Managers, Here’s Why You Keep Promoting The Wrong People

These common misconceptions cause even the best managers to make badly timed (or just bad) promotions.

Managers, Here’s Why You Keep Promoting The Wrong People
[Photo: DragonImages/iStock]

If you’re a manager, maybe you can remember a time when you promoted someone to a position that they really didn’t deserve. And if you can, then you already know that undeserved promotions are time-wasters, morale-killers, and frustration-inducers–not just for you, but for the company as a whole.


What you might not know, even in retrospect, is why you went ahead and promoted that person in the first place. More often than not, over-promoting is a knee-jerk reaction and not a strategic decision. Perhaps your organization was going through growth or contraction, or you’d had some of your key people unexpectedly leave. Whatever the case, to avoid falling into that trap again, you’ll need to get your head around the myths and misconceptions that lead managers to promote the wrong people–or even the right ones at the wrong times.

Misconception #1: A Promotion Is Just A Label

It’s tempting to think of undeserved promotions as just lip-service that keeps whiny employees happy. But even if you think that, your employee might think otherwise. Soon he or she is sharing the promotion on social media, touting the new job title with coworkers, overstepping boundaries, and possibly even giving your clients the wrong impression about their new role. This situation can quickly get out of control, so before you give someone a title change, take a moment to think through the attitude change that might come with it.

Misconception #2: The Employee Will Grow Into It

You need to fill an open role, and the path of least resistance is promoting an employee with promise, but who isn’t quite ready yet. You’re pretty much setting them up to fail. They might have been exceeding expectations in their previous role, but without the right experience, they’ll struggle in a new position.

It can be a rude awakening for a star employee to receive criticism once they’ve been promoted, and that’s almost bound to happen if you put them in a role they’re not ready for. More job pressure and constructive feedback can also make employees defensive, feel picked on, or even go into hiding. It takes a lot of self-awareness to recognize when a job might be over your head, and that should really be a manager’s responsibility, not the employee’s.

Misconception #3: It’s Better To Over-Promote Than Be Understaffed

I once had a client with a problem employee who was actually on probation for poor behavior. After another employee quit, management suddenly got worried that she too might leave and they’d be understaffed. Sure enough, she smelled blood in the water, and threatened to resign for another job. Management panicked–instead of seeing her resignation as the gift it was, they gave her a promotion and hefty raise.

Related: How To Survive Working On An Underperforming Team 


Needless to say, her work ethic didn’t improve with the increased responsibility. She was literally rewarded for her bad behavior, and the company ended up with an even bigger (and more expensive) problem on their hands. Some employees even catch wind of their employers’ reluctance to fire and rehire, and use that as an excuse to stop putting in effort.

What To Do After You’ve Promoted Someone You Shouldn’t Have

If you’ve already promoted somebody you can now see wasn’t ready for it, there are still a few things you can do:

Define the position: You should start by writing up a job profile that clearly defines the role and what it takes to be successful in it. Make sure to include the gaps that need filling between the employee’s abilities and the requirements of the job. This will help illuminate any hidden issues with skills like time management, prioritization, or delivering feedback. Once you identify those shortfalls, create a training plan for the employee.

Deliver concrete feedback: Make sure to include suggestions for ways to overcome whatever isn’t working. Without beating around the bush, spell out exactly what the employee is not doing well, outline what actions they need to take to improve, and set deadlines. Focus on the level of work, not on the person. Conduct regular follow-up meetings, on two-week intervals, to manage progress and adjust as needed.

Related: How To Give Feedback At Work That Doesn’t Jeopardize Your Career 

Move the person into another role: Don’t forget that this is always on the table. If you’ve explored feedback, solutions, and training, and it’s obvious that the promotion still isn’t going to work, it’s time to look for another role that might. Rather than letting the situation crash and burn to the point where your team member quits or gets fired, transferring them to another position could be a win-win.


Just make sure their skills match better the second time around. One saving grace? After the mishap that got you here, at least you’ll have a clearer view of your employees’ strengths and limitations.

Lisa M. Aldisert is a NYC-based business advisor, trend expert, speaker, and author.