5 Steps to Turning Down a Promotion Strategically


How should we proceed when we realize a promotion isn't right for us? (See my recent post "10 Signs a Job Opportunity Isn't the Right Fit" for help determining that.) Ideally, we turn down the promotion in a manner that's not only graceful but advantageous.

The goal is to have our boss say something like:  "I have even more respect for you now than before we began talking."

If we're serious about crafting meaningful work, we need to say no a lot. A lot.

We'd better get good at doing it.

1. Act Like a Consultant

When a boss is laying a promotion on the table, he or she is actually looking to solve a problem. The problem may be straightforward (someone left an existing, necessary position) or more complex (an emerging need has arisen).

If the problem is the former, skip ahead to the next step.

If it's the latter, it's our big chance to act like a consultant. The boss is tapping us for the newly-created position because he or she thinks we have the unique set of skills, insights and connections to fill the emerging need.

In fact, we may be the only person in the organization highly suited to meet this need.

That can put us in a tough spot:  if we say no, are we letting the organization down? Worse yet, will we be seen as an anti-team player?

If we simply say "no" and walk away, then both may be true.

Instead, we need to make time - hours even - to break down the emerging need and think about various ways to address the situation. The proffered promotion is only one possible solution.

Once we have many possible approaches on the table, we can consider whether any of them DOES fit us. In other words, is there a solution to this problem that we want to provide? The promotion might not be the right choice, but some other configuration (e.g., a subtle shift in workload across many people) may be the perfect step on our path to our ideal job.

When we bring our proposed solution to the boss, we may get brushed off. That's OK. The effort we took to try to find a solution instead of simply saying a flat-out "no" will almost always be appreciated. Sometimes deeply.

2. Look at Your Colleagues Through Boss's Eyes

Similarly, one way we can help to solve our boss's problem is to offer concrete suggestions for who he or she might tap next for the promotion (or for portions of our re-engineered solution).

When I need to turn down a promotion, I spend a few days privately vetting my colleagues. I think through what they have to offer, the ways in which they are being underutilized, and - perhaps most importantly - my knowledge of their goals and sense of purpose, information bosses typically haven't accessed.

It can be highly fulfilling to help a colleague's star rise in the direction that person highly desires.

Bottomline:  what's a poor fit for us is a dream job for someone else.

Share the wealth.

3. Discuss Your Strengths and Goals

How often do we get to sit before our boss and lay out our strengths, goals and sense of purpose? Ideally that happens at every annual review, but in my experience, it so doesn't.

When the boss is eagerly awaiting our acceptance of a promotion, though, we have a captive audience before us. We want to be succinct, to be sure - this isn't the moment to unleash our life story! - but we also are due a moment of "here's the lead in to my answer."

One obvious danger in turning down a promotion is coming across like we don't care or are not ambitious. There's nothing worth than appearing to be stagnating water.

Talking strengths and goals is the antidote. Lay out your truth...as long as it aligns with the organization's general mission and your continued existence in the company (i.e., this also isn't the moment to announce your dreams of entrepreneurship).

For instance, in a recent promotion turn-down situation I said, "I genuinely care about X. I have been working on that topic for five years and it's what drives me. While I could do the position you're offering well, I would never be driven to do it exceptionally since it is not about X."

Thankfully "X" is a priority to my organization, just a different priority than the one targeted in the promotion. The boss respected my honesty and seemed to appreciate the opportunity to gain insight into how to make best use of me. Any good leader would want that knowledge about his or her star players (and if you're being offered a promotion, yup, you're a star).

4. Demonstrate Your Values

Similarly, if you're clear on your values, don't be afraid to show them.

I spent years turning down opportunities explicitly to spend time with my young daughter. Some people may have judged or discounted me for that, but I was so sure about my values that their thoughts honestly didn't matter to me.

Even better, the people whose values did resonate with mine drew closer to me. By being upfront about why I was making decisions, I gained valuable and loyal allies in my organization, including some administrators who'd made similar choices - or, interestingly, wished they had.

Is it risky to let your values surface?

Perhaps. But I've always found the pay off to be well worth it.

Being known as someone who is principled and authentic tends to be respected across the board, even by people with a very different value set.

5. Display Deep Gratitude

Finally and probably most obviously, turning down a promotion is the prime time to show deep and genuine humility.

Recognize what the boss sees in you, accept it (i.e., don't brush it off or think yourself unworthy), and say thank you.

Someone saw us. That is, in essence, what a promotion offer actually is:  a boss's moment of saying "I know you're there. I see what you're doing. I appreciate your talents."

Being seen is the greatest gift one human being can give to another.

So no matter what else we say or do, we need to let the gift giver know that we appreciate the gesture and will truly carry it with us. Down our chosen, meaningful path.

Photo Credit: swisscan

What steps would you add to this list?