How to Ask for a Promotion the brave (and actually effective) Way
So you feel like it’s time for you to move up in your company and you’re wondering how to ask for a promotion. Maybe you’ve seen other people get promoted over you and you feel like it’s your time. Maybe you feel like you’re being passed over and your strengths are not being seen. So you’re looking for a way to make the business case for promotion to your boss and demonstrate your readiness for the role.
Now you might be tempted to write a promotion request letter or an “asking for a promotion” email to make your pitch for your next role.
Maybe you even found a template to follow and you’ve already replaced the address block and “Dear Sir or Madam with your dear old supervisor’s details.
Stop right there!
Writing a letter to request a promotion or an “asking for promotion” email is one of the worst ways to actually get a promotion.
3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Write a Promotion Request Letter
1. Writing a promotion request letter is an avoidance mechanism that makes you look less powerful and confident when you ask for a promotion.
Writing a promotion request letter or an email when you could pick up the phone or have a conversation in person is an avoidance mechanism. Email is a place to hide.
I get it, email allows you to gather all your thoughts together and present your promotion pitch perfectly. But it’s also less direct and less brave.
And it creates cognitive dissonance for the boss reading your letter or email. You’re asking for more responsibility and leadership, but you are demonstrating that you can’t own your promotion request and do hard things like chance rejection, which is an essential leadership quality.
This is particularly important if you’re a woman or come from a background in which there are fewer people in leadership positions. Initiating the conversation challenges the tendency some leaders have to overlook women, and positions you as growth-driven.
As Brene Brown says, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling through vulnerability.” And asking for what you want with your boss is good practice for asking for what your company needs, which will make you a better leader.
Asking for a promotion at work in person makes you look more powerful and confident (even if you feel like the opposite).
2. Your boss doesn’t have to look you in the eye in order to say no to your promotion pitch.
Another reason why you shouldn’t write a promotion request letter: If email is an avoidance mechanism for you, it’s also an avoidance mechanism for your boss when it comes to responding to your promotion pitch. As listeners, we are in a different mental space when we read email or a letter than when we are in a direct face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation. Your boss may read your letter but never fully process it or be forced to solely focus on you and your request in an email.
When distracted, culling through their inbox, your boss may not fully consider your promotion pitch deeply. They may intend to think about it when they have more time… and they may never get back to you until you awkwardly check in…. “Hey, so about that promotion request letter I sent…?”
Your boss also may have the initial instinct to say no to your promotion pitch. When you haven’t asked in person or by phone, it’s a lot easier for your boss to avoid your displeasure and give you a “no” or an “I’ll consider it.”
When you request a promotion live, you force your boss to pause and create mental space to truly consider your promotion pitch. They’ll focus more attention on the nuance of the business case for promotion that you’ve shared. You’re much more likely to have a more substantive conversation about what they really think about your promotion opportunities.
3. A promotion request letter is too rigid and doesn’t allow for collaborative discussion about advancement or the business case for promotion.
One of my recent clients wanted to become a principal and owner in her firm. We created a specific promotion pitch. The next step was to talk to her leaders.
She put it off for weeks. Having the conversation was intimidating. What if they said no? What if they were surprised that she saw herself that way and didn’t agree? What if they were offended and fired her?
But she finally had her first conversation and this is what happened: Her boss was excited for her and listened to the specific value she wanted to add to the leadership team.
But then her boss suggested an alternative role she could play that was even a better fit for what the firm needed—which turned out to also be a better fit for her strengths and interests.
In a quick 10 minutes, her boss outlined the perfect role for this woman and gave her a step-by-step game plan of exactly how she should go about making the business case for promotion to the other partners.
When you have a live conversation, you can work collaboratively with your boss to define a way forward—and you’ll get access to insight on what the business needs and how decisions are truly made. This can result in an even better promotion for you, and key intelligence on how to navigate the “unwritten rules” of how the company promotes people.
Even though email is one of the most dominant ways of communicating at work these days, if you want candid feedback and back-and-forth dialogue, you just can’t get it through an email exchange.
Even if your promotion request doesn’t go as well as my client’s did, it can still be immensely helpful. You might find that you have a key qualification that’s missing for the role, and you can ask how to fix it. You might find that the business strategy is changing, which could lead you to advocate for a different promotion.
One of my clients, Cindy Kaufman, entered a dialogue with her leadership and walked out with a new title—at a company she’d been at for over 25 years—and in a role she’d been in forever. Another client, Jess Blanch, got a $25,000 raise and a new role with less administrative work where she could be more of a subject matter expert in an area she was passionate about. These are not outcomes that happen from a rigid promotion request email.
And if they say no to your promotion request, you can actually ask why, and then decide how you want to move forward.
How to Ask for a Promotion, the Brave (and Effective) Way
I get it. The reason you want to send a promotion request letter or “asking for a promotion” email is because you can make the business case for promotion perfectly and your nerves won’t affect your delivery of the promotion pitch.
But because of the downsides, here’s the promotion pitch process I recommend instead. It’s the perfect combination of directly making your promotion pitch live, with the benefits of preparation and structure that come with a promotion request letter, or an “asking for a promotion” email.
Don’t bring a promotion request letter, but do bring a prop.
I recommend my clients break down the job description for the promotion that they want and list their qualifications, as well as their relevant experience, for each qualification. It gives you and your boss something to discuss and shows that you have already done independent, serious thinking about what the promotion you want would entail.
There’s a lot of prep work you can do in advance of asking for a promotion to build the case for your promotion, and comparing your qualifications to the job you want will help you understand exactly what to focus on.
I give my clients a Promotion Request Tool and Tracker to bring to their conversation with their bosses, and it focuses the promotion pitch conversation without becoming a tool that you hide behind.
Role Play a Practice Conversation Before Your Real Promotion Pitch Conversation
Get a family member or friend to sit down with you for 10 minutes and pretend that they are your boss fielding your promotion request. Bring your Promotion Request Tool and Tracker. Walk them through it as if they were your boss. Have them play the role of your boss, responding respectfully but also asking questions that you need to respond to.
When you do this in advance of your promotion request conversation, you’ll build a “body memory“ of having the big scary conversation before you have the real one. You’ll be more familiar with how to phrase the business case for promotion and respond to any challenges. You’ll be more confident when presenting your promotion pitch and will feel less nervous.
Remember that Your Promotion Request Conversation May Just be the First Conversation
Remember that usually it takes a number of conversations to get a promotion at work, and sometimes your first pitch doesn’t land or it’s just not the right time.
In the Promotion Request Tool and Tracker I give my clients, there’s a status column that my clients use to report back to their bosses on any last qualifications or experiences they need to fulfill to be ready for promotion. This reduces a boss’s tendency to say, “You’re not ready yet,” without giving you specific reasons why.
Even if your promotion pitch is declined, that doesn’t mean there isn’t massive value in starting the conversation. In my conversation with magazine editor Jennifer Reut, she shared that she develops more of a connection with people who pitch her frequently and has a better idea of what they’re doing, even if any specific individual pitch isn’t right for the magazine.
So don’t get discouraged if the first conversation doesn’t get you the promotion you want. Keep at it!
You don’t want to go through all the work of putting a promotion request letter or an “asking for a promotion” email together only to get a big “no” to your promotion request that you could’ve avoided.
Use this process instead and not only will you increase the chances of getting a yes to your promotion pitch, but you’ll build your strength, leadership, and confidence in going after your dream promotion.