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Why Some People Get Promoted (And Others Don't)

Why Some People Get Promoted (And Others Don't)
Published November 10, 2014 by Janet Choi
Success is not a straight line. While patience and great work are essential, they don’t pave the way forward in a logical progression.

Consider how some people who are terrible at their jobs still have them—even get promotions—while others who are great get stuck, plateau, or quit because they’re blocked from advancing. There are many other forces at play. Your achievements don’t line up all orderly and dutifully so you can collect your rewards.

Do Things, Tell People

Good work doesn’t necessarily speak for itself. Somebody has to speak up for it, and it makes the most sense for it to be you. “Do things, tell people” is one pithy formula to success, according to programmer Carl Lange. What’s so often overlooked, of course, is the “tell people” element.

Just as artists and authors hire managers and agents to get their work in front of the right people, you must do this for yourself. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, visibility is the vital key to becoming the kind of person who gets promotions, raises, and access to opportunities.

As he shares in his book, Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t, research confirms that there’s a real disconnect between your performance and your job outcome. The “effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects” is much smaller than you’d expect. As annoying and unfair as it can be, perception often becomes reality in the workplace. 

Research confirms that there’s a real disconnect between your performance and your job outcome.

We miss out when we wrongly assume that other people will know about our great work without having to tell them. Believing that pointing to your achievements is being overly self-promotional and that good work should be enough on its own is, ironically, selfish thinking. You’re almost always on your mind—but that goes for everyone else too. Most everyone is busy with their own concerns, problems, and lives.

That means people, including your boss, usually have very little sense of what you’re accomplishing and what you’re doing with your time. If you aren’t proactive about reporting your accomplishments, you’ll never get recognized for your good work. Even great managers who proactively care about your development can have a lot on their plates, and it’s helpful to make relevant information visible for them.

If you’re too busy keeping your head down, nose to the grindstone, it’s harder to see you. Part of managing yourself and your trajectory means making it easier for people and opportunities to find you. Getting coy or bashful about your accomplishments does both yourself and your work a disservice—and may unintentionally make the job of managing you harder.

Assume that people don’t know what you’re working on. Gain some sense of control of how you’re appearing on others’ radars, and to do so, you have to send out a signal.

The Other Half of Your Job

Even smart, talented individuals require corralling to work well together as a team. Having to work with others on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard can be enough to break down an individual’s creativity and productivity. That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical. 

Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures, which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces. In his studio, if you’ve merely just done your work, he says, you’ve only done half of your job:

‘[S]ent does not mean received’ is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps move things along.

What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in knowledge work. Productive people often respond to the frustration of not getting enough done by going into heads-down mode, but disregarding the fact that you work with other people just exacerbates the problem.

Plus, focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more that needs to get done, and that’s a trap. Yes, productivity means you get stuff done—but moving that work forward relies on communicating about what got done.

Send 1 Simple Email

Getting ahead, however you define it, requires people to notice your work. The most direct way to do that is to tell them and be a good advocate for your efforts. Nobody is a mind-reader. The tricky part can be how to tell people so that you feel authentic to who you are. For many people, the thought of being more proactive about sharing accomplishments at work can be daunting and a real turnoff.

At his blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker provides an elegant solution to this problem that takes minimal effort and doesn’t require you to turn into a loudmouth braggart. His recommendation? Every week, send one simple email to your boss.

Take a few minutes on a Friday and jot down a simple description of what you accomplished that week. Your boss will be able to see the progress you’re making and appreciate not being left in the dark wondering whether you’re doing your job.

What makes Eric’s one email idea so powerful is that it turns what could come off as a loaded act of self-promotion into an ordinary, informative update that perpetually builds up your credibility with your boss. While others scrabble to ramp up their lobbying for promotions during performance review-time, you’ll already be top-of-mind, without having to gather and tout your accomplishments in the strained atmosphere of a formal review.

Every Friday is just a suggestion. Feel weird about sending something every week? Do it every two weeks or every month. Deliver something in your boss’s language, at whatever frequency and style she or he will understand.

Alternatively, start keeping a record for yourself. It’s so easy to get swept away with daily grind that you forget what you get done, and progress and achievements slip away from your mind. Capture your accomplishments by keeping a running record. You’ll have information at your fingertips when it comes to review time or when you’re thinking about next steps. This light tracking also helps you keep what you get done at the front of your mind, making it easier to figure out where you want to go and how to get there. 

Here are three more tactics to increase your visibility:

1. Don’t end the week with nothing.

Entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie’s excellent advice is to work on more visible projects. He writes:

Prefer to work on things you can show. Prefer to work where people can see you. Prefer to work on things you can own. Why? Because when your work is in public, you can show it to people. That's often the best way to demonstrate that you're capable of doing work like it.

To sum up: “optimize for impact and visibility.” The nature of knowledge work makes it inherently difficult to see the fruits of your labor. Can you choose the more impactful project? Can you work on some aspect that is customer-facing? Can you turn what you learn about management, customer service, or selling, into a presentation or guide?

2. Ask for help and feedback.

People are often afraid to ask for help, for fear that it makes them look less competent. Yet asking for help is part of getting better at your job and shows that you care enough to be proactive about learning and fixing problems.

Managers and co-workers would much prefer you reach out for help and feedback rather than be kept in the dark because you’ve placed yourself in a cone of insecurity. It’s much easier, even instinctive, to go find a corner to mope, brood, or hide in when you’re stuck — but working out loud and asking for input is what increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to climb outside the rut.

Many people — the good ones, anyway — enjoy helping others, and being asked can be flattering to boot. Instead of committing the work sin of radio silence, reach out for support and feedback, and then also ask how you can help others.

Asking for help is part of getting better at your job.

3. Work where people can see you.

Gaining visibility might require going outside your office. Maybe you have a side project, or maybe your work culture isn’t a healthy environment to pursue visibility.

Promoting yourself doesn’t have to be on someone else’s terms. Write a book, start a blog, make a side-project, collaborate with new people outside of work, or speak at panels and conferences. Tell people about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, why it’s important, and how you did it. Give talks, teach others, raise your hand for new projects.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, a boss, or looking for work, when you “do things, tell people,” you open doors because people know where to knock and why. Those people may be customers, potential partners, or powerful leaders who can act as sponsors and mentors. You hold the magic power to make the invisible visible to help yourself and your work create more impact and opportunity.

[This essay was adapted from the e-book “What You Don't Know About Management.” Download your copy here.]

How about you?

How do you communicate your successes?

More about Janet Choi

Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.

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