Today’s show is on Promoting Your Employees. Listen to the show on iTunes, Spotify and Stitcher.

Don [00:00:00] Senior leaders need to look at promotions differently than they have in the past. Instead of it being a time trigger or vacancy trigger, it needs to be viewed much more strategically. We want to think of promotions as a part of our retention strategy.

Don [00:00:15] My name is Don Rheem CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”

Don [00:00:25] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive.

Don [00:00:43] Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.

Kelly [00:01:05] Welcome. I’m your host Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions.

Kelly [00:01:15] As always, we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO, Don Rheem.

Kelly [00:01:19] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.

Don [00:01:22] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.

Kelly [00:01:24] As you heard at the top of today’s episode, this week’s focus is on how to successfully navigate employee promotions.

Kelly [00:01:30] Leaders face the inevitable task every year of handling employee promotions.

Kelly [00:01:35] When done well, this is a great way to encourage engagement. It shows your employees that you see and recognize the work that they’re doing. They feel really validated for what they have accomplished this past year. They’re able to move forward in organizations. That’s a key retention strategy for leaders to keep their employees, right?

Don [00:01:52] Absolutely.

Kelly [00:01:54] But alternatively, when it’s not done thoughtfully or when you’re promoting the wrong people or for the wrong reasons, that’s a key way to create disengagement and a lack of fairness or a sense of lack of fairness.

Don [00:02:04] A perceived lack of fairness.

Kelly [00:02:06] Exactly. Inside an organization.

Kelly [00:02:08] So there’s a Harvard Business Review survey, they talked to 400,000 American workers and 25 percent of those employees believe that promotions don’t go to the right candidates. That’s a pretty significant proportion. What’s driving that?

Don [00:02:22] Well, I mean the good news there is that 75% think that it does. But for those that don’t, what’s driving that is where the process typically is not transparent or often they feel like they did not get a fair shake. Some employees complained that the positions weren’t even posted internally, they didn’t even have a chance to get at it. So, there’s some larger issues here as you intimated in the intro around fairness and equity and that’s a big issue.

Kelly [00:02:52] You know, when we start working with organizations they don’t typically do this well. Managers don’t typically think in terms of supporting their employees personal and professional growth on a regular basis. We see in the survey results that this particular category, this particular question around whether a manager supports and encourages personal and professional growth falls into the disengaged category.

Kelly [00:03:18] But after we start working with them over time and they realize the importance of promotions and supporting personal and professional growth as a key retention and engagement strategy, that number does shoot up to 3.29 out of 4.0. So it does fall into the engaged category over time. So, what do we talk about with leaders when we think about the importance of promoting your employees?

Don [00:03:39] I look at this kind of two ways, Kelly. One is just understanding the paradigm shift in the workplace. Promotions were something that you would hand out to people at specific times or you didn’t have to worry about it that much. People wanted it.

Don [00:03:51] But in that era of labor abundance, you didn’t have to think about promotions strategically you just needed to make sure you did it periodically often just to fill an empty position. But now, in this new workplace environment, we are in the future of work right now and employees don’t need your job anymore. They can work almost anywhere. So, we want to think of promotions differently. We want to think of promotions as a part of our retention strategy. What is our promotion policy? And, how can we use that to help retain people?

Don [00:04:20] Here’s what we share with managers that are clients in our training. When we think of promotions, four key things that promotions provide in addition to a new title and more income.

Don [00:04:32] Individuals, we need to feel like we’re advancing, we’re progressing, especially millennials and Gen Z. They have much shorter timelines on when they want to see progress happen. It’s a clear sense of signaling to someone they’re moving ahead. They’re in a better place, more progressive place than they were six, nine 12 months ago. So that’s important. It’s also a form of validation. Just, hey, I’m seen and I’m noticed and I’m valued by the organization. So, you feel like, you know, you’ve been working away but now you feel like oh that work as they’re seeing me and they value me.

Don [00:05:05] It’s also a very clear sense of recognition that I did something really well. They saw me do a series of things really well and they’re recognizing this talent in me and that’s what the promotion represents.

Don [00:05:19] But a promotion is also a form of reward. Sometimes we give people promotions when they’ve just done extraordinarily well on a project or a series of projects. And, okay this is a part of what you get. So, it has these additional strategic values. It isn’t just a new title and a new salary level. So we need to think beyond that.

Kelly [00:05:39] I like that you brought in earlier the importance of transparency, that the clarity of metrics. What am I hitting that gets me this promotion? What do I need to be doing? How do I need to be working? What successes do I need to achieve in order to achieve a promotion is really important for an employee. Without that clarity, they can feel like they’re spinning their wheels or they don’t know when it’s coming.

Kelly [00:06:02] Or, I think one of the trickiest situations is when there’s an opening above them in some way, are you going to hire from outside or are you going to promote from within? And the people inside the organization, naturally are going to want to move into those roles higher than them.

Kelly [00:06:20] But, it’s a tricky situation for leaders when they have to consider if they’re going to promote somebody from inside their team or bring somebody from outside. And clarity around metrics and transparency for what constitutes a promotion is critical in a situation like that.

Don [00:06:34] Well, the process first and foremost has to be seen as being open and fair and that people have an equal opportunity to put in for a position. There needs to be transparency on the process itself. How are we going to hire? Who are we hiring? What are we hiring for?

Don [00:06:50] There needs to be transparency on the selection. Why did we pick this person? There needs to be transparency on the criteria for the position. What specific talent sets are we looking for?

Don [00:07:01] The more granular, for example, we’ve found employers get on this selection criteria, the more it makes sense on who got the position and why I didn’t get it because the criteria was clear. Look, I haven’t done that. I don’t have that capacity. I think I could grow into it. But at least it’s clear so you know what you’re dealing with. So that’s really, really important.

Don [00:07:23] And then, this is sort of the other part of the promotion process when making the announcement about who gets the position. List the criteria that they hit so that you’re reminding people this is why we selected this individual.

Kelly [00:07:39] So, what you’re really talking about here is creating a sense of buy-in from the entire team on your promotion decisions as a leader. Why is that so important?

Don [00:07:46] The team needs to embrace either a colleague who’s now in a new position, or if someone’s coming in from the outside, we need them to embrace that individual. And, when the criteria are clearer and the process feels more open and fair, it’s much easier for individuals within the team or the organization to embrace that change or shift.

Don [00:08:07] We really want teammates celebrating the promotion of a colleague rather than feeling competitive or disgruntled by it. But, here a couple of things that I think managers need to keep in mind is things they can do around a promotion.

Don [00:08:20] One, is to normalize the process. So, if someone’s going to be promoted within that team that means that others aren’t, especially if others put in for it. So the normalization process would be this, you would tell team members, look, only one person is going to get this.

Don [00:08:34] And, so for the others, really appreciate you trying, we want everybody to put in for this. It’s an open and fair competition. But just know that part of what happens after someone gets the position is the other people that tried might feel either dejected or a little despondent or they’re frustrated and we understand that.

Don [00:08:56] And so now I’ve normalized it. I want to give some action items to the team or the group. I want the manager to point out the benefits to the team of this individual especially if someone’s come in from the outside. You didn’t get the position but how will this person help the team. How will they help us get our work done more effectively, more efficiently at a higher level quality, faster?

Don [00:09:17] Lay it clearly out. What are the benefits of the team of this new person? It may have been someone hired from even in another department the organization that’s moved in. What are the team benefits?

Don [00:09:27] And then, lastly and this is totally fair for a manager to turn to the team and say, “I need you to be supportive. This is what we’re gonna do as a team I need the team to support this direction. It’s the direction we’re going in and I really want everybody to be on board.” And that’s just that’s an expectation. And, that’s an ask that you can make that is completely reasonable.

Kelly [00:09:46] This is a really important place for validation to come in as well. If you are the employee who wanted that role and pushed for it and thought you deserved it and you don’t get it, the manager needs to see those people who are really striving for more and validate the work that they’re doing.

Kelly [00:10:03] Support them as they talk about what metrics it will take for them to grow into higher level positions in the organization. Potentially timelines around that. If they’re not validating a dejected employee who just missed a promotion, then they are very likely going to have that employee start looking for a new job.

Don [00:10:22] Yeah, it could be the trigger point that does that. So the issue is what can managers and leaders do? How can they connect with employees who weren’t promoted after their promotion?

Don [00:10:31] And, so I mean I have a few suggestions here for managers, for the people that didn’t get the position. The standard that we talk about all the time but it’s worth repeating, validation, recognition and feedback. Do it in all three of those are opportunities.

Don [00:10:46] The other thing you can do with this employee, especially on a one-on-one, is layout a flight plan for them. Okay, you didn’t get this position but what else is available for you? What else is coming down the pike? What are some other ways that we can literally map out where you can go in the organization? And having someone, a manager sit down with you as an employee and lay out, here’s what our strategy can be for you going forward, can really be a wonderful proxy for not getting that position.

Don [00:11:13] That is, you’re still valuable. You’re valuable enough to me that I want to map out your flight plan. Also, simply listing their strengths there in this one-on-one with you and say look here’s what I see you doing really well. Sending the signal to them, I see your strengths. I know what they are. They haven’t been overlooked. That is absolutely critical.

Don [00:11:32] And then, you can do an aspirational exercise. Where do you see yourself in three years? You didn’t get this position but let’s talk about your growth and what would you like to be doing three years from now. Not one year, not two, it needs to be at least three. Five, it gets out a little bit too far, it’s hard to conceptualize. Well, I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five years but three years they can see but it’s still aspirational.

Kelly [00:11:55] One of the things that we often talk about is how managers get promoted into these roles of leading teams but they’re not necessarily equipped for the role that they got put into. They got promoted because they were really good at the role they were playing, the technical skills that they have, whatever it may be.

Kelly [00:12:11] But we often think about promotions in black and white terms. You have this open rule and you move an employee into it and it’s a managerial role, leading a team a step forward. But this black and white, either you’re a junior employee who doesn’t lead a team or you’re a manager who does, isn’t necessarily the best approach because we have a lot of really talented employees at skill sets that are not talented at leading people.

Kelly [00:12:36] But in order to retain and validate the work they’re doing, they still need to have promotion opportunities that keep the culture thriving and help team members not be led by managers who aren’t equipped to lead them.

Don [00:12:49] Yeah, this is one of the most classic examples of this in business, is when you take your top salesperson and make them director of sales and they completely and utterly fail. We are often promoting people into incompetence.

Don [00:13:06] Most significant criteria or the most frequent criteria for moving someone promoting them into the next position is tenure. That is, they were just there the longest. They were there doing it the longest amount of time.

Don [00:13:16] What we’re doing if you step back from the promotion process and look at it through a filter of competency, you often see something very dysfunctional going on. We’re taking employees who are very good at what they’re doing right now. It might have been their career field, it might have been what they went to school for to learn but it’s their career, it’s what they do well, it’s what they love doing hopefully.

Don [00:13:37] And, now we’re promoting them into a position of incompetence because we’re taking them away from the functional aspect of doing that task. And, now we’re making them a leader of other adults with all of the idiosyncrasies of adult behavior, which is often bizarre and they have to now cope with that.

Don [00:13:53] They have to cope with people’s moods, with people’s attitudes, with not showing up. They now have to hold former peers accountable for doing tasks. It changes often the nature of the relationships of everybody they have around them and they don’t do it well. So your point is spot on. Is there a way to demonstrate advancement for people without putting them into a role where they’re leading others? And, this is almost uncharted territory inside organizations.

Don [00:14:22] How can we help people feel progressive? It can be a new title. It can also be a new salary, but it doesn’t involve leading others.

Don [00:14:29] Too often, the traditional issue around being a manager is you have to manage people. And, what we need to do is have a promotional track and advancement track that may not include managing people. That’s one of the limitations of this word, manager, is you have to be managing something. So, how can we?

Don [00:14:49] And this is something that we’re just starting to look at with clients. I don’t have a lot of clear answers here but it is something that needs to be developed and thought of strategically within organizations without a question.

Kelly [00:15:02] And, it’s important for both H.R. and for a manager to truly understand, have emotional intelligence themselves to understand their people, to know who’s going to make an excellent manager, an excellent team leader, who can build relationships, encourage teams, push things forward, help people thrive and who’s going to be an excellent individual contributor—who should be a senior, more senior person in the organization, continue rising through the ranks the rise to power through the ranks as individual contributor, rather than manager.

Don [00:15:29] Yeah. There’s another issue here that we are encouraging our clients to use and that is, and this is to catch up with this very aspirational sense especially of millennials and Gen Z as well.

Don [00:15:40] They’re very impatient about moving ahead. How do we put them on a track where they feel like they’re clearly moving ahead without throwing these big new titles and promotions at them every twelve months?

Don [00:15:52] And that is to identify levels within the title. Let’s say someone is a program analyst and the next step is senior program analyst. They don’t want to wait three years to get a senior program analyst. It’s a long time for especially millennials to wait to get to the next step of progression.

Don [00:16:08] So, can you have a program analyst level one, level two and level three? So, there are these progressive steps within the title when that is done.

Don [00:16:18] What we’ve also discovered, though, over the last two to three years, is you need to have clear criteria of what’s required to achieve each of these intervals. Because if it’s just a step without criteria they think they’re ready for the next step in three months. You have to set out things that have to be accomplished, competencies that have to be gained as they get to each of these new levels that can help maintain the current promotional structures between titles but still have people feel progressive in between.

Kelly [00:16:47] I think that’s such a great idea. As we wrap up what’s a positive framework a leader can lay out for long term success around the promotion process within a company culture?

Don [00:16:56] I think, just in general, senior leaders need to look at promotions differently than they have in the past. Instead of it being a time trigger, that is, it’s been a certain amount of time, someone needs to have a promotion or it’s a vacancy trigger. Oh, this manager just left and so now who are we going to put in that position. That is so reactive and it needs to be viewed much more strategically.

Don [00:17:17] You used the word in your introduction how can we make these promotions a part of our retention strategy? How can we use promotions as a way to signal to people that they’re moving forward? They’re important to the organization and we’re recognizing that importance and that should be, I believe, where leaders start. This should be a key part of their retention strategy.

Kelly [00:17:37] That’s it for today. I’m your host Kelly Burns and thank you for listening. Next week we’ll be talking about effective strategies for hiring well.

Kelly [00:17:47] Are you looking for science-based solutions to increase employee engagement and retention? Are you ready to measure key drivers of high performance? Do you want your team to look forward to coming to work? Don’t wait. Check out E3 right now.

Kelly [00:18:01] Be sure to subscribe, rate and review the show. Each rating and review helps other managers like you find this show and benefit from these episodes. Thrive By Design is produced and audio engineered by Megan Rummler. All music in this episode is sourced royalty-free from

Kelly [00:18:19] Thank you for listening and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. See you next week!