I’m getting great feedback but can’t get more responsibility

A reader writes:

Ahead of my last performance review, I asked if my manager would support me if I asked for a promotion. I respect his evaluation of my work, and it was a genuine question; I made it clear that I would be happy if the answer was “no, you still need to work on ______.”  Happily, my manager said he would support a promotion for me; he said my work had been very strong, that I had grown in my role and that he felt I had earned one.

However, when he took it to upper management, the answer came back that there was no room in the management structure for a promotion for me. Apparently creating a new role would mean the company had to create a similar role in all other departments structured like mine, of which there are four, and there isn’t money for four new junior manager positions.

When he told me this, I asked for a new job title instead. He agreed and said I could use a new job title on my email signature and professional groups such as LinkedIn, but not on any material the company puts out, as it “wasn’t a real promotion.”

In my official performance review, I remembered your advice about how to move up in a company and asked if there was any more work I could take on to prove my abilities and train up. My manager said that I should come up with ideas for additional responsibility on my own and propose them, rather than simply asking him for more work to do.

I came up with three ideas: assisting with our department’s side of a major project (vetoed: my manager wants to keep control of this, which is fair enough); taking managerial responsibility for training new team members; and managing freelancers and temp employees (both vetoed: my manager thought it would be confusing for the employees). Trying to get an idea of what would be useful so I wasn’t just shooting in the dark, I asked him if there were any aspects of his workload that I could help with. He said no and reiterated that ideas for more responsibility needed to come from me, not him.

In my review I was awarded a 5% pay raise, which I was extremely pleased about. However, in the actual review, although I asked for solid benchmarks and guidance, the goals my manager suggested simply read “continue to improve on [job task], [job task] and [job task]” – which in other places he says I excel at.

Last week I learned that one of my colleagues on my level has been doing some work with another department on an interesting project, which would offer some useful experience for me outside my core skills. I asked if they needed more help, and I was told they did, as they had some temps in who were not doing optimal work. I asked my department head whether it was possible for me to contribute to this project, and was told that it was an upper management policy not to have people working across departments too much, as it “might distract employees from our core areas”.

I am really at my wits’ end on how to try to grow in my career and gain more skills at this company. I really like my co-workers, the culture and the content of the work, so I’m not ready to jump ship yet (although I have been looking around for new work). I honestly wouldn’t mind if I was told I needed to improve in my current position, or that I wasn’t ready to move forward, but all the feedback I have gotten is that I am doing a superlative job and that I would do very well with more responsibility. I’ve tried asking if there is anything in my current role my manager is worried about, or if there is any aspect of my work that he thinks might suffer if I took on more work, but he says no.

I just can’t figure out how to get more responsibility and experience when every time I ask for it, it seems to be vetoed for one reason or another. I’d like to acquire more professional skills and move forward, or learn where I need to improve and do that, but I can’t figure out how!

Well, you might not be able to do that in this job, but it’s worth a few additional steps before you conclude that.

First, it’s possible that you just need to aim your sights slightly lower. Okay, you can’t train new employees or supervise temps, but could you write a manual that would help train them to do their jobs? Could you create FAQs for the departments? Are there other needs that you can spot if you look around, things where you think “it would be really helpful if we had __”?  You might try suggesting some things like this and see if it gets you anywhere.

But if not, then you need to have a candid conversation with your manager to find out what’s going on.

Now, ideally, your manager would be working with you to figure out how you can develop within your current position. But he’s excluding himself from that process, presumably because he doesn’t see it as a top priority for him to spend time thinking about. That could indicate that he’s generally swamped with other things, or that he’s someone who doesn’t get the value of retaining great employees by providing them with opportunities to grow, or that he’s honestly not all that concerned about retaining you. Or it could indicate that this role just isn’t conducive to the types of development opportunities you want, and he’s too wimpy to just tell you that directly.

But since he told you to come up with proposals on your own and you did that and got shot down each time, it’s reasonable to go back to him to raise the subject again. This conversation isn’t to force him to help you identify what new responsibilities you can take on; it’s to find out if that’s even possible in your role. Explain that you’ve been trying to take his advice and propose new responsibilities on your own but that all of them have been vetoed so far, and then say this: “I heard you when you said I should propose these on my own, but since it sounds like none of them have been what you were envisioning, I hoped we could talk about what types of things would work on your end. I don’t want to keep bothering you with requests that you need to turn down.”

If he’s still unwilling to make suggestions or do any thinking about this himself, then say this: “Realistically, do you think there’s anything I could propose that will work? If the reality is that my current role just isn’t one that allows for that, I’m okay with hearing that.”

If you just get “grumble grumble figure it out yourself,” then I’d conclude that you’re probably not going to be taking on many new responsibilities in this position. So then you need to figure out if you want to stay in this position knowing that, or if that makes you want to look for a different job somewhere else.

While it’s true that good managers help their best people grow, it’s also true that not every situation allows for that — either because of a bad manager, or because of the nature of the job, or because there are simply limited advancement opportunities at that employer. Figure out if that’s what you’re dealing with, and then proceed accordingly.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Jeff*

    The oddest thing to me about this situation is that the manager seems to be willing to do almost nothing to help figure out other projects. I can understand a manager getting busy, but even when you’ve shown that you’re coming up with your own ideas, they all get shot down, and then when asking for guidance on areas to develop new ideas still getting the response that you have to figure it out on your own? That seems unreasonable and unhelpful. Maybe this manager really wants the OP to take the initiative and come up with new ideas independently, but if hes so swamped, can’t he at least say, “well, we’re really struggling in Area X…” or “Maybe you can help find a way to streamline procedure Y…” Especially if he’s busy, I’m sure he has a lot of things to look at that could be improved. I don’t know, his approach seems unnecessarily obstructive to me.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think there’s a strong possibility that he’s worried that whatever she comes up with will take additional time from him — for overseeing it, getting her started on it, checking in on it, etc. But he’s not saying that outright because he’s not a fantastic communicator and/or manager. But if that’s right, something that aims a little lower (a department FAQ, for instance) could be easier to get okayed.

    2. Jamie*

      Obstructive is the word that came to mind for me, too.

      Alison was right about aiming a little lower, the training materials and FAQ ideas are great, but I’d think a good manager wouldn’t just veto ideas but could counter with some suggestions like the training material.

      You can’t always say yes, but saying no consistently with no input as to what would be helpful seems like a sure fire way to get people to stop asking.

      I applaud the OP’s attitude though. Both the willingness to hear feedback and the desire to expand her job. If your current employer doesn’t appreciate that, someone will.

    3. anon*

      This situation doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been in a similar position, but luckily I was able to get a few new projects from another department which greatly increased my job satisfaction… at least temporarily.

      I think part of the problem is that we tend to look at managers as teachers who will look out for your best interest, “grade” you, and mentor you, but the reality is often much different than that. I think a lot of managers spend zero time thinking about how to foster your career growth, even when you directly ask them for help.

      I wish the OP the best of luck. You seem like a real go-getter. The reality might be that your company doesn’t have room for growth at this time, and that your boss doesn’t want to crush your hopes, but isn’t being upfront with you about it either.

  2. Joey*

    Offering to take responsibilities away from your boss is generally not going to get you very far. To go beyond your day do day duties look for ways to improve your core area like creating efficiencies. In other words every time you do something at work ask yourself why we do this and is there a better way. Pick the low hanging fruit type stuff first- that is easily implemented and doesn’t require a lot of resources. It’s these types of things your boss is probably looking for.

  3. KayDay*

    It’s sounds like it’s time to dust of the ol’ resume. If you aren’t able to move up, it’s time to move on. Depending on the size of your company, you may be able to transfer to another business unit/department, or you may have to look elsewhere.

  4. Lexy*

    In my last job, I developed training materials and best practices for our relatively new invoicing system. Many people used it (not just accountants) and there wasn’t a lot of uniformity across the company.

    I think this is the type of project Alison is talking about. It shows you can take something from soup-to-nuts without creating a bunch of extra work for your manager. In the above example my manager wasn’t involved at all and the director I reported to only looked it over briefly before allowing me to schedule live trainings with staff at my level.

    So, yeah! don’t give up yet, maybe just change your idea of “additional responsibilities”.

  5. Sophie*

    I’m so glad this question was asked! I’m about to have the same conversation with my boss, and I am not too confident that he will give me a promotion or a raise, despite great performance reviews and increased responsibility. Working on my resume as well. Can’t wait to read all the comments feedback!

  6. Eric*

    Patience seems to be key. How many years have you been there and in the same position? After 4 years at my old job, I started bucking for more responsibilities, promotion, and raise until it became obvious I wasn’t got to get it and left.

  7. OP*


    Thank you for the advice! I’m very much looking forward to seeing what readers have to say. I’m a little hesitant to address it directly just yet, but I like the idea of proposing smaller ideas rather than jumping to what I’d ideally like to be working on. The FAQ/training material is an excellent idea.

    Something I realised I possibly should have mentioned in my email is that until last month, there’s been a hiring freeze on at my company since 2009. I’ve been working here for four and a half years, and a lot of that time was “hunkering down” during the downturn and doing the best we could with just barely enough staff.

    Our being able to hire people again, along with the fact that I’ve been in the same job for a relatively long time in my industry, is what drove me to start looking for a way to move up. However, I could see that maybe my manager is still in “siege mentality” and that’s why he’s having so much trouble pointing me in the right direction for a change in my role.

  8. moe*

    I get the sense there may be a strong cultural/hierarchy problem here–from the apparent policy on needing to have a similar job in the other departments, to the resistance to your taking on some of his workload which (to me at least) sounds fairly rooted in “appearances.” And 4.5 years, especially during a hiring freeze, is probably not enough time to learn how the path to management actually works in practice at this place.

    Have you sought out conversations with other managers about how they were able to advance? This may just be a tricky culture to advance, and your manager doesn’t sound interested or perhaps able to give you that roadmap.

  9. jpm*

    This sounds a lot like my situation. i have been in my role for almost 3 years, did this job at another shop for 20 months before, (@ML but let go when BofA took over). I have had great reviews at the last 3 year end reviews. i had finished my MBA a year ago and asked then about a promotion and taking on more responsibilities. i was told by my manager that we would meet again in a month after his vacation to discuss. this meeting was pushed back 7 weeks after the initial month long wait. At that meeting, was told to continue do what i am doing but just do more of it. asked for specifics but didn’t get any. At that performance review, i was given a very strong rating and a nice raise, but no promotion. Was told that promotions only happen once a year and they the process for them starts up in october of next year. i just think that there is no room to grow in my current role. i have have 3 internal interviews for next level up but those didn’t work out. (2 said they weren’t going to create the new position, anotehr decided to drop the level down) Is it time to jump ship to another firm? was I unreasonable to expect to be promoted after finishing my mba and having 2.5 years in my current role at my current firm? any thoughts?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It sounds like you’re basing your thinking on what should be, rather than what is. It’s not necessarily unreasonable to expect that (although 2.5 years isn’t that long), but it’s not happening there, so it looks like if you want to move up, you’ll need to leave to do it.

      1. jpm*

        i thought i should have been promoted because i looked at the promotion criteria and i felt i met everything. my manager said i met everything except building more networks internally. we only work with 15 people and they all know me really well. go figure. i did have a two page list of accomplishments when i went into my last review, including leading major projects with tech and operations, training the 1-2 interns we had and creating procedural manuals for the technology we use. i think it is silly to wait only til the start of the new year to promote people. shouldn’t it be based on when someone is ready to move up?

  10. Chocolate Teapot*

    This all sounds very familiar, including the having-ideas-squashed and the use-your-initiative.

    The other thing could be that your manager finds you so invaluable that he doesn’t want you to go. I think Alison has brought this issue up before?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that’s actually the explanation less often than people think — after all, that’s a perfect way to drive a good employee away.

  11. ChristineH*

    Is it possible that your manager is afraid you might be trying to take over his position? I know that this isn’t your intention, but I wonder if some managers hesitate to help employees to grow because of such (usually unfounded) fears.

    1. Sophie*

      What could be done or said in a situation like that? I’m a little afraid of this myself, because the only career path I can see for me right now is to take over my manager’s job…most of which I am doing anyway.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        You can’t force a job to be open. If there’s no way forward in your current company and you want to move up, it might be that you need to look outside your employer.

  12. Steve G*

    I would leave. I worked at one fortune 500 and one other well-paying company that worked this way. Everything was so structured, and they already had an employee that handled seemingly every task you could think of. Everytime you’d want to go above and beyond, you’d inadvertently end up stepping on someone (you’ve never heard of)’s feet, because THEY did that task that you considered above and beyond. I found that the companies exxagerated the qualifications needed to do many tasks.

    At one of these places, I did get “more responsibility.” Basically I took over approval process to better pricing. I got the form, pulled the customers sales, said ye or ne, and notified the relevant parties. I was underwhelmed and in a way insulted thinking “is something this easy what they think I am capable of?”

  13. Adam*

    Reading this over it sounds to me like it may just be time for OP to move on. She got a nice raise so clearly her company values her work, but indeed sometimes there’s only so much they can do for you. Of course it’s in their best interest to do what they can to retain good staff, but if they just dont’t have a role for your expanding abilities to fill (or aren’t receptive to your suggestions for what else you can do whatever the reason) then you may just be stuck. So you can wait for an opportunity to open up or go find your next one yourself. No shame in leaving because you want more out of work.

  14. Charles*

    As a trainer I will weigh in with my opinion as I am seeing it a bit differently (I may be right; I may be wrong – But I am seeing this differently). You see, OP, this quote right here flagged your problem for me:

    ” . . . responsibility for training new team members;”

    You are NOT a trainer, are you? You really have no interest in training, do you? Yet it was one of your suggestions Why?

    I believe the same is true for your other suggestions.

    What seems clear to me is that what you do have an interest in is doing something different from what you are doing now (or with a “new title”, being recognized for doing something different). But, you have no idea as to what you really want to do.

    Ask yourself honestly – what do you want to be involved in? Be specific when answering – “something interesting” is not a answer.

    (BTW, training is not a “move up,” I consider training to NOT be a management position; it should be seen more of a lateral move than a move up to management – rant over)

    What I think your boss is trying to do when he suggests that you come up with ideas is to see what interests you – so far, your ideas seem to be anything but what I am doing now as they are all over the place (project management, training employees, supervising temps – three very different and unrelated responsibilities!)

    Ask yourself if this isn’t an accurate assessment? (again, I could be wrong – this is just my take on this) Then ask yourself, what it is that you really want to do and go with that.

    1. rlm*

      Good points! I am actually in this exact position. Because I have been an administrative/executive/office assistant for over 10 years, I know I want to move out of that line of work, I just don’t know what I want to do! Anything but being an administrative assistant! And that may be what OP is running into also.

      But it’s a tough question to answer for me because I am involved in many different types of work (accounting, sales, marketing, customer service), yet I have no idea what I really want to do.

      I am looking for other work because I am stuck in this position, plus the head boss is a royal procrastinating jerk. OP might want to do the same if he/she keeps hitting a brick wall.

    2. Anonymous*

      The OP’s idea doesn’t sound all over the place to me. I think it depends on the environment you work in. It sounds like she was trying to take on some of the bosses duties, meaning all of those things currently fall under one person’s position. In fact she could be describing my current role. Also I know as a trainer you have a difference perspective, but also consider that at many jobs training new employees is done by whoever is available/assigned to do it rather than bringing in a trainer.

      1. Steve G*

        Great point of view! Didn’t think of that until you wrote it.

        This may come off as snooty (as most of my ideas do), but in many of the jobs I’ve had, the ideas you need to move up include:
        1) increasing customer contact
        2) increasing revenue
        3) increasing margins on existing sales

        The stuff like writing training material, training new staff members, making a report that shows xyz…..all this stuff is great, but it only gets you ahead if you are at the entry level, or somewhere at the lower end of the totem pole. Or I’ve seen an Admin Asst do these things to earn her full bonus (which is hard). But to move ahead, this person needs much more aggressive ideas.

        At my current job, for example, I called maybe 20 customers to upsell them into more energy market programs. Got 50% acceptance, so did sales even though I’m an Analyst. I think the poster’s boss wants THOSE types of ideas. After all, a further raise can be given if revenue is increased.

  15. jj*

    “… I asked for a new job title instead. He agreed and said I could use a new job title on my email signature and professional groups such as LinkedIn, but not on any material the company puts out, as it “wasn’t a real promotion.””

    Was anyone else struck by this? If you can’t use a title officially, that is, it isn’t on the books with HR as a part of your record, what is the use of a new title? Did the manager just agree in order to placate the OP, without getting HR on board? I’d be hesitant to use that title even in the ways the manager okayed, because it doesn’t sound like it would be confirmed if questioned, especially in a structured organization like the one described.

    Re finding new responsibilities, I wonder if perhaps the manager just can’t think of any suggestions for the OP. Not everyone is good at that kind of professional development, for themselves or others. Maybe his mind blanks out, and he really does want the OP to help him out by making that perfect suggestion. (Rather like the kids who want dinner, veto every suggested menu, but won’t tell you what they want to eat.)

    I would look around to see if you can identify places where something is regularly slipping through the cracks. (Dropped balls. Pain points. Any more clichés you can think of?) Those are areas that could use improvement, or just another set of hands, and where you can make a real difference pretty quickly. Just be diplomatic when you approach people about it.

    1. Anon.*

      My first thoughts regarding the new ‘unofficial’ title that could be used on office signiture and Linkedin is a. won’t that cause trouble/be confusing to other employees/management/vendors etc? Especially other employees! And what happens if the boss leaves the company? Representing yourself on Linkedin and/or resume as a ‘insert title here’ when you are not said title will just cause you grief when background checks are done – and make you look less than honest.

  16. Ellen M.*

    It sounds like limited advancement opportunities. Or the manager is not being entirely truthful about supporting the OP for a promotion.

  17. NicoleW*

    I’ve been there, OP! I know how frustrating it is to be told you are awesome, there’s nothing to improve, but we can’t promote you.
    It sounds like there isn’t room to grow in your department with a real promotion. As others have pointed out, there may be things you can do to increase your responsibility and how you are viewed by others. I believe AAM has done a feature on appearing more authoritative at work? This might be a helpful step for you, especially if you can’t find other ways to increase your responsibility.
    To try to come up with more responsibilities, explore the following questions. What are your special skills? What do you excel at in your current role? What do you want to do more of? These are likely different than just taking on some of your manager’s tasks.

  18. Lili*

    I am not sure what to think. My Manager telling me how great I am doing and how great my future looks with the company and when a new position opens up I am encouraged to apply for it…here comes the but! It’s always passed on to someone else who is not as recognized as I am within the department. Its kind of embarassing because everyone assumes I will get it but I don’t. I am so very confused. I feel my boss is getting my hopes up just to turm me down for these positions. I also do not get any reasons as to why I didn’t get it. I hear how I should not be dicouraged and how there will be many opportunities coming up very soon and to stay positive.

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