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4 reasons you’re not getting a promotion

If a promotion at work continues to elude you, there could be four good reasons why, as Joel Garfinkle spells out.

7 min read



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One of the most common reasons my clients have sought me out for coaching is that they’ve just made an unsuccessful attempt at getting a promotion at work. It can be a crushing experience, to hear that they still have work to do in convincing others they are ready for more responsibility. If you’ve ever had someone tell you they’d “love to promote you, but…” check out some of my behavior-changing strategies, below. 

Joel Garfinkle

1. Knowledgeable but indecisive

Progressing through our careers, we build up a huge body of knowledge in our field of expertise. When we start to hit that critical mass of skill and comfort, we often feel ready for the next step. But in addition to having the knowledge, you also need the confidence to take that information and transfer it into making decisions. If you’ve received feedback that you need to be more decisive, think about those situations where a decision was required that needed your area of expertise. Were you able to make a choice? Did you freeze? Just not speak up? Defer to someone else? The ability to take your experience and apply it in a critical moment is key to increased responsibility in almost every organization.

Action step: Think about how you can build your decision-making muscles. If you’re afraid of overstepping your bounds, plan to have some real conversations with your boss about the reach of your authority, and their expectations on your role in making choices. Clarity can help you focus your scope.

Start seizing every opportunity to practice thinking through the choice you would make in a given situation and the input you’d need to devise an action plan. You can keep it to yourself at first, mapping out in your head how you’d get to a solution. You’ll need to start voicing your thoughts, after a bit of internal practice. Start making suggestions and engage in the weighing of options. Work on strong, confident wording like “if X is true, then I would Y.” Be bold, even if you’re not quite ready to be the final voice on something.

Speaking up and participating in the decision-making process will be key to getting a promotion at work. If your organization doesn’t seem like a safe place to disagree or make mistakes, consider working with an executive coach to determine how much of that is just your personal perception and how much is a sign you need to move on to another position where you can grow.

2. Personable but lacking authority

If likeability is one of your strong suits, you may be friends or friendly with nearly everyone on the team, including those above and below you. If you’ve been told that your demeanor lacks authority, it might be time to consider how your easy-going attitude has skewed people’s perceptions of your ability to lead. Are you seen as purely fun, not the one to “get the job done”? Are your superiors concerned you would hesitate to give direction to those you pal around with? It might be time to start demonstrating how you can take charge in any situation.

Action step: Brainstorm some areas of your work that could use leadership. If you can define and volunteer to improve a process, reorganize a scattered situation or lead a mini-project to boost morale, you’ll be demonstrating that you can manage authority and that you have the ability to identify areas that need focus. Mini-initiatives are ideal for showing your talent, but only the first step. Be sure to put your name forward for further items of increasing responsibility, to highlight both your desire and ability to lead.

3. Productive but unapproachable

If you’re someone who is very focused or “head down” when it comes to accomplishing tasks, it can be easy to earn a reputation as someone who is stand-offish or unavailable to others seeking advice. I’ve had some great clients who were highly competent and extremely productive workers, but who tended to work solo and ignore all other distractions. When you do this, you can miss out on great opportunities to participate in conversations and ad-hoc thinking sessions, offer help and advice or congratulate and console others in their triumphs and struggles. You lose out on making personal connections. When you’re not a part of the team dynamic, you can be seen as being unapproachable. Higher-ups will hesitate to offer leadership opportunities where people need to come to you.

Action step: Determine how to use your work ethic to change your stand-offish perception. If you’re a workhorse who methodically knocks off task after task, put important opportunities for interaction on your to-do list. Schedule in time to ask others about how their work is going. Share your progress — your successes, setbacks and solutions. Listen and join in when discussions and brainstorming spark up. Offer to check in and mentor newer team members who need to validate their ideas with a more senior resource. Consider these chats as important as the actual tasks themselves, because being someone people can (and want to!) turn to is critical to leadership. 

4. Detail oriented but struggle with fast-paced situations

I’ve had more than one client who built their career and reputation on being steadfastly detail-oriented; the one who could always be counted on to make sure every bit of an issue was properly examined  and accounted for. If you’re known for being able to spot the issue with even the smallest minutiae, you might have also been told you lose credibility in stressful and quickly-evolving situations.  When you’re used to methodically working at a micro level, it can be hard to step back and look at the bigger picture

Action step: Consider how you can start practicing decision-making when you don’t have every single detail. As tempting as it is to dive in and get all the information before making a choice, that isn’t always practical in a leadership role. You may be used to understanding every bit of information, but ask yourself whether you really needed it all to make a decision. How small a detail could really change your direction? How irreversible is the choice? Can you gain advantage by deciding quickly? Remember that part of getting that promotion is the ability to be efficiently decisive. People want to be led by someone able to make a timely choice based on their knowledge, experience and business instinct, all of which you have. Trust and leverage it.

Do you see yourself in any of these BUT situations? Are there other ways you need to change others’ perception of you and demonstrate your executive presence? Even when you’ve received disappointing feedback, there are opportunities to turn that information around and use it to really shine. While it can be humbling to hear you have work to do, knowing what qualities you need to demonstrate can also give you a sense of purpose and put you back on track to building the next step in your career. 


Executive coach Joel Garfinkle provides executive coaching to help companies build a pipeline of leaders who can excel at the management level, and he is the author of 11 books, including “Executive Presence: Step Into Your Power, Convey Confidence, & Lead With Conviction.” Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter or view his video library of more than 200 easily actionable, inspirational, two-minute video clips by subscribing to his YouTube channel.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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