One of the most basic tenets of psychology is that behaviour that is rewarded is reinforced, and behaviour that isn’t rewarded gradually ebbs away. One of the key motivating rewards in an office environment is the possibility of promotion for high performance.
So what happens to your star performer who has worked exceedingly hard and well, but for one reason or another didn’t get the promotion that was on offer?
1. Don’t expect it to heal itself over time – understand their position
The biggest trap you can fall into is believing that your employee will just get over it and eventually understand what their shortcoming was. Most likely they are feeling really disappointed, especially if they went through a formal application process. If you don’t tell the employee exactly what happened then they will develop a set of reasons themselves.
Unfortunately, those who feel rejected and frustrated will try to reduce their levels of hurt and create a narrative that holds others accountable. This frustration will also show up in their interactions with colleagues and clients.
Alternatively, you have an employee that holds themselves entirely accountable and sees it as a massive failure. They internalise the failure as though it’s complete – and the spike of hope and motivation they experienced at the possibility of promotion now comes crashing down. Expect this employee to withdraw and show a drop in performance for a period of time.
2. Tell the truth
What better way to help someone deal with a situation than providing honesty? Of course, there are different ways of delivering honesty and using a ruthless baseball bat approach will cause a lot of grief to the person on the other end. Whatever your method, it is your responsibility to ensure that the person who understands knows the true reasons for them missing out. If they lack a skill, or a certain qualification then they need to be told so that they can improve on it.
Make sure you tell the truth in a way that they will actually absorb. Some people like to be ‘told straight’ whereas others need a softer approach. As long as you are making sure they receive the correct information, without ambiguity, then you have directly influenced the thought loops they will experience while feeling rejected. Instead of “what’s wrong with me? It’s not fair!” They might be thinking, “So I’m not going to get anywhere unless I develop my presentation and influencing skills.” Both are expressions of disappointment, but one leads to a productive, capacity-building outcome while the other leads to anger and resentment.
It can also be difficult for those rejected to see that this is not a complete devastation of their entire career. You need to reinforce their strengths and value to the team. They may not believe it, or like hearing it at that point, but when the dust settles these are the messages that will resonate.
3. What if they don’t like the truth?
Most people that are experiencing rejection go through a really difficult mix of emotions. They have an urgent need to discuss and vent about the issue, but at the same time find it so uncomfortable that they don’t want to discuss it at all. It’s extremely rare to have someone say that they completely agree with the reasons they didn’t get the job and just as rare to receive a positive reaction. Prepare for this – know that you are likely to be met with anger, sadness or frustration when you talk to someone in this situation. Just don’t let it be an excuse not to have the important conversation!
4. What if you can’t really articulate the reasons?
Sometimes a hiring manager can’t actually deliver the promotion they want to offer someone on their team. The senior managers may have had someone else in mind, or perhaps a policy of hiring external applicants to inject new life into the company may be preventing a vertical ascent for your team member. If this happens, make sure you fully understand the policies and the reasons and can deliver them to your employee.
In extreme cases you can find that a senior manager enforces a promotion that you really don’t agree with. The trap here is to vent your frustration to the person rejected by saying “I think you really should have got the promotion, but senior management said it should go to the other person”. This undermines the culture of your workplace in a massive way! Even if you don’t agree with a particular situation, it gives you a chance to reinforce to your team what the company values.
There are other situations where you find that you can’t really put your finger on the reason, but you really don’t think a particular person will thrive in a higher role, despite being a high performer in their current one. If this is the case you really need to be careful – a flimsy explanation (e.g. “we just thought someone else would be better than you”) without some concrete substance behind it will only lead to resentment of you and resentment of the incumbent employee.
5. Provide some short-term incentives
The worst part of missing out on a role is the devastation of hope that there is something worth working really hard for. As a manager you can really come in and provide that hope again if you provide some personal incentives. Perhaps you can discuss strategies that address a perceived weakness. Perhaps suggest particular skills training like public speaking, leadership or innovation. As long as you provide something that says to this person that their disappointment isn’t permanent – there are avenues to improving yourself and your chances for future promotion – then you can create a positive out of a negative.
If you have ever missed out on that big role, particularly if you see it given to someone else whom you see as less deserving of it than you, then you can really appreciate the gut-wrenching disappointment that follows. If a manager doesn’t handle this situation properly then it can really protract into competitive, selfish, spiteful behaviour that drives a wedge between people in the organisation. If it’s done well you have an ambitious employee that now has a clear pathway to improving further.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.
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