top of page

How to Tell an Employee They’re Not Ready for a Promotion

Source : Harvard Business Review - Luis Velasquez


Discussing a promotion with an employee when you’re not ready to give them one is a delicate balancing act, but it’s also a golden opportunity. It’s a chance to turn a potentially negative situation into a constructive, forward-looking dialogue. By approaching the conversation with empathy, support, and a focus on the future, you set the stage for a collaborative relationship with your employee. The author offers strategies for approaching the conversation and planning for the future.

Managing a team is complex and nuanced, requiring a balance of interpersonal skills, understanding of business dynamics, and empathy. One particularly challenging aspect for many managers is discussing promotions, especially when the employee is eager for career advancement but you’re not ready to give them that opportunity yet.

Research has shown that employee engagement is highly correlated with career progression; however, career planning and manager recognition also play key roles. In my many years of coaching executives, I’ve seen both sides of this situation: a leader dreading and struggling to give an employee the bad news about not granting their promotion, as well as the team member’s subsequent confusion, surprise, and disappointment.

How to Approach the Conversation

I’ve found that leaders who take a structured approach to these difficult conversations are far more successful at handling them. Success looks like not only maintaining a positive working relationship after the conversation, but also laying out a plan for future growth.

Done right, it’s a win-win approach: The employee leaves with a clear understanding of where they stand, feels valued, and is equipped with a plan that motivates them to move forward. The organization also increases retention and engagement. The key is to approach the conversation with empathy, support, and a future-focused mindset.


Start by acknowledging their efforts, validating their feelings, and assuring them that their hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Shift from a mindset of delivering bad news to one of developing shared understanding. This compassionate approach can ease the disappointment and foster a more positive, open dialogue.

For example, you can say: “I recognize how hard you’ve been working and the dedication you’ve shown in your role. I know you were looking forward to a promotion, and I want you to know that I see and appreciate your efforts.”


This conversation is not merely about explaining why the promotion isn’t happening now; it’s an opportunity to affirm your belief in your employee’s abilities and potential.

Outline the positive aspects of their work. For example, you could say, “You’ve demonstrated excellent skills in [specific area], and your contributions to the team in [another area] have been invaluable. I believe further development will position you strongly for a future promotion. Let’s look at what opportunities we can create together for you to develop the skills to get you ready.”

Future focus

Don’t let the conversation end in disappointment but rather in hope for future possibilities. A future-focused mindset will not only help identify what your employee needs to work on but also actively helps them get involved in chartering a path for future action.

You could say, “I see a lot of potential in you, and I believe in your ability to grow into your aspiring role.”

How to Discuss the Reasons

When discussing the specific reasons your employee isn’t getting their desired promotion, you need to address three dimensions: competence, potential, and perception. As you do so, anchor your conversations in where the person is now and what they need to do in order to advance. This focus on “now vs. needed” provides a roadmap that keeps the conversation constructive, supportive, and oriented toward future success.


Competence refers to the specific skills, knowledge, and capabilities required for a role. When discussing a promotion, it’s essential to identify the competencies a team member has demonstrated and the gaps they need to address to prepare for the next level. Emphasize that being competent makes an individual “good enough” for their current role, but advancing also requires growth and mastery.

Begin by acknowledging their accomplishments and completed projects, highlighting what they’ve achieved and commending their dedication and ability. Make it clear that while these successes are valued, they may not equate to mastery of a particular competency needed for the next role.

Engage them in recognizing and understanding their current competencies and how they need to develop them further. Encourage open dialogue and ask questions like, “How do you feel you’re doing in competency X?” Ensuring that both parties agree on what needs further development creates a joint commitment to addressing it. Make sure to emphasize that failure on a specific project doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of competency, and likewise, that meeting a goal doesn’t guarantee competency.

Here’s how you might phrase the conversation: “Right now, you’re excelling in [current competencies], which have been vital in your current role. What’s needed for the next step is further development in [specific competency]. Let’s explore targeted training or projects to bridge this gap and prepare you for the responsibilities of your next role.”


An employee’s potential refers to their inherent capacity and willingness to grow and take on greater organizational responsibilities and challenges, demonstrating the ability to perform at a higher level in future roles. Moreover, assessing potential involves recognizing what the employee is doing now and what initiatives or changes are needed to prove readiness for the next step. While there are many frameworks for assessing potential, I’ve found Claudio Fernández-Aráoz’s four hallmarks of potential most helpful:

Curiosity: Not just a desire to know, but a desire to question the status quo.

Insight: The ability to gather and make sense of information that suggests new possibilities.

Engagement: Emotional intelligence that goes beyond simply connecting with people to truly resonating with them to increase their influence.

Determination: The grit to overcome obstacles and turn them into stepping stones.

Based on those four dimensions, I created a matrix you can use to guide your conversation about potential.

Before sharing your own observations, ask your employee to rate themselves on each dimension. Remind them that these are not personality traits. For instance, being introverted doesn’t mean you can’t excel in engagement, because it’s about the quality of interaction, not the quantity.

After they’ve shared their self-assessment, offer your own perspective, and use specific examples to back it up. For example, “It’s interesting to see you place yourself at level 3 in curiosity. I’d actually place you at level 4 because you’re always seeking new ways to improve our processes. You rated yourself at Level 2 in engagement, and I agree. You’re great at one-on-one interactions but could contribute more in team settings.”

Then, discuss specific steps for improvement in terms of now vs. needed. For example, “To move to level 3, you could lead our next team meeting or take charge of a collaborative project to start moving that needle.”


Perception is the lens through which skills, contributions, and potential are viewed by others in the organization. It’s the sum total of the impressions people make, from the way they handle meetings to how they resolve conflicts. Unlike competence and potential, perception is often shaped by intangibles (such as empathy, influence, and how they approach challenges and stressful situations) and influenced by the collective opinion of peers, supervisors, and direct reports.

Begin by acknowledging a common misconception: that results alone should be enough for recognition and promotion. You could say, “Many believe that their results should speak for themselves, and that should be enough for recognition or even a promotion. While results are crucial, they’re not the only factor. Perception of your professional image is influenced not just by what you do but also by how those actions are interpreted by others, and you can change how you’re perceived at work.”

Before diving into your own observations, ask your employee how they think they’re perceived within the team and the broader organization in a specific area you find concerning. For example, “How do you think you’re generally perceived by the team as a collaborator?”

Once they’ve shared their thoughts, offer your own perspective. Use specific examples to back up your assessment, as perceptions are often formed by a series of moments rather than a single event. It helps if you have 360 data or feedback from the team. Highlight any discrepancies between the person’s self-perception and how they’re actually perceived. This is crucial for identifying areas for improvement.

For example: “You see yourself as an active collaborator, but the feedback I’ve received suggests that you could be more proactive in giving credit to your peers. How can we align your self-perception with the broader perception?”

Then discuss actionable steps they can take to improve the perception others have of them. For example, “To improve the team’s perception of you as a collaborator, perhaps you could lead the next project or actively seek feedback from team members and highlight their contributions. What are your thoughts on that?”

Summarize the key points of the discussion and reiterate your commitment to helping them change a perception that might be a blocker for a promotion.

How to Plan for the Future

An individual development plan (IDP) is a collaborative and proactive action designed specifically for professional growth. It’s not to be confused with performance improvement plan (PIP), which targets corrective measures to address performance.

The IDP must be built on three foundational components — performance, potential, and perception — as well as the actions required to move from now to needed. An effective IDP serves to:

Clearly define career goals

Identify the target role, level, and function

Create an action plan to become “ready” for the target role

An IDP should be designed to simultaneously enhance performance, unlock potential, and positively shape perception. This ensures a well-rounded development strategy. To do it, follow the 70/20/10 rule: 70% of the focus should be on hands-on experience, 20% on exposure to new ideas and people, and 10% on formal education.


Experience is the “putting in the miles” part of the ultramarathon of one’s career. Consider stretch assignments, job rotations, or cross-functional projects as avenues for experiential learning that also boost performance, demonstrate potential, and improve perception.

For example: “You’ve excelled in your current role. To prepare for the next level, how about leading a cross-functional project? This will not only help us hit performance targets but also showcase your potential and improve how you’re perceived.”


Exposure is about broadening your network and perspectives. Encourage your employee to join professional organizations, present at industry conferences, attend cross-functional meetings, or even get an industry mentor.

For example: “Your technical skills are strong, but networking within the industry could elevate your career and improve your perception among peers. How about presenting at the next industry conference?”


While it represents the smallest slice of the pie, education is crucial for filling in knowledge gaps and staying updated. This could range from executive education courses to e-learning programs or certifications.

For example, “You’ve shown interest in data analytics. There’s an upcoming e-learning course that could strengthen your skillset, demonstrate your potential, and positively influence how you’re perceived.”

The IDP is not just a checklist; it’s a strategic tool that can act as a catalyst for meaningful career growth when aligned with performance, potential, and perception.

. . .

Discussing a promotion when you’re not ready to give one is a delicate balancing act, but it’s also a golden opportunity. It’s a chance to turn a potentially negative situation into a constructive, forward-looking dialogue. By approaching the conversation with empathy, support, and a focus on the future, you set the stage for a collaborative relationship with your employee.

So the next time you find yourself in a “not now” promotion conversation, remember: It’s not just about deferring a promotion; it’s about laying the groundwork for future success. After all, the journey to the next level is not a sprint but an ultramarathon, requiring preparation, focus, and a thoughtful strategy.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page