Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Discussing Employee Promotability

Dear Emily,

I am a human resources manager for a large government agency. I am frequently called upon to respond to employees who are unhappy that they were not selected for a promotion. The non-selected employees complain the selected employees are part of the “in crowd.” Often, simply by the tone of the employees’ complaint, I can imagine how they came across in the interview. Likewise, a review of the employees’ evaluation forms confirms that interpersonal communication and teamwork are not their strong suits. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly negative in their evaluations and there are individual instances of good work cited. Let’s assume there was not illegal discrimination and procedures were followed. How do I respond to these employees? I want to tell them the truth—i.e., you’re a good enough employee, but not worth promoting. It seems that this will either hurt them, anger them, or both. How can I prompt them toward a more realistic assessment of their promotability?

Seeking Realistic Expectations

Dear Seeking,

In good organizations, this kind of conversation happens regularly. An HR manager, like yourself, sits down with an employee and has a direct, candid, and respectful conversation about promotability and career trajectory. This is in fact a classic example of a crucial conversation. The stakes are high for these employees. Promotions and job changes have a huge impact on our engagement at work and our financial ability to create the lives we want for ourselves and our families. Next, there are differing opinions. The employees think they are promotable. You and the promoting managers do not. Finally, strong emotions come into play. You mention hurt and anger. My guess is that there is also fear, resentment, confusion, and disillusionment. And, as I said at first, in good organizations these types of crucial conversations happen regularly between employees and HR managers.

In the very best organizations, this crucial conversation about promotability and career trajectory also happens regularly. It just doesn’t happen between the employee and you, the HR manager. It happens between the employee and his or her manager. So let me suggest that rather than figuring out how to hold this conversation yourself, you spend some time figuring out how to coach these employees to have the conversation with their managers.

Hear Their Meaning

Coaching someone to have a crucial conversation is quite different from simply having a crucial conversation, but there are some similar elements. First, it is important that you give this person the time, space, and safety to share his or her meaning. People have an innate need to be heard, especially when they feel that a wrong has been committed. Before employees will be able to hear your counsel, they need to know that you have heard them. Even though you already know many of the details and it can be tempting to jump in and start working toward a solution, take time to stop and listen. You may hear something new, but that is not really the primary reason for listening. The reason you listen is, first and foremost, to demonstrate to others that you respect them, care about them, and want to help. Listening will do that better than any words you could say.

Focus On What They Really Want

More than likely, when these employees finish sharing the self-justifying details of the wrong committed against them, they will seek your validation. Isn’t this so unfair? Don’t you agree this is discriminatory? Do you know of any valid reason for me not to be promoted?

This is the crucial moment for you, the moment in which you need to transition from a crucial conversation to a coaching conversation. It is so tempting to jump right in with your meaning—sharing your perspective on their performance record, competencies needed for promotion, or on how the decision process unfolds. This is not necessarily a bad approach. As I said at the outset, this is the conversation that happens regularly in good organizations. But in the best organizations, HR managers recognize this crucial moment and choose to coach rather than converse.

Take a moment to focus on what employees really want. Yes, they are asking for validation. But my guess is what they really want is to understand and be empowered to move forward in their career. They want to achieve something they haven’t achieved before. Employees may be frustrated because they don’t know why they are stuck. In the absence of information, they’ve told themselves the worst possible story—the playing field is not level, the deck is stacked against them, and managers are playing favorites.

When employees ask for validation, this is your opportunity to help them start to explore what they really want. Begin by acknowledging their feelings: “I can imagine how frustrating and hurtful it is to not be promoted and not be sure why.” Then offer up a suggestion of what you think they really want and ask for confirmation: “It seems like what you really want is to understand this decision and to progress and grow in your career. Is that right?”

Nine times out of ten, your suggestion will be close but enough off the mark that they will disagree with it. That is okay. Follow up with a broader question about what they do really want. Ask “why questions” to dig deeper and help them explore their own motivations.

The Right Conversation with the Right Person

Once you are able to establish what the employees really want, you can transition to a discussion of what conversation will help them get there. The employees are looking for answers and your job is to help them understand who has those answers. A redirecting statement can be as simple as, “Hmm . . . I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer those questions. It seems like you would find more meaningful answers talking with your manager.”

Most employees will intuitively know that they should be speaking with their manager or other decision-maker about their concerns. So when you suggest this, be prepared for the “yeah, but,” to come right back—e.g., “Yeah, I know I should, but there is no way I could ever have that conversation. After all, she is the one that stabbed me in the back in the first place.”

I love that moment of “yeah, but,” because this is the moment when the teaching really begins. This is the moment when I can offer a solution: “I know it is a really difficult conversation to have, and I think I can share some ideas with you about how you can hold the conversation. We could even practice it together if you would like.” A tentative nod paired with a skeptical look is enough of a go-ahead for me. At this point, you can dig in and help this person learn the following skills: Master My Stories, State My Path, and Make It Safe for the other person. And that should be enough to get the employee started.

All the Best,

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8 thoughts on “Discussing Employee Promotability”

  1. Phil Nimtz

    Nicely said Emily. How do I as a ‘helper’ get my own emotions and story under control so I don’t add to the problem. This approach helps us avoid the conflagration of two different sets of feelings. My strong emotions as an HR professional about how they might react and my ability to manage it are very different from the ‘strong emotions’ they are bringing to the discussion. If I can’t separate them and shift, it is likely that this individual will “make up a story” that my nervousness and emotions are about them and their situation rather than about me. This will, of course go a long way to confirming their existing story. It might even be worth mentioning your personal concerns to this individual as a way of modeling openness and vulnerability and enrolling their help in separating the two sets of feelings. Now that would be a nice full pool of shared meaning.

  2. Dr. Patricia Pitsel

    The nature of a hierarchy is such that there are never sufficient promotions for everyone. The more you progress, the fewer positions are available. This can create a situation where in the light of increased narcissism among younger people (according to recent research) you may have more and more young people believing that they have been hard done by when they did not get their expected promotion. They belong to a generation where everyone is a winner, and everyone gets a participation medal.

    Personally, I don’t believe it is the job of an HR Manager (particularly in a large government office) to explain to an employee why s/he didn’t get a specific promotion unless the employee is filing a discrimination complaint (which is not the case in this situation). It may be the job of the HR Manager to coach the employee’s manager but I don’t agree that the HR person should be coaching individual employees.

  3. Kellie Snider

    THANK YOU! This came at just the right moment for me and one of my employees. She’s having some difficulties with a supervisor in another department but each time I get a complaint and follow up on it, it appears that there was just a misunderstanding, or sometimes an alternative explanation that is more plausible, not any intentional action on the part of that supervisor. This approach should help me coach my employee on how to approach this person and how to create effective communication with him.

  4. Julinda

    In my experience, “favorites” actually DO often get a position or promotion over others who are as qualified or more qualified. It’s not just a perception, it’s a reality that a crucial conversation will not change.

  5. Terry Faulkner

    As a manager who faced many of these situations, I find this guidance spot on and very helpful. Thanks for the great leadership here.

  6. Anthony

    I agree with Phil, nicely said Emily.

    On the favorites side of the question, ….I think sometimes that perception of “favorites” getting promotions over others who may be as or more qualified comes down to what type of personality the hiring manager thinks would best fit in and work well with the team, rather than just showing favoritism. Is it possible that favorites get hired over more qualified people? Yes, but sometimes how someone works with others can override qualifications, …as well as someone more eager to learn and/or easier to train to the position, or….. there are a lot of decisions that go into the hiring process.

    1. Phil Nimtz

      I agree with Anthony and yet also feel compelled to add that we all also carry a number of unconscious biases about what kind of people we like, feel comfortable with, think look/act like leaders, etc. So there is a very real possibility that unconscious favoritism is sneaking into our judgment calls about personality and other qualifications decisions.

      Hopefully these decisions are discussed and include at least one person who is very different form ourselves.

  7. Mike Koselek

    Some candidates just aren’t ready. They have not the requisite skills nor experience for a leadership role and don’t or won’t admit this to be true as to why they were not selected. These individuals won’t be satisfied or placated with any response to their inquiries. So saying, I have struggled with Emily’s response for over a year before I could articulate my own response. As a leader in our organization, I have on many occasions wondered about some of the choices made by many of the managers when they had selected a person for a new role: particularly when it comes to a choice for a leadership role, then I have really struggled. On a good number of occasions I have challenged the manager on his/her choice and was not really satisfied with the answer. I decided to review past selections made by all managers relative to the individuals selected for leadership roles. I only tried this test on internal postings because often external resumes appear to be better qualified than the candidate it represents. While my process is not worthy of a PHD dissertation, and the data is more subjective than empirical, still the conclusion I arrived at is interesting. In having the managers review past resumes from internal candidates for positions they had filled, and them rate choose the top 3 resumes from the pile, when the names on the resumes were removed, I observed 8 out of 10 choices would have been different! Of the 30 positions in question, 9 “chosen ones” were not even in their top 3 choices (in one manager’s case this held true for all 3 of his choices). Therefore 30% of selected candidates, based on their resume alone, would have been a 4th or lesser choice and yet got the job and the best candidate was not selected. The selection process also includes the interview and yes, some folks interview better than others. Still, let’s assume all applicants had the requisite skills, time on the job and were reasonably equal performers and capable of surviving an interview, “Why did the lesser qualified person, as determined by the resume review, get the job?” In looking at the manager and the person selected, I wondered if it had more to do with style than skill difference. I conducted an informal test with a workplace style test off the internet and it suggested the manager and the successful candidate shared similar work styles. This makes sense: birds of a feather flock together. If all candidates are basically equal, the manager chose someone who thinks and acts more like they did. Based on this very informal, unscientific and very small sample set, it appears to me there may be something to the “pet” advancement theory. While I don’t think it is so much that managers have a “pet” person and it being fair to that person, it is more that managers see a specific individual that most aligns with their own style and so often this individual gets the “pet” label by his/her peers. And while I understand the managers wanting harmony and continuity in management and a consistent message being delivered to the troops, this “style” selection process prevents diversity and new ideas from entering into management, a kind of inbreeding if you will. It is the old adage of “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you will always get what you always got.” and that is not good for any business in such dynamic times. I like the idea of diversity and new opinions and perspectives on trends in the market and having my ideas being challenged and so it pains me to see good people struggling with their lack of ability to advance and better my business because of their style. When approached by unsuccessful candidates seeking some understanding why they were not selected, I am left with 4 choices to offer “Stay and hope for a change in senior leadership’s views on diversity and the company’s future, or look for a leader within the company with your style and then transfer, or quit here and go to another company where a leader is with your style and then you will get promoted, or accept you will never get into leadership under this current administration and try to be happy with my honesty.” I hate seeing good people not being treated with the true courtesy and respect they deserve. Since reading Emily’s response it has really become apparent to me why ERA and work place diversity issues have become so prevalent in the news and election debates and why the “old boys club” is such a common phrase. I am starting to influence my people to consider a different opinion when selecting people.
    I think if HR folks would conduct a similar study within their own organizations they might find out, like me, that there is some truth to the questioning done by many of those who did not get the opportunity to be promoted. And maybe we, as leaders, need to be more open and honest with our people rather than looking for excuses to offer about how close they were or if they only had… or you’re not ready now but keep going because it will happen someday. Yes, my style and my leader’s are quite similar.

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