Getting Promoted – The Data and Implications for Everyday Leaders

Getting Promoted – The Data and Implications for Everyday Leaders


A big thanks to the 900+ people who answered last week’s brief survey on what gets people job promotions.  The results are fascinating, so I’ll summarize the two clear takeaways.

First,  how fair are promotions?  When asked how people had been treated in promotion situations over their work lives, and given four choices: Totally fairly, fairly, questionably and unfairly the numbers broke like a statistician’s dream.  By a 75-to-25 margin people felt promotions were fair – totally fair (22%) or fair (53%) – over unfair – questionable (20%) or unfair (5%).  I was a bit surprised – are you? – that only one in 20 felt they had been treated unfairly.  In organizations with less than 25 people, a remarkable 2.1% said they’d been treated unfairly, while in organizations with over 1,000 people, the unfair number rose to 7.5%.  That surely tells you something.

Second, what really matters for getting promoted?  I asked about the importance of eight different factors – from “having the qualifications,” to “demonstrating results at your current position” to “having connections” with higher ups, or being seen as “bought in to the culture.” (I threw in “sucking up” because that’s what you hear the groaners say.)  Only two factors were rated as “essential” to promotion.  And these were seen as essential both when people were talking generally about promotion, but also when they were asked about their personal experience.  They were:

1.  Demonstrating results at your current position.

2.  Being seen as a person who goes over and  above what’s expected.

These both out-ranked things like “having connections” or “having credentials” or “having the qualifications” for the open position.  To me they say two things to both managers and those who work for them.  I’ll start with the second of the facts above:  If you want to have a higher-up job, act like you already have it.  Don’t meet expectations, surpass them. Proactivity matters and attitude is critical.  It makes me wonder two things: (1) How many workers have the goal of  exceeding expectations?  And (2) How many managers have the goal of helping their direct reports to exceed expectations?  It would seem the first question leads to promotion and the second leads to productive and loyal workers.

Finally, a word about the # 1 standout factor in promotions: demonstrating results in your current position.  I suspect that the major issue here is truly knowing what those expected results are.  Having completed my last review of a state employee last week – at a time I was poring over these survey results – I was overwhelmed with the importance of being crystal clear to my assistant about what results I expected.  It seems obvious. But so often, critical expectations remain unspoken by managers. No less than 4 of the 5 guests on my radio show on the topic of job promotion this week talked about the importance of “unwritten rules.”  Well, if workers can’t read ’em, how can they be accountable for them?  We stand to gain so much in productivity of our workers, so much in their growth, so much in their loyalty, and so much in our organizational results if we work to become insanely clear about just what the results are that we’re after.

You can see the summary data of the survey here.  I’d love to hear your comments on the data, my conclusions here, or the role of promotions and management to help you to

Lead with your best self!

  • Thanks for the recap Dan, very surprising that the results were so positive–which leads to the fact that a few must speak loudly when it comes to complaining. One thing I wanted to point out was your wrap up. Management being clear is very important, however, I do not believe a manager should have to be “insanely” clear. Workers who are self starters tend to get promoted, and their managers help them grow and remove road blocks. In cases like this, it’s great not to have all expectations outlined for the report. In short, no matter how great the manager, they may not always have the best ideas & visions. Therefore, they should restrict/stifle a report who can develop initiatives that the manager didn’t even think of themselves. Two heads are better than one, even when it comes to the office. Just a few of my thoughts.

  • Good morning Dan,

    Looks like there was an interesting RFL topic last week. I was in Tennessee visiting my daughter, son in – law, and grandaughter; Yes, I was caught in the monsterous rain storm which plagued all of Middle Tennessee. I quickly put myself in the shoes of the victim’s of hurricane Katrina.

    The survey analysis indicates there are some responders who were treated “unfair” when wanting a promotion. I have to wonder if afirmative action was a contributing factor.

    Being of African American descent, I believe a person should be eligible for a job or promotion based on his / her merits and merits only. However, it should be understood that “favortisim” is sometimes a part of an employers decision making. The employer has to be accountable for his decision though.

    Thomas K. Burke – Mentor

  • Jon,

    I love your point about leaving room for the employee to create and contribute. I think you’re dead on.

    I don’t think it contradicts what I’m saying. My point is that we think things like, “she’s not outgoing enough,” or “he seems to enjoy his breaks more than his work,” or “I wish she would do x, y, or z,.” Yet often we don’t communicate these expectations. They’re too vague in our own mind, or we can’t find a way to say them. Yet unless we do our reports can’t operate on them.

    Maybe it’s just my issue, but I suspect I have had bosses who didn’t like things I did or the way I did them, but didn’t express it for whatever reason – didn’t like conflict, didn’t want to hurt me, thought I already knew, or any number of other reasons.

    Thanks for sharing your great thoughts on this!

  • I thought the demographics on the respondees was interesting: almost two-thirds of all respondees were female, a plurality of whom work for companies of over 1000 people, and almost 58% of whom have been in the workplace for 25 years or more.

    I won’t try to interpret that, except I do wonder whether those demographics have substantial impact on the overall results. Dan, any thoughts, based on what you normally see in regard to survey responses?

  • Having been a manager in the employment business for twenty years, I totally agree with both the survey results and your summary. I am very pleased to see that people who responded to your survey feel these values have been applied.

  • Dan,

    It is good that your radio program guests brought out the point about “hidden/unwritten rules” in every corporate culture.
    Since our personal assumptions and beliefs drive our behavior, not knowing or paying attention to these cultural memes can hold you back from being promoted.
    Effective executives recognize that there is also an “invisible structure” of personal and business networks with their organization that define true influences and inter-dependencies—and these people know how to access and leverage those resources.

  • Great article! As a new Manager and employee with BCBSM, I received navigated the process to establish goals and objectives for my performance and reviewed them with my leadership. After reading this article I will update my objectives to ‘surpass’ what is expected. When writing my objectives and the strategies and tactics I intend to effect to my end goal, I’m sure I intended to ‘surpass’ and not just ‘meet’ the objectives, however, saying it and commiting it to writing is important!


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