How to handle that awkward “sorry you didn’t get the promotion” conversation

by Alex


Laundry girl cropped

According to Newton "every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction". While Newton definitely wasn’t observing organisational team dynamics when he posited his third rule, his logic is still applicable. By promoting an individual person (exerting a positive force) you are indirectly implying that others are not as good (exerting an opposite negative force).

Most people on a sales team will have their own opinions on who the A-players and B-players are. Individuals construct a worldview of their self worth in relation to the other members of the team. Most of the time this inner worldview goes unchallenged - perhaps just once, or twice, a year during appraisals. The rest of the time salespeople often tend to drift by without being questioned. Until that is, someone is promoted ahead of them.

The problem with promotion decisions


Promotion decisions are inherently subjective. It’s your worldview vs your reports worldview. Tensions may run high and the manager’s authority can be called into question.

It’s a tough situation to handle. In most confrontational conversations a manager encounters there is typically a party who is in the wrong. Someone misses targets, or consistently turns up late, or shows a bad attitude. But how do you approach a confrontational situation with a team member whose performance might be on the whole pretty good -- just not quite good enough to earn them a promotion.

Hell hath no fury like a salesperson overlooked for promotion. So, knowing that this negative force exists, how do we go about mitigating its impact. As any PR or comms person will tell you, the key is to get out in front of it

Why are sales people prone to confirmation bias?


Now we should clarify here that we are going to make some generalisations about the profile of a typical salesperson, and if this isn’t the profile of your sales team then apologies in advance (and more power to you). So thinking about the classic characteristics of a salesperson as high energy, competitive, outgoing, target driven and optimistic; what challenges are we presented with?

An optimistic salesperson is going to hope for the best outcome (i.e. promotion). They are trained to look for positive buying signals on a sales call.

They are often more confident that your average employee and may think they are good enough to be promoted even if they aren’t quite ready.

They are tenacious and outcome driven and react badly to missing them. Salespeople are rewarded with commission for hitting targets.

Competitive behaviour by salespeople is positively encouraged. They want to compete for promotion.

Prevention is the best cure


Long before any promotion decisions are announced you must get your message out ahead of time to all key parties. If the decision comes as a surprise to anyone when it is formally announced you have already failed.

So what's the best way to prevent surprise. We believe it's developing a universal Competency Framework.

Your job as a manager is to bring your team into your reality. The reality of how you see the team and the individuals performance within it. A manager must make decisions fairly and consistently across the team. And a good manager should be able to articulate their perspective on any judgement calls they've made and have a coherent evidence-based thought process to back it up.

The easiest way to do this is to put together a competency framework for your team. If you haven’t created a competency framework before it essentially states what skills, attitudes and behaviours you expect someone to demonstrate at each level of seniority on a team.

Take your one-to-ones as an opportunity to give people feedback on where they are within the competency framework. That way when a big decision like a promotion is made, nobody is under any illusions as to where they stand.

Bonus Tip


If you suspect that someone is likely to react negatively towards a conversation, then schedule that meeting towards the end of the day. That way you give the other party an evening to reflect on the conversation which you can then pick up the next day when everyone's initial emotions have settled.


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