Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Turned Down for a Promotion. Now What?

Dear Steve,

Recently, I was turned down for a promotion to director. My boss said the decision was made by the others involved in the interview process. She said that had they recommended me for the position, she would have promoted me. I later initiated a crucial conversation with her. I felt she didn’t take accountability for the decision, and that I couldn’t trust her to be honest with me. When the position first became available, she encouraged me to apply. I reminded her that a year earlier she told me I was a great manager but not ready to be a director. She said that was a year ago and that I had proven myself—AND I received the highest possible rating on my performance review. Now she tells me I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing for another year. Since our crucial conversation, she has barely talked to me. How should I handle this?

I. M. Stuck

Dear Stuck,

You are stuck. And I suspect that many others become and remain stuck in very similar ways. Reading about your situation, it seems that you felt stuck, spoke up, and now you feel even more stuck—but in a totally different way. You’ve discovered one of the biggest challenges with checking out potential undiscussables: right in the middle of discussing an undiscussable, new undiscussables emerge. This is why these types of interactions can become really tricky, really quickly. After all, the biggest contribution to a person’s overall satisfaction at work is their relationship with their boss. So, when you find yourself in this type of situation, here are some ideas from Crucial Conversations that can help.

Consider CPR. CPR stands for Content, Pattern, and Relationship, and represents different types of issues that can be addressed in any conversation. Content is a single instance of a problem or concern and is best addressed when the issue first comes up. A Pattern issue is a continuation of the Content concern over a longer period of time. And Relationship is an issue that has changed the way you’re relating to another person. Often, Relationship issues result from Pattern issues left unchecked.

Most of the chronic problems that people experience are not, I repeat, not Content in nature. They are Pattern or Relationship issues, usually with a heavy lean toward Relationship. Take your situation, for example. What’s the Content? If you said the promotion, you’re right. That’s the easy part. It gets more difficult from this point on.

While not getting the promotion is a legitimate concern that ought to be addressed, you went for a more significant and risky topic—lack of trust in your manager’s ability to be honest with you, which is a Relationship issue. This was a nice use of CPR. You moved from Content to Relationship because you felt stuck, which should have gotten you unstuck. But instead you feel more stuck. It’s almost as if you’re being punished for speaking up—at least that’s how it can feel.

You are now dealing with a new Relationship issue. Most people at this point try to wait it out in hopes that the situation will improve with time. And while the “wait it out” strategy may work at times, I find that it usually doesn’t. Instead, I’d suggest using either the STATE skills or the Explore skills.

We use STATE skills to express concerns we have, and Explore skills to uncover concerns we suspect others might have. Which skill set you use will depend on how you want to approach the situation. If you want to share your concern, use the STATE skills. If you believe your boss might have drawn an erroneous conclusion about your intent, go with Explore. In this case let’s consider a blended approach to get a sense of how both work.

You might want to start with Share Your Facts from the STATE skills. “Since we last talked about the promotion, it seems that we haven’t been connecting like we used to. Before the conversation, we talked two to three times a day. Now it seems we only talk when a project or task requires us to do so (STATE). This seems to have coincided with our conversation about my trust level with you. Are you feeling uncomfortable with how that conversation went (Explore)?”

In case you’re wondering, these two skills were meant to be blended. When we use the STATE skills correctly, they lead us naturally into Exploring. And likewise, if you’re good at the Explore skills, you’ll create the conditions in which you can effectively STATE your path.

Now, you might find different phrasing more to your liking and style, but hopefully this offers a way for you to address this issue with your boss. I also suggest that you share your positive intent for bringing up the issue in the first place. Helping your boss understand your motivations for having the conversation can go a long way in preventing negative assumptions.

All the best,

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You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

4 thoughts on “Turned Down for a Promotion. Now What?”

  1. prempal singh

    Hi Steve, you answer to the question is very good text book answer. Most orgnizations are much more political from first line manager and up. It is not straight forward that your work takes you up.
    I had been in that trap a couple of times, thus i know from experience. In some organization the decision for a senior level process is not a secret. It is decided at a higher level.
    Work performed is a major factor but it also makes difference how one fit into the current senior team. What other decision makers experience is with one. Is the person suitable for the company’s culture and where they are going as an existing team. Meaning are you going to come and play ball with them or you would start questioning/challenging the team.
    Sometimes ones manager himself is not on a strong footing and thus cannot stand up for his team.
    One time, when i was promised a promotion and it did not happen. When i asked my manager what happened. His answer surprised me, ” i don’t know what you do”. I know he did not know everything, and take partial blame myself, as i took upon myself to get things done and not engaging him in everything i did to make things happen. Thus he could not defend me. But on the other hand, wasn’t it his job to collect enough facts to deliver what he promised.

  2. Steve

    I think that’s the subtle challenge here. You’d like to be promoted and feel that your manager should fight for you. This person addressed that issue and ran into a new, bigger problem–my manager and I are now disconnected. the person can’t tackle the first issue without resolving the second. They become double stuck. Now they can’t talk about the first issue anymore because of the second. No doubt that political interactions are possibly at play, and you need a relationship with your boss to be able to address them. And in the end, if the issues become too political you can choose to engage in the game, if that’s what you prefer. Or there is always the possibility of leaving.

  3. Kathie Moe

    While I understand the person’s disappointment at not being selected for a position, the panel may have had a different perspective on his readiness or capabilities for the position. The reason for a panel is that it is not just one person’s perspective or decision. I think a better question would be to ask for feedback.

    The person’s response to the boss feels aggressive to me. Is it his place to say the boss is not taking responsibility for the decision? Also there are issues of confidentiality. It may be that the boss is being as candid as is allowable. Is the writer making it safe for the boss to be candid?

  4. Wilmer

    Steve, in your reply you reference issues becoming too political. This is my situation, at least I think. Can you share how one might use the STATE and EXPLORE skills to better interpret organizational politics? Much appreciated in advance.

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