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January 6, 2023

Can't promote your top talent? Here's how to keep them anyway.

Daily Briefing

    The number one reason driving voluntary workplace departures is low career mobility. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Carrie Ott-Holland and Mengyang Cao explain how leaders can retain top talent—even when advancement opportunities are limited.

    Carrie Ott-Holland is an organizational psychologist, author, and senior talent management professional who led performance management and promotion research at Google. Mengyang Cao is a people analytics professional in the tech industry who has been trained as an industrial/organizational psychologist.

    How can managers help motivate workers who have unmet promotion expectations?

    Every organization will inevitably have high-performing employees who ask to be promoted in situations where advancement is not possible or will take time. "This creates a problem for managers who want to retain top talent," according to Ott-Holland and Cao.

    In a recent survey, researchers found that the top reason for voluntary workplace departures is a lack of career mobility.

    According to the authors, when talented employees become discouraged by a lack of advancement opportunities or delayed promotions, managers must develop interim strategies to help identify and meet employees' underlying needs.

    Managers should first determine whether anything can be done to address any skill or experience gaps that may be holding an employee back. "Even if an employee is a top performer, there may be certain skills or performance deficits that are holding them back from a desired promotion," Ott-Holland and Cao write.

    "Give [the employee] time to process your feedback on ways to improve, and make it clear in your conversation that there is nothing wrong with a desire for promotion," they add.

    Then, Ott-Holland and Cao recommend evaluating what a promotion means to an employee, which could encompass a variety of things, including:

    • Elevating status in the workplace
    • Gaining a higher occupational status
    • Being publicly rewarded
    • Receiving more responsibilities
    • Having more influence within the department or organization
    • Getting a perceived opportunity to have a greater impact on broader outcomes
    • Wanting an opportunity to manage direct reports
    • Boosting compensation

    "By narrowing down what the promotion signifies or enables for a given employee, managers can then scan for opportunities that could lead to uniquely meaningful work experiences," Ott-Holland and Cao write.

    For instance, higher pay is likely a primary motivator for many employees. "To the extent that your organization's compensation planning allows for manager discretion, consider allocating more significant monetary rewards for high performers who have been passed up for promotion," they suggest.

    As managers work with employees to create experiences that help meet their underlying motivations, they should not expect them to wait for a promotion indefinitely. "Give them feedback that will help them develop, and be as transparent as possible about the realities of promotion decision-making," the authors suggest. "Taking action to support the underlying needs of frustrated high performers will go a long way in the short term, but should occur in tandem with efforts to advocate for their advancement."

    When managers encourage employees to be more open about what matters in their careers, they can help them create a career that meets their needs.

    In addition, discussing underlying motivations can help high-performing employees feel seen and heard—even when a promotion is not possible. As a result, managers can act "as active partners in solving for career success, rather than gatekeepers," Ott-Holland and Cao write. (Ott-Holland/Cao, Harvard Business Review, 1/4)

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