I lurk as an observer on a couple of different Internet forums from time to time. The other night, a woman posted a note about having been passed over for promotion for the third or fourth time in as many years.
Every time she reached out to her management to ask what she needed to do to get promoted, she was told that she was doing all the right things, and the only thing that was holding back her promotion was budget constraint.
Meanwhile, however, people all around her were getting promoted like clockwork. Needless to say, the poster was very upset.
By the time I saw the original post, someone had already responded. The responder said something along the lines of: That's totally unfair! They're dumping on you! You should march right upstairs to the head honchos and demand to know what you need to do to attain that higher rank and make sure they see you write it down! They'll find out what's going on.
Sweet, fancy Moses!
I can count the number of times I've participated on this forum in the last five years on one hand, but this time I was compelled to respond. I wrote as gentle and non-threatening a post as I could muster to suggest that perhaps there was something in the original poster's performance or personality that was holding her back, and that instead of dealing with the situation head-on, perhaps the manager was simply (and wrongly) avoiding a very difficult conversation.
The original poster responded that it was hard to internalize that feedback, but she thinks it might be correct.
There are many, many reasons that people fail to move up the career ladder according to their expectations, and a good many of them have to do with external forces like a bad boss or a toxic work environment. More often, however, if someone in this situation looks in the mirror, the root cause is looking right back out.
If your career isn't moving along the way you feel it should, take a look at this list. Do any of these characteristics reflect your life in the workplace?
You bring your boss problems, not solutions. Bad things happen and people need guidance. Managers are there to provide it, but how you approach them counts. If you outline a challenge you're facing and finish up with "What should I do?" you've just dumped your problem in your boss's lap.
A better approach is to define the problem, think through possible solutions, and figure out which approach you think is best and why. Then, after you outline the challenge to your boss, follow it up with something like "There are a few different options here, but I think X is best. Here's why ...."
With this approach, you've taken responsibility for doing all the background legwork instead of making your boss do it. That's the mark of a self-starter who doesn't need a lot of hand-holding.
You don't follow directions. If your manager asks you to do something (touch base with person A, copy person B on your response, let me see your e-mail to Director C before you send it) and you don't do it, you're making it harder for your manager to trust your ability to follow through going forward.
If you do it a few times, you've got a pattern. If you do it more than a few times, you've got a performance problem.
You take on a task without understanding what you need to deliver. If you don't take the time to fully understand what your manager is looking for, you're pretty much guaranteeing that it'll be wrong and you'll have wasted a lot of time. It's perfectly fine to check your understanding by spending 10 minutes walking through an outline of what you think your manager wants before you jump in and do the work. Similarly, midpoint checks to make sure you're still on track are OK.
What's NOT OK is ...
You hand in unfinished work. Checking your understanding of a task doesn't mean that you can expect your manager to play proofreader. You're responsible for the quality of your work. If that means asking colleagues for proofreading or input on the content or substance, that's fine; just don't expect your boss to do it. Your boss is the person you want to impress with the end product. A good maxim to remember here is:
Know what finished work looks like, and deliver it only when it's finished.
You're not a team player. You and your functional group can squabble all you want within your unit, but when you face the rest of the organization, you need to be a united front. If you engage in blamestorming, throwing other people under the bus, pointing the finger or any other ways of avoiding responsibility for an adverse event, you look bad whether or not it was your fault.
The simple fact that you went to the effort to detail why someone else is in the wrong demonstrates a poor use of time and energy in what is sometimes a crisis situation. You are far better off rallying the troops to cowboy up and fix the problem, figure out how to prevent it from happening again, and communicate the fix to management. If you do it right, you and your team might actually come off as heroes.
You undermine your boss. If you have a problem, your boss is the first go-to person. But what if your boss is the problem?
He or she is still your first go-to person. It can be tempting to go around him or her for sticky situations, but this is very, very counterproductive. If you and your manager have a problem in your relationship and you don't give your manager a chance to understand your perspective and fix whatever's broken, what do you think will happen?
The first question management will ask is whether you spoke to your boss. If you say no, that conversation is over.
Remember what I said above about taking your problems and dumping them in your boss's lap? That's exactly what you've done here, but this time you've dumped your problem in your boss's boss's lap.
Meanwhile, your boss will hear from management that you went to them with a complaint. Your boss will feel betrayed (and rightly so) and your relationship will take heavy collateral damage. It's not worth it.
Have the hard conversation first. If you can't resolve the issue that way, then you can think about escalating.
Your social skills need work. Humor goes a long way toward defusing a tense situation. Being likeable also helps motivate other people to help you out when you need something. Colleagues don't have to be your friends -- and you should never mistake them as such anyway. But being a nice person with a pleasant demeanor, which is not the same as a doormat, makes for better relationships all around, including the one with your manager.
You're not plugged in. By "not plugged in," I don't mean that you're not attached to your PC. I mean that you're not plugged into the rumor mill.
I'm not saying that you should be a gossip monger, because that's not an admirable trait. Taking 10 minutes twice a day to gather around the coffee machine and chat is a great way to stay abreast not only of what your colleagues are working on, but also what the word on the street is with regard to new hires, reorgs and layoffs. You'd be surprised at what you can learn, and you might do some relationship building while you're at it.
And if you're one of those folks who look critically at people who gather around the coffee machine for a few minutes of chitchat? They're developing relationships and learning about things happening behind the scenes, and you're isolated at your desk where not many people know what you're working on and how well it's going.
You focus on the being, not the becoming. Promotion conversations are interesting. A common opener is: What do I need to do to get promoted to the next grade? Another personal favorite is: I've been here X years and Colleague A has been here only Y years. She's already been promoted, so that means I should be promoted too.
To me, those discussion openers mean that someone is more interested in the reward than in doing the homework to understand what it takes to get there. You're better off gaining an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and working with your manager to define stretch objectives that go beyond the expectations of someone in your job classification and grade. If you do all that and turn in consistently high performance, under normal circumstances advancement will come.
Those are just a few of the many behaviors out there that bring career progression to a grinding halt, but most people who do these things either don't realize it, or don't make the connection between the behavior and the lack of career growth.
Do you see any of these behaviors in yourself? What other career-limiting moves have you seen?
Other articles of interest at Frugal Zeitgeist: