Making Rainbows from Rain - Steps you can take to benefit from not being promoted

Being denied a promotion is rarely studied in organisational research.  When it is, it's usually all about the bad - unfairness about the decision, decreased motivation and envy towards those that are promoted.   In a very interesting piece of new research, the benefits of not being promoted have been modelled for the first time.   Think about your own career, the careers of others and this research - does it pass your gut feel test?  

Career Identity

It's career identity that's being changed when we don't get promoted.  People make decisions about three things:

  • Threats to their identity - "this means I'm sidelined"
  • What this means now - "do I want to stay?"
  • How do I reconcile what's happened - "I'm going to focus on my writing skills and build a relationship with Fiona"

Building the Rainbow

Starts by answering three questions.  You can't reconcile what you don't understand.  Individuals can find their own answers.   Managers, mentors and trusted colleagues can help by guiding the conversation to:

  • Why was I not promoted?
  • What does not belonging to the promotion group mean?
  • What should I do now?

Next build the answers into a story that an individual can tell themselves and others that is their interpretation of the situation.  The best stories:

  • Comprehensive enough to incorporate all the key information and withstand criticism
  • Include reflection and what the decision means for their future
  • Includes one of the four forms of growth - changed priorities, warmer relationships, increased strengths and new career direction.

Open Plan Rainbows

As I read this research, I was thinking about the realities of not being promoted in open plan workplaces.  The increased social interaction could make the need for a story that reconciles what is happening more important for professionals who work in open plan.  Having a conversation message to engage with others and talk about what is happening is more constructive that the long walk to the kitchen to avoid eye contact with the person everyone knows hasn't been promoted - awkward and cruel.   

If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain, Dolly Parton

If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain, Dolly Parton

The Research

Where do I go from here?   Sense making and the construction of growth-based stories in the wake of denied promotions    Academy of Management Review 2017 by Heather Vough (University of Cincinnati) and Brianna Barker (University of Manitoba).   Make Contact if you suffer from insomnia or don't have enough hobbies and would like to read the original research....


Alex's Story

" Yeah, I am disappointed.  I really thought I'd done everything I needed for Senior Associate promotion.  At first I thought it was because the new Partner, Sonia was new to the team and didn't know me, but it's a bit more than that.  I'm going to put my head down and focus more on being reliable and making better estimates of the time things take.  That will reduce my stress and help me better manage expectations.   I know what to do, I just didn't realise how much it was being noticed by others.   I can't show my depth of technical expertise if I'm always leaving things to the last minute.  Thanks for asking, I'm doing OK". 

Alex's Manager

Communicating the promotion decision was just the start of the conversation for Alex's manager.  After listening to Alex's reaction and disappointment, they guided the conversation into the three identity questions by asking:

  •  Where do you think you can best focus?
  •  How do you feel about working with Lucas as he has been promoted?
  • How do you summarise the reasons for the decision in your own mind?

Using the skills of difficult conversations and in particular describing the Manager's own intent and motivation will ensure Alex knows his manager is both supportive and aware of the difficult mental reconciliation Alex needs to do.   Talking it through will help Alex be able to construct a message about the outcome with others in a constructive way, not avoid discussions and be excluded from social conversations for fear of anyone asking about the promotion decision.