TL;DR If you work in an environment with a levelling system you might succumb to overwhelming desire to earn a promotion. Forget about it, it’s not going to happen. And now that you got that out of the way, find other things to obsess over, like how to have more fun, learn more, and be more successful at doing interesting work that matters to you.
Before we begin, let’s set the stage with a few assumptions. If some of these don’t hold for you, you may need to adjust to your situation:
- “Promotion” in this context means a formal change from level N to level N+1. That’s, of course, only relevant in environments where such a system exists, like corporations or larger tech companies. It doesn’t mean an increase in compensation (though that’s often linked) and it doesn’t mean a change in scope or place in a hierarchy (though that might be related for management roles).
- You are working in a meritocracy, where your performance is fairly assessed and rewarded. These places do exist (I work for one and have worked for others in the past) but are not necessarily the norm (environments that are unfair, for example because they are biased and discriminatory, are not bad for everyone - they are bad for some and great for others).
- You are ready for a promotion, in that you have the skills, attitudes, and experience that will allow you to perform at or above expectations in the desired next level.
Pro Tip: be honest with yourself and ask for feedback - being really really good and working really really hard at your current level doesn’t mean you’re ready for the next level. And thinking highly of your own abilities doesn’t mean that others do too, at least not to the same extent.
So, if all that is true, why won’t you be getting that promotion?
1. You Are Not Lucky
Getting a promotion in a fair, meritocratic system isn’t quite casino royale - you do have some direct influence. Unfortunately, that setup is the reason it’s so easy to develop an unhealthy obsession with getting promoted. Luck (by which I mean not perfect randomness but many factors that are beyond your control or even comprehension) is much more prominent than you might think. The intuition people often have is something like 80% performance / 20% luck. But reality is more like 20% performance / 80% luck. The illusion of control acts as a vicious motivator. You really feel like you are actively doing the things that will help secure your promotion. But you aren’t, not much more than you can work hard to ensure a sunny weather next weekend.
People who don’t understand the role of luck are prone to ridiculous and dangerous behaviours, like overworking themselves to exhaustion, embarking on embarrassing campaigns of self-promotion, and adopting unfriendly or even unethical approaches to their work and their colleagues. Don’t be that douchebag, it doesn’t work.
2. Getting a Promotion is Statistically Improbable
The base rate for getting a promotion is lower than you might feel instinctively. One reason is that not everyone can get a promotion. At every level you are competing for fewer available slots at the next level. You may be the chosen one, or maybe not. If you are under the illusion that it’s only merit that counts, just consider what happens when you compete with a few others who are just as worthy of a promotion as you are for a single next level slot. Clearly only one of you is going to get it.
Another reason that should be obvious but still needs mentioning, is that promotions take time. Let’s say that the average time to promotion from your current level to the next one is three years (that’s a good average - early on promotions are easier to get, but with increased seniority the timeline extends). And let’s say that there’s a fixed schedule for promotions, twice a year. That means that at current level your chances of getting a promotion this time start at, on average, 17% (you’ll only be promoted once out of six times). When you look at it like this it becomes obvious that you’d be spending most of your time eagerly waiting for a promotion you won’t be getting. But so many people do anyway.
3. You Don’t Have a BATNA
BATNA (Best Alternative to No Agreement) is business school lingo for “what are you going to do if you don’t get what you wanted in the negotiation”. From a game theory perspective not having an alternative you can fall back to if you don’t get what you want means you are playing a very weak hand, because the counterparty perceives the price to not giving you what you want to be very low. And in this negotiation, you either don’t have an alternative, or, if you do, the counterparty to the negotiation (the company, which decides whether to give you a promotion) doesn’t know about your alternative or can’t be certain of it.
Option 1: you really have no alternative - if you don’t get a promotion you are going to sulk and complain but not change anything.
Option 2: you do have an alternative - like an attractive offer from another company. The problem here is that either you exercise this option, in which case that promotion you hoped for doesn’t matter anymore, or you don’t exercise the option and your current management have no way of knowing for certain that you really have an alternative.
There is a third option, which I’ll mention for completeness even though it’s exceedingly rare. You present your alternative and demonstrate your willingness to walk away, resulting in a compelling counteroffer. In practice many companies are not able or not interested in doing this and if they do, you will have already lost interest.
One thing that follows is that if you want to accelerate your career progression it might be beneficial to move around a lot. Indeed, casual observation would confirm that. From time to time you’ll encounter someone around you who made it to the top after spending years (even decades) at the same company and rising from one promotion to the next. Just notice how rare that is. Most of the people who are successful at landing high senior positions are likely to have achieved that by moving at rather short intervals between jobs. It’s hard to recommend that, though, and there are reasons why many people choose to stay put despite knowing the price. Moving can be stressful, and you’ll be missing out on the benefits of developing and growing in a familiar place and cultivating deep relationships with a familiar group of people. Over time, it’s probably best to mix both strategies.
Yes, some people, some of the time, get a promotion. But, most likely, not you, not this time. So stop obsessing, go have some fun, and continue shopping around. And if you did get a promotion, count your lucky stars ... it might never happen again.