Canadian Underwriter

How to motivate a top performer if you can’t promote them

January 4, 2023   by Jason Contant

Young, overworked worker unhappy about being passed up for promotion

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Every brokerage has one or more top performers, but what can you do if you can’t promote them? Try developing interim strategies to help these employees get their underlying needs met, advises a new blog from Harvard Business Review.

When talented employees feel demoralized by slow upward advancement, employers need to start digging into what a promotion actually means to them, two authors wrote in the HBR blog, How to Motivate a Top Performer — When You Can’t Promote Them.

First, 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, wrote Carrie Ott-Holland and Mengyeng Cao. If there are ways the employee can address and remedy these skills or experience gaps, talk with them and share your thoughts. Give them time to process your feedback on ways to improve, and make it clear in the conversation that there is nothing wrong with a desire for promotion, the authors said.

Once this is determined, understand what a “promotion” means for a top performer. This is crucial, because a July 2022 survey from McKinsey found the Number 1 reason for voluntary employee departures is a lack of career mobility.

A promotion could be a combination of the following, or something completely different:

  • Workplace status
  • Occupational status
  • A public form of reward
  • A greater scope of responsibilities
  • A greater scope of influence within the department or organization
  • A perceived opportunity for greater impact on broader outcomes
  • An opportunity to manage direct reports
  • Better monetary rewards

By narrowing down what a promotion signifies or enables for a given employee, managers can then scan for opportunities leading to uniquely meaningful work experiences. For example, higher pay may be the primary motivator for many employees. To the extent 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, wrote Ott-Holland and Cao in the blog published Wednesday.

Recognizing an employee's hard work

If an employee wants to have more influence as part of their work, ask yourself how you can help them have more impact with clients and stakeholders. Are there meetings the employee can join to help them learn what’s on leaders’ minds or further steer the direction of a project?

Maybe your employee wants to have more public recognition. Are there opportunities to position the employee’s work to be more visible and celebrated? Can the employee apply or be nominated for professional awards or have their contributions called out in public communication channels?

As a final example, maybe becoming a people manager is important to your employee. Consider whether you can appoint the employee as an informal lead of the team before they are officially promoted to manager. Are there opportunities to give them increased exposure to managerial activities, like leading hiring for the team or coaching more junior employees?

“An important caveat: Even as you partner with these employees to create work experiences that match their underlying motivations, don’t expect them to wait indefinitely for a promotion,” the authors wrote. “Give them feedback that will help them develop, and be as transparent as possible about the realities of promotion decision-making. 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.”

Ultimately, “discussing underlying motivations can also help high performers feel heard, whether or not a promotion is possible. This in turn positions managers as active partners in solving for career success, rather than gatekeepers.”

Ott-Holland is an organizational psychologist, author and senior talent management professional who spent seven years at Google, where she recently led performance management and promotion research. Cao works as a people analytics professional in the tech industry, and he is an industrial/organizational psychologist by training.


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