You might be one of the top performers in your company or department – maybe the top performer. But you don’t get promoted – why? It could be that you lack a critical skill, or maybe even a significant credential. But just as often – maybe even more often – is something less objective, less holy. Though we prefer to believe that the world truly works on a merit system and rewards top performers, there are dark reasons why good workers don’t get promoted.
Here are seven of them, and I’ll bet you can come up with a few more without even thinking about it for too long.
1. They Need You Right Where You Are
Every department relies heavily on a small group of people to carry the load. There may be 10 people in a department, but the heavy lifting is done by just one or two. These are the “go to people”, and everyone loves them, especially when there’s a difficult task to be parceled out, or a busy season to be survived.
Sometimes go-to people do get promoted. But in too many situations, management wants such people right where they are, keeping the system in balance. Yes, promoting them may be the right thing to do, but it might not happen if doing so will significantly upset the workflow in the department.
For their own convenience, the powers-that-be may choose to leave you exactly where you are. Instead, they might promote somebody who is less capable, because the move won’t be as disruptive.
There’s even a name for this phenomenon: The Peter Principle. It holds that every employee tends to rise one step above their level of competence. It also goes a long way toward explaining why so many managers are mediocre – or worse.
2. You May be Too Independent
It’s often true that the most productive people in any organization are also the most independent. That’s because independence is a big part of what drives them to be so efficient. It’s one of the qualities that creates the much coveted self-starter.
But organizations and bosses don’t always see independence as a positive trait. They might politely tolerate it because you are so productive. But at the same time, they may not want to reward it either.
In an organization, everyone is first and foremost a link in the chain. Systems tend to promote people who recognize their link status, and are comfortable with it. Sadly, if you are an innovator, your efforts to change the workflow are not always considered in a positive light. It’s a phenomenon of the times that we can refer to as systems over people.
In such an environment, management may prefer people who are more compliant to those who are self-reliant. The compliant will be promoted precisely because they aren’t expected to rock the boat.
3. You May be a Threat to Your Boss
I’ve seen this in different organizations, and I’ll bet that you have too. There are people in the department who are more competent and capable than the manager who oversees them. It’s not just the rank-and-file who are aware of this either – the boss is only too aware of it.
The boss may have reached his position of rank due to some factors that we’ll discuss below. But suffice it to say that he may be keenly aware of the potential threats that exist in the food chain in his own department. He may even have evolved into an expert practitioner in regard to keeping those threats – the most productive people – from taking his job.
While on the one hand, as one of the most productive people in the department, you may insulate your boss from her own incompetence. But at the same time, if she believes you’re threatening her position, you can rest assured that your name is featured prominently on some sort of unwritten hit list.
This can also explain why from time to time your job is threatened. It’s not just how you feel, it’s what’s really happening. Every so often, a less-than-capable manager will execute an assault on people in the department who he considers to be a threat.
It’s something of a periodic beat-down process, in which the boss is letting you know who’s in charge. The least secure bosses tend to do it the most frequently. It can take the form of either unwarranted criticism of your performance, and extend even to threatening your job.
It’s not that you’re not getting the job done, but rather that you’re getting it done too well. It’s what can happen if your own competence and standing within the organization represents a threat to your boss.
4. You Don’t “Fit the Suit”
I once worked for a large pharmaceutical company where everyone in critical management positions were tall, white men. I also worked for a national mortgage company in which everyone of rank within our department chain was a woman. Then I worked for a smaller mortgage company where most of the sales staff were 20-something Ivy League (or equivalent) graduates. Get the picture?
While it’s comforting to believe that organizations hire the best and brightest candidates available as a matter of survival, it’s not always true.
Many organizations have an unspoken concept of who represents the most desirable employees. Very often, it’s an attempt to build a certain image. For example, a company may try to position itself as young, vibrant and attractive. They will attempt to make this image a reality by hiring people who are consistent with that profile.
This is a major reason for age discrimination, a particular form of employment discrimination that’s much more rampant than believed, but rarely challenged legally. If you don’t “fit the suit” you probably won’t be hired – and certainly not promoted. And if the “suit” is modified in a way that excludes you after you’ve been hired, you probably won’t be there for very long.
5. You’re Not an Insider
“Insider” can refer to different attributes, depending on the organization. Nepotism – the practice of hiring and promoting family members – is one example. Promoting people who fit the suit is another.
But insider status can also be acquired and maintained by those who are most adept at getting “in” with the boss. This can include coworkers who act as informants for the boss. Such types are particularly welcomed by less capable managers who feel threatened by certain members of the staff. The informant is seen by the boss as a welcome ally. The fact that the employee may otherwise be below average is secondary. When promotion time comes, the informant may very well be at the top of the list.
Some people are very good at brown-nosing their way to greater influence within the organization. They succeed at least in part because bosses value loyalty very highly. And the more insecure the boss is, the more that loyalty is likely to be rewarded in the form of both praise and promotions.
6. You Have Incompatible Outside Interests
What you do outside the job should have no effect on the job itself. But I think we all know that isn’t true.
Everybody likes surrounding themselves with people of similar interests, the workplace is no exception. Management may have a preference for promoting people with certain interests, such as sports, religion or even family status. For example, management may prefer single people who don’t have family obligations to compete with the job (or they may see single people as more likely to be party animals).
Management may also see the job as extending into social activities. Have you ever worked in an organization where management was particularly fond of drinking after work, or at extracurricular activities? I have, and I learned that if you’re not a drinker yourself, your status in the organization will be lower.
I’ve worked in companies that made a regular practice of attending after work happy hours. Some purposely scheduled meetings after working hours and at venues that serve alcohol. Each meeting seamlessly melds into happy hour.
In such environments it often seems as if management is looking for drinking buddies more than competent, productive employees.
If you notice that the prominent people in the department or organization seem to have a common bond of certain extracurricular activities – that you don’t share – the likelihood of getting promoted will be greatly reduced.
7. Someone Doesn’t Like You
I saved this reason for last precisely because it’s the most obvious. But if your boss, your boss’s boss, or one of your boss’s informant first lieutenants don’t like you, you won’t be promoted. You may even spend a lot of time in the doghouse, despite being one of the most productive members of the staff.
Personal preferences do have an effect on promotions. In fact, they are central to the existence of the organization. The problem is that organizations can often resemble popularity contests – it’s like high school all over. And the rules are the same.
I’m guessing that everyone has been on the losing side of this arrangement. It doesn’t matter how well you do in your job, or even what other people in your department or your organization – or even the customers and clients – think about you. If the people who are in a position to promote you don’t like you on a personal level, your future with the organization is extremely limited.
Final Thoughts on Dark Reasons Why Good Workers Don’t Get Promoted
So what’s the point of detailing all these dreary circumstances? It’s to let you know that sometimes you’re just in the wrong place. This list can help you identify that fact. And if that’s where you are, you may need to move to a different department or employer in order to move forward in your career.
As an example, a very competent and highly productive coworker of mine, working in an organization where he was never going to be promoted, changed jobs and was made the department head of the new company. You may have to do the same thing.
The other is to help you to understand when you seem to be under attack on your job, that it may have nothing to do with you or your performance. You may be doing everything right, but you’re being attacked because of the incompetence and insecurity of the people higher up in the chain of command.
Have you ever experienced any of these situations? What did you do about it? And how did it turn out?