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It doesn’t get much worse than trying for a promotion only to be passed over for it.

Unless you’re a robot, it’s going to hurt — that’s natural. And it can take awhile to get over the shock, rejection, and humiliation you’re feeling. The reasons or rationale they try to give you won’t matter; you will still feel like you weren’t wanted or respected.

Perhaps you already tried to get the real scoop on why you weren’t promoted, only to hear some general comments about improving your “communication skills” or demonstrating more “executive presence.”  Most likely, those conversations just left you with a bruised ego and no idea what to do next.

Promotion decisions tend to get made behind closed doors, with “unwritten rules” that can seem arbitrary and political. As an aspiring leader, you might not know those rules, much less the specific skills you need to develop or demonstrate to follow them.

To get some insight, here are 5 possible reasons you haven’t been promoted (yet):

1.  You Lack the “Soft Skills” Necessary for the Next Level

Your education, training, and experience helped you land your first job. Those are the kinds of achievements that you list on your resume. But as you move up levels, those criteria become less important. As you begin to climb the corporate ladder, your personality and behavior come to the forefront.

At the highest leadership levels, everyone is smart enough. Everyone is up to date on the technical aspects of their jobs. Everyone works hard. That’s why behavioral issues become so much more obvious on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. All other things being equal, people skills (or lack of them) become more important. These “soft skills” often make all the difference in determining how high you will go.

Particularly if you’re moving up to senior levels of management, you’ll need to have mastered some soft skills—like conflict negotiation, diplomacy, and business communication—and falling short in these areas might very well be a deal breaker.

2.  You Lack Self-Awareness

In my experience as a leadership coach, dozens of clients have described how they were overlooked for a promotion and didn’t understand why. But their feedback reports suggest that how they act and react to situations is sabotaging their own career. I have observed some of these clients in meetings where their ideas were ignored because they undermined their own credibility.

Why would such smart, capable people act in ways detrimental to their own career?

After working with hundreds of professional men and women, I have found that the most common answer to that question is a lack of self-awareness.  It’s not that these people consciously act in self-defeating patterns of behavior; they simply aren’t aware of how their actions are being perceived by others.

There’s a “word on the street” about all of us. It’s what people say behind our backs when we leave the room. That’s why they call it a “blind spot.”  A blind spot is something that is known to everyone else, but it’s not known to you.  And everyone has some blind spots; so you are not alone.

You have to know what your blind spots are or you can’t effectively develop as a leader. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t realize which behaviors they need to adjust until it’s too late.

The best way to discover your blind spots is through feedback. I realize it’s hard to maintain your composure when receiving “constructive criticism.” But remember—feedback is not always a bad thing. Is it possible that person has some valid points? When you receive feedback, whether in your review or in the hallway, resist the urge to defend yourself. Try to take it in and see what you can learn from it.

3.  You’re Not Working on the Right Things

Many leaders are reluctant to change their focus as they climb the corporate ladder. They want to keep doing the same kinds of things that made them successful in the first place.  But the rules change significantly as you move up levels of leadership.

At lower levels, the requirements of the job are primarily technical. You are judged based on such factors as planning, punctuality, quality, and reliability. You contribute by making sure the work gets done by a certain deadline and up to certain standard.

But as you move up to higher levels, you must shift from doing the work yourself to getting the work done by others. You can no longer allocate all your time to putting out fires and handling the details yourself. You are no longer the producer, but must get satisfaction from watching others produce. Coaching and developing the talent below you is critical to building future leaders across the organization.

One of the most common misconceptions that employees have about promotion decisions is that they’re based solely on performance in their current role. While that’s certainly a consideration, success at lower levels doesn’t always translate to success at higher levels. For example, someone who excels at data entry may need additional education or training to become a data analyst, a job that requires strategic thinking and problem solving abilities.

Become familiar with the requirements of the job you want, and determine what skills you need to improve upon if you’re going to succeed in it. Then, talk to your boss. Let them know you’re interested in moving up, and ask for their advice on how to get there.

4.  You Don’t Know Enough (or the Right) People

When you’re being evaluated for a promotion, it’s unlikely that your boss will sit in a room alone and contemplate your potential. He or she will rely on others’ opinions to assess your ability, which means you need a strong network of supporters across the organization. If you’re disliked, you won’t get anywhere.

When you had a college roommate you couldn’t stand, it was relatively easy to change roommates at the end of the semester. Now that you’re in a career position, you have to assume you will be working with the same people for a very long time. People who work with you now might be your boss in the future. It is essential that you can connect with all types of people, not just the ones you feel most comfortable with. And you simply can’t afford to make enemies.

Be purposeful about managing and developing your network of contacts, and nurturing important relationships over time. If you’re not spending a significant amount of your time building and maintaining connections with others, you’re doing something wrong. Put reminders in your calendar to reach out to people. Push yourself to meet with people when you are invited to do so. Schedule at least one lunch meeting each week.

5.  You Lack Strategic Vision

To prepare for a promotion, you must begin to think beyond your own unit and concern yourself with strategic issues that affect the whole organization. You have to ask the right questions, analyze the right data, and apply the right perspective to understand which long-term strategies will have the best probability of success.

You have to develop an external awareness – what are the most recent trends in my industry as a whole? Whether it’s coming up with a new product, new method, or new customer market, you must push the envelope. This transition to visionary thinking is difficult for many potential leaders.

Becoming a problem solver shows that you care—not only about your own career, but about the long-term health of the business as well. Don’t just document the problems you see, analyze the issues and find ways to get involved in developing the solutions. Collaborating with others to create positive change will identify you as a leader in your organization.


If you would like to learn how to confidently position yourself for a promotioncheck out this coaching intensive.  

The training is specifically designed for those that are ready to develop their leadership skills, but just aren’t sure what they should do differently or what it takes to prepare for the next level. Most people don’t realize which behaviors they need to change until it’s too late. And doing one wrong thing repeatedly can undermine your credibility and sabotage your career.

In the coaching intensive, you’ll discover how to:

  • make 4 specific transitions, or shifts, needed to succeed at higher levels of leadership
  • raise your awareness to eliminate self-defeating patterns of behavior
  • communicate with confidence
  • maintain your composure when things go wrong at work
  • create an optimistic and inspiring vision that moves people forward
  • build trust with a stronger, more supportive network of sponsors and mentors
  • increase your leadership agility so you can adapt your behavior to fit new job requirements



Dr. Stefani Yorges

I am a psychologist and professional leadership coach. I partner with people who want to rise to their full potential so they can have an increasingly greater impact on others.

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