The Trouble with Promotions

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D.,

The 27-year-old daughter of a good friend from New Jersey recently moved to Chicago to assume an entry-level position at a non-profit organization. It was only her second real job since graduating college and it was a great opportunity for her, especially since she would work for a cause that was very important to her. The pay wasn't great, but she quickly made fast friends with several of her peers, even seeing them socially, outside of work. She also liked and respected her boss. She very much enjoyed coming to work every day.

Then one day everything changed. No, she wasn't fired; she was promoted! She had been there for only six months and her friends who had been with the organization much longer were resentful that they had not been the one to be promoted. She was now put in the awkward position of having to supervise her "friends." Additionally, she reported directly to the Executive Director instead of to her former boss. She was honored by the promotion and knew it was an important step in her career, but she was no longer happy at work. Dealing with the animosity of her peers was very difficult and it was an adjustment getting used to her new boss. She felt lonely. Suddenly, coming to work was no longer fun.

The Problem:
Our friend’s situation is a common problem and poses difficulties for both the person who is promoted and those who are not.

The person who is promoted must renegotiate her relationships with her peers, former supervisor, and new supervisor. She must also establish a new identity within the organization to include new colleagues, new goals, and a new perspective on her role in the organization.

For some, these challenges are welcome and motivating, but for others they are just the opposite.

The employees who are not promoted have to deal with their jealousy and adjust to the unpleasant fact that their future in the organization may not be as rosy as they had once thought. Some will become angry and lose interest in their work. They may also seriously consider leaving the organization. Needless to say, it is not healthy for the organization to be operating with employees who are de-motivated and looking to leave.

What to Do:

  1. Make certain you promote the right people. Three out of five employees say their organization does not do a good job of promoting the most competent people. For some, these views are sour grapes because they were not promoted. Many, however, perceive that management plays favorites and does not base their promotion decisions on objective criteria. Make certain that promotion decisions in your organization are based on factors that have been well communicated in advance to all employees.
  2. Communicate the news carefully. Too often, employees learn about the promotion of a coworker through the grapevine or through an organization-wide formal announcement instead of directly from their managers. Managers should meet individually with those who are not promoted to tell them (if it is true) that they are still valued by the organization.
  3. Recognize the difficulty of the transition for those you promote. Spend the time and effort to counsel those who are promoted. They will need help adjusting to their new boss, new responsibilities, and new role in the organization. They will also need help renegotiating relationships with their former supervisor, peers, and direct reports.
  4. Consider Staying Flat. Are promotions really necessary in your organization? Many organizations remain flat to avoid the problems that often accompany promotions. Instead, they pay more to their most valuable employees. Pay increases are less public than promotions and often accomplish the same goal (i.e., rewarding top performers).

Promotions alter the self-created psychological reality of the workplace. For many, this is unsettling. If you are going to promote someone in your organization, recognize that you will need to deal with the stress experienced by both the person you promote and those you do not.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Bruce L. Katcher is an industrial/organizational psychologist and is president of The Discovery Group.  He is the author of 30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers (AMACOM, 2007).  Contact him at [email protected] or on the Web at