people will lose interest in their job if they don’t have hope of getting promoted. As if it’s a choice between speaking the truth and keeping the employee. They act out of fear:

  1. Employees won’t be motivated unless I tell them they will be promoted soon.
  2. False hope is better than no hope.
  3. Telling the truth will affect their performance.
  4. People will quit. 

False promises to motivate the employee in the moment usually backfires as it turns into utter disappointment later. It ends up doing more damage than good. 

As the manager fails to communicate, the employees continue developing a chip on their shoulders with their unfulfilled wishes and desires. It amplifies every time they lose an opportunity to get promoted. With no promotion in sight, the anticipation and anxiety with every appraisal turns into feelings of anger, resentment, loss of motivation and finally leads to a loss of trust and respect for the manager. 

Being able to act on your intentions is a key component of trust. Allies are only valuable when they can be trusted to be effective. When your employees don’t trust you to make good on your promises, you don’t get their best effort – Heidi Grant

We all know that a disgruntled person cannot be effective at work. When an employee feels dissatisfied and doesn’t understand what’s holding them back from a promotion, it’s a communication failure on part of the manager. 

The challenge is in the balance – not speaking about it at all to making every conversation, every action about it. You don’t want your employees obsessing about their promotion, but at the same time you don’t want them to be completely oblivious to where they stand in the moment or what they need to do to get there.

Stating I Don’t Agree

1. Act as a catalyst in shifting perspective

When employees know that you have their best interests at heart and you want them to succeed in the current role as well as the next, they stop worrying about promotion and use that energy into showcasing their best performance. It isn’t enough to say “I care about your promotion.” It has to reflect in your actions. 

Most likely, your employees have a wrong notion about getting a promotion. When it seems like everyone is trying to rush through a promotion, they don’t want to be left behind. Most people fail to define what a promotion means to them – are they looking for a rise in status, more money or simply more responsibilities?

All it takes is a little bit of perspective to get them to think clearly: 

  1. Ask them about their goals. Discuss how those goals fit into their plan for promotion. 
  2. Weigh in the costs of getting promoted with the benefits of staying in their current role.
  3. Shift their frame of mind from seeking a promotion to building the right skills. 
  4. Show them how a great job at the current level does not translate into readiness at the next level.
  5. Talk to them about the different skills that matter – why communication and conflict management skills are as important as achieving technical excellence.

Put this way, they can see how success and promotion are disjoint. They can be successful without necessarily getting promoted. A more long-term focus on growth shifts the expectation from getting promoted to investing in learning.

2. Tell them what they need to hear

As a manager, you probably have enough experience and seen multiple promotions in your career by now. Your employees because of their lack of experience can’t see what you clearly can. That puts you in a unique position to have exactly the kind of knowledge they need to learn about the key elements missing from their promotion. 

You have the ability to separate the areas where they are flourishing from the ones where they are lacking. You can cover up the gaps in their expectations with the holes in their skills. You can help them see what it really takes to be successful at the next level. 

Let’s face the hard truth. Telling an employee that they aren’t ready for a promotion is always going to sting. Even with the best of intentions, it isn’t easy on the other person. Trying to soften the blow by hiding critical feedback, making false promises “You will definitely get it next time!” or saying things like “If you would only do this one thing…” is not really helpful.  

The vague feedback can help you get past the uncomfortable moment and make you feel good for checking an item off your todo list, but it does nothing to actually help the other person. Rather, it confuses them further. How can they turn the obstacles upside down when they can’t even see what stands in between where they are now to where they want to be? Without clear feedback, what can be an otherwise great opportunity can turn into a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. 

What should you do as a manager?

Be empathetic, yet stay direct. Tell them what’s missing from the equation. Don’t use roundabout ways to convey what you need to say. Don’t try to soften the blow. Clearly articulate why you think they aren’t ready for a promotion. State what they need to start and stop doing. Leave no room for interpretation or confusion. 

Also, be clear about the fact that just because you haven’t seen them demonstrate a particular competency, you aren’t assuming that they simply don’t have it. You are fully invested in finding the right opportunities for them to practice those skills. 

A few examples:

Instead of making promises: “You will get the promotion if you do…”

Stay real: “You are already doing the [following things]. You also need to demonstrate your abilities in [these skills]. Based on the feedback from putting these skills into practice, I will consider your case for promotion as these skills will enable you to be successful in your next role.”

Instead of being vague: “We couldn’t go with your promotion this time, but I am sure you will get through it next time. You are already doing a great job.” 

Go for clarity: “You have tremendous potential as is evident through your performance on […]. However, you need to improve on [these skills].”

A senior developer who’s looking to grow into a team lead needs to demonstrate the abilities to lead a team, resolve conflicts, communicate effectively and prioritize for impact.

A junior developer needs to learn to deliver high-quality code, produce independently, collaborate effectively, and up their level of problem-solving before they can be considered for a promotion. 

As a manager, your perspective on how your report is doing carries far more weight than his perspective on how you are doing. After all, you’re the one who determines what he works on and whether he should get a promotion or be fired. This power imbalance means that the responsibility falls to you to be honest and transparent when it comes to how you are evaluating performance – Julie Zhuo

She adds “Your report should have a clear sense at all times of what your expectations are and where he stands. If he is often wondering, What does my manager think of me? then you need to dial up your level of feedback. Don’t assume he can read between the lines or that no news is good news. If you think he is the epitome of awesome, tell him. If you don’t think he is operating at the level you’d like to see, he should know that, too, and precisely why you feel that way.”

With clear expectations and feedback all along, not getting a promotion can be disappointing, but it isn’t a reason to stop trying. Rather, knowing you are there to help all along can be powerfully motivating to try harder. 

3. Show Them How it’s Done

What if your employee is already taking responsibilities at the next level, but simply aren’t making progress? They may put in the effort, but what if that effort does not lead to desired results. Would you conclude they aren’t fit for the role?

Not really. Sometimes, it’s not enough to tell people “go do this.” Most people don’t know where to start or what specifically to do when they face setbacks. Without guidance on how to make progress when they feel stuck, they may lose hope and give up too soon. They may go back to doing their old job while failing to do the work that will get them what they desperately desire. It may only cost them a promotion, while it may cost you a chance to utilize their true potential. 

What can you do as a manager? 

As goes with learning anything new, they are bound to make mistakes. They need to persevere through challenges and setbacks. Help them see what they are doing wrong and discuss better strategies to make progress in their goals. Coach them into learning from their failures and use them as lessons to get better. Ask questions to help them develop critical thinking skills and learn to solve problems on their own:

  1. What challenge did they face?
  2. What strategies did they implement for solving it?
  3. What didn’t work. What did they learn from it?
  4. What else can they do?
  5. Who can help?

Throughout the entire process, make them feel in control. They shouldn’t feel powerless when it comes to their own promotion. Teach them the power of growth mindset. Show them how their own effort can build the skills required to do the job and how that effort can turn into accomplishment. It’s important for them to realize that while they may not have the skills to be promoted yet, building those skills is still within their reach. They need to put in the right kind of effort to get there. They need to try new strategies. They need to do the work to build the skills required to be successful in that role. 

Ask them to create a plan listing different strategies with clear timelines. Discuss how they can seek feedback on each of them and what they can do to measure progress. With clarity on the specific things they can do to make forward progress, everything will appear within their reach. 

4. Do More Than Your Best

It takes more than your goodwill as a manager to promote a person in any company. Depending on what kind of a role you are pushing for, you may need support from other people in the company for a promotion to go through. 

Don’t act too late. You will lose the case even before you have built one. Do your job and be absolutely clear about the process at your company to promote people. If you are a new manager, speak to HR and other managers about the process. Ask questions:

  1. What can be a deal-breaker?
  2. What are the expected competencies at each level?
  3. What qualifies a meets vs an exceeds expectation?
  4. What kind of documentation is required?
  5. Whose feedback counts?

Managers usually cannot guarantee promotions, but good managers know what the system is looking for and can help [people] build those achievements and skills – Camille Fournier

Telling your employees they aren’t ready for a promotion isn’t enough. You need to think about the experiences and exposure they need to get there. Consider the radar of future opportunities. Look for the right moments to showcase their strengths, advocate for them in front of other people, be verbal about their achievements while speaking to other managers.

Shoot for nothing less than a 100% hit rate so that when the right time comes you aren’t working hard to avoid disappointments. You may not promote them yet, but you may need to start planning now.  

And if you need to deal with a little bit of politics at work, go for it. Don’t leave your people stranded just because the politics of the process makes you uncomfortable. By all means if you can fix the process, go for it. But just in case “you can’t,” don’t use it as an excuse to justify the outcome.  

In the end, never ever tell them that you did your best, but the promotion didn’t go through. Don’t refuse to take accountability by saying “I tried my best, but others didn’t agree.” They shouldn’t care about who is responsible for making the final decision. All they need to know is the missing piece of the puzzle – what they ought to do now, the next steps. 


  1. There’s a large disconnect between the manager and the employee concerning their promotion. At some point or the other, the employee feels ready to get to the next level while their manager thinks otherwise.
  2. This disconnect is a communication lapse on part of the manager. 
  3. Most managers either try to avoid the difficult conversation to save their employees from feeling bad or make false promises to up their motivation. Such strategies are highly ineffective. 
  4. Disappointment of not getting promoted and lack of clarity on what to do next leaves people angry, anxious and frustrated. 
  5. To avoid leaving people dissatisfied, managers need to shift their perspective by helping them focus on learning and growth instead of spending their time and energy on getting promoted. They need to work with them to identify gaps in their skills, show them how to make progress on their goals and give them useful feedback to make corrections along the way.

Also published here.

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