• Mel Butcher

3 Reasons Your Colleague Got the Promotion and You Didn't.

Mel Butcher Blog | Reasons Your Colleague Got the Promotion
Image Description: Business woman in black blazer looking frustrated at her desk while holding a "HELP" sign.

"I have worked so hard. In fact, I think I work harder than many of my peers. But I have been passed over for promotion multiple times now. What am I doing wrong?"

Sound familiar?

I've heard some version of this question from multiple different intelligent, driven, and yes, hard working, individuals. Is the world out to get them?

I think not.

Let's talk about some of the most common reasons a colleague could get selected over you for a promotion. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with you not working "hard enough".

1. Your colleague positioned with key decision-makers and/or influencers well in advance.

There are often multiple people who can influence the outcome of selecting individual(s) for promotion. There's the panel of decision makers and other indirectly influential leaders; note that the latter may not necessarily have high titles or official decision-making authority.

The ebb and flow of power and influence -- this is part of workplace politics.

Every organization, no matter its size, has politics.

Do not make the mistake of labeling workforce politics as "bad". It simply is. Think of politics in business as human interactions and tendencies.

We are all engaged in politics whether we label it that way or not.

Back to the promotion at hand. Your colleague may have consciously or unconsciously been watching to understand these power dynamics in the organization, and then positioned themselves and worked to build rapport with the "right" people.

Your colleague could have sold themselves as the right candidate to the right people in advance, meaning they didn't expect their "hard work to speak for itself." They spoke to their candidacy and hard work and enlisted the right others to do this on their behalf.

This was a business savvy move on their part.

Effective, strategic relationship building is one key to moving up the ladder.

2. Your colleague understood and acted on workplace perceptions.

I once interviewed an engineer and scientist, Dr. Tracy Fanara, for a podcast episode and she told a story that illustrates this point.

Dr. Fanara was working for a consulting firm early in her career and got assigned to some work that required long hours of staying with a computer while it ran some type of models or calculations. It had to be monitored and adjusted throughout these processes that took many hours.

While she was doing this, she worked long hours into the night. She was arguably working "hard," and putting in over time.

But she realized one day that the *perception of her was different. She realized that in this particular company, in this particular office, what was valued most and viewed as "dedication" was showing up to the office early in the morning before others.

Since Dr. Fanara was pulling late night hours, she was often the last to show up in the morning because she knew that she was going to be working very long hours day after day.

Once she realized this discrepancy in how she was perceived, she changed her approach.

It is possible your colleague picked up on the workplace actions or ways of showing up that the organization's culture values the most and acted accordingly.

Or in Dr. Fanara's words, "Perception is reality," and we must act accordingly.

3. While you were working hard in your current role, your colleague was working to showcase their understanding of (and capability to address) needs at the next level.

Imagine this. You've been in your role several years. You've been thriving - not just doing ok, but exceeding your metrics. Your performance reviews are stellar. You believe you're ready for a promotion and you believe your boss sees it too.

But your colleague, one who perhaps doesn't seem as dedicated to the tasks at hand as you are, ends up selected for promotion.

Rather than focusing on exceeding at the task at hand, your colleague has done an adequate job and invested the rest of their effort to building and showcasing their ability to operate at the next level.

No matter what industry you're in or company you work for, the needs of the organization change as any person moves up the proverbial ladder.

Here's one paradigm to consider: early in your career, your circle of influence barely extends outside of you. Your work is task oriented. You need to learn how to do the thing well and continue delivering on that family of tasks. The work is "me" focused.

As you move up the chain, the needs of the business become increasingly externally focused from oneself. In the middle, managers must learn to manage the people doing the tasks and managing team dynamics to ensure the entire team delivers on commitments. In other words, your circle of influence must grow.

Move further up still and leaders must focus on external relationships. These relationships could be with clients/customers, stakeholders (such as investors), potential partnerships with strategically synergistic companies (or even competitors), etc. The work becomes less about executing on the minutiae or even managing the people who are. The work becomes about leveraging high level relationships to take the business towards its strategic and financial goals. The circle of influence grows outward to leading teams of managers, influencing clients/stakeholders, etc.

What makes you good at exceeding expectations in your current role is not what will make you good at a role the next level(s) up.


Note that these three things are not "mistakes". These are pieces of information to learn if you have the ambition to move up. They're all things that I learned the hard way.

And this is not an exhaustive list. This is simply a place to begin thinking, looking outside your current role, to better understand what you might need to focus on to land the next position you want and deserve.

You can do this.



And one last note. This blog post is not relevant if you are in a toxic workplace. If you are harassed, gaslit, or otherwise mistreated at work, no amount of tactics for managing yourself is going to help.

So if your job is making you sick, emotionally and/or physically, get out.

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