How to Respond When Your Employees Ask For a Step-By-Step Path to Promotion

How to Respond When Your Employees Ask For a Step-By-Step Path to Promotion

Leaders, does it drive you crazy when you get asked this?

“What are the steps to get promoted?”

Being asked in a step-by-step way what advancement looks like… when inside you’re thinking:

+ There’s no one way!

+ It’s about taking initiative, not about following some formula

+ Everybody wants to be promoted, and no one wants to do their job.

I know it can be so incredibly frustrating to be asked the step-by-step way to get a promotion. But as a leader, your feelings and responses are picked up in minute detail by the people you lead.

Here’s what I recommend:

1. Start with compassion and curiosity

There’s always something behind the desire for a promotion—and sometimes it’s all tangled up and not even well understood by the person asking for it. Sometimes it’s about wanting a higher salary. Sometimes it’s about having different work. Sometimes it’s driven by a vague fear that they are not far enough ahead, or feeling like their dad expects it of them. Sometimes for women, it’s about seeing people with less experience shoot ahead and wondering why their contributions haven’t been seen and recognized.

As a leader, if you can ask with real curiosity, “what would the promotion mean to you?” you’ll create an opportunity for more connection. They may not tell you the truth, but you’ll also be shifting yourself from a judgemental frustrated place to a curious and supportive one.

2. Guide them to ask you better questions

Tell them that there is no step-by-step path to promotion but that you’d love to guide them in better understanding how decisions about promotions and opportunities get made in the office, and how they can grow their value. In order to do that, you can share that they’ll need to learn to ask better questions. Model a few for them and explain why they’re better:

→ “Tell me about the last person who got promoted to the role. What were the factors that led to them being chosen?'”


→ “When you say ‘taking initiative’ can you give 2-3 examples of how you’ve seen it done recently?”


→ “What is the department’s or the business’s biggest challenge right no

Ask them to come to your next meeting with 5 better questions to reveal information that can help guide their growth strategy to the next level.

3. Help them develop their own career growth strategy

This isn’t to distract them away from their promotion growth goal. But while they can’t always control whether they can be promoted to the next level, they can can control how valuable they can become.

Help them see the non-ladder climbing aspects of career growth that make them highly promotable: What would they like to accomplish in their role? Are there key opportunities they’d like access to? Are there key skills, key capacities, or key experiences they’d like to have?

Resist the urge we often have as leaders to TELL them how to build those skills or get those experiences. Instead, ASK. It builds proactivity. Ask them to propose their own path forward and give them good, critical feedback so they don’t end up putting time into a pathway that doesn’t go anywhere.

4. Be transparent about the realities of promotion

Be honest about the factors that guide promotion.

→ “We’re too top-heavy right now, so that might affect your goal to land this role.” 

→ “As a leadership group, we often trade off who gets to put their people forward yearly.” 

→ “The outlook can change at any time.”

But tell them, “While I can’t guarantee that you will be promoted, what I can help you with is developing the skills to be valuable for the role you want, and help you get access to the opportunities and experiences you want to develop those skills.”

It can be incredibly frustrating when someone asks for the step-by-step formula to getting promoted. But rather than be thrown off by it, or see it as an opportunity to put someone in their place, it can be an incredible opportunity to help your talent develop more proactivity and to connect with your talent as a champion, cheerleader, and guide.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.