my manager keeps dangling a promotion in front of me, but it never happens

A reader writes:

My manager has been talking about promoting me for a pay grade increase for over a year. Every three months, it comes up in conversation, but she says something like “mistakes are getting in the way,” referring to mistakes I am making. I accept full responsibility for these mistakes and don’t expect a promotion.

But what bothers me is that I know for a fact that she promoted someone making those same mistakes. And since she has promoted that person, I continuously out-perform them and they still make the same mistakes.

At this point in time, I believe I will never get promoted. In 6 months, I made one made one mistake and it wiped out my chances for a promotion. I have accepted that.

Other than looking for a new job and continuing to work as hard as I can, is there anything else I can do? I guess I can’t say to my manager, “I know I will never be promoted.”

If I were in your shoes, I’d just smile and nod when your manager talks about this alleged promotion, while meanwhile actively looking for another job . In other words, tune out her charades and promote yourself by leaving for a new job, so that you’re not dependent on her to make it happen.

Now, I should say that it’s possible that you don’t know the full story about your coworker who got promoted. It’s possible that that person was excelling in other ways that you didn’t see, ways that trumped the mistakes you did see.

It’s also possible that that’s not the case at all, and that for some reason your manager is holding you to a higher standard than this other person, or doesn’t really want to promote you and is using your mistakes as a way to justify it. Who knows.

What you do know is that you’re probably not going to get promoted by her, so if you want to move up, finding another job outside this company is going to be the way to do it. So there’s no point in putting much energy into these “whoops, no promotion yet” conversations she holds with you every three month. Smile, nod, respond pleasantly, and put all your focus on moving somewhere else.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. cncx*

    what i find iffy about this whole thing is that if these “mistakes” were serious enough to be impacting a pay raise, why aren’t they part of a more formal reprimand or review process (or maybe it was but not in the original post)? It just seems a little passive aggressive on the part of the boss, I wouldn’t want to work for someone like that, because the person is saying “you’re good enough to work here but not good enough.”

    1. QualityControlFreak*

      I don’t necessarily see that as passive aggressive behavior on the boss’s part. When using objective performance measures, it’s quite possible for an employee to be “good enough to work here” without being good enough for the boss to justify a merit raise.

      Other employee making the same mistake may have made it fewer times, or their performance in other areas was higher. (Or, they were the boss’s nephew. Impossible to know without more data.)


    I would learn from those mistakes and also from the treatment you are receiving. Do you really want to stay there putting all your efforts in to keep getting put on the back shelf? Keep looking for another job and move on.

  3. Tami M*

    The first question that comes to my mind is…who DOESN’T make mistakes??? I seriously doubt that the Manager is immune from making mistakes, so to expect someone to perform 100% error free is unreasonable and unfair. What matters is how much impact the alleged mistakes have on the business, and are there efforts being made to not repeat them?

    The Manager should just be totally honest with the OP and explain why she’s not putting her money where her mouth is. It’s much easier to accept the ‘whats’ when we understand the ‘whys’. If the OP feels ‘safe’ enough to ask her Manager to be ‘real’, it might help to see if in fact she has no hope for advancement.

    Another option the OP has, is to keep a journal of her accomplishment, big & small, and when it comes to review time, she can say, ‘Yes, I did make an error here, but here are some examples of where I prevented a disaster, or did damage control with good results, etc….

    If the OP feels that a meeting would be for naught, I’d continue to do my job to the best of my ability, dust off the resume & cover letter and pave the way for a better future.

    Spending the best years of our lives with an employer that doesn’t appreciate us, is one of the biggest mistakes we could ever make. It stunts our personal AND professional growth, and sucks the joy out each day. (I did and regret it to this day!)

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I agree with Tami M.
      Why bother to keep mentioning the promotion? There is either a promotion available or there isn’t.

      OP, don’t wait until you are entirely PO’ed. Start searching for that new job now. This manager is playing some kind of head game. A manager like this does not know how to properly motive workers.

      Heaven forbid you get that promotion- you will never be allowed to make a mistake ever again. Can you just see it?? “I got you that promotion and THIS is how you thank me???”
      Life is too short for this junk.

      1. Ruffingit*

        +1! This is absolutely a head games situation otherwise the manager would tell the OP how she can fix the situation and get the promotion. Instead, it appears the manager just says there’s a promotion available if only the OP would stop making mistakes. That doesn’t make sense at all to me especially because the OP mentions she’s made one mistake in six months.

        This is Head Games 101. Time to move on.

        1. Jessa*

          Exactly. Head games totally. And it’s nasty games too. Ignore the boss and the “promotion language,” and find another place to be.

    2. Seattle Writer Girl*

      “It’s much easier to accept the ‘whats’ when we understand the ‘whys’.”

      OMG 10000x yes to this! You have perfectly articulated what I have been trying to tell people for years when it comes to communicating business decisions (process changes, layoffs, promotions, salary differentials, etc.).

      Yours is a much simpler way of saying, “If you don’t fill in the blanks for people, they will do it themselves and you might not like what they come up with.”

  4. Marina*

    I think one mistake six months ago is different than ongoing mistakes, though. If the manager is referencing one mistake as the reason for the lack of promotion, it might be worth having a conversation about how you can get past that. Does your manager want to see consistent performance for a certain amount of time? If so, how long? If it’s repeated mistakes, though, then definitely assume you won’t be getting the promotion and start looking elsewhere.

  5. Ruffingit*

    The weird thing here is that the OP mentions that in a span of 6 months, she made one mistake that apparently wiped out her chances of promotion. One mistake in 6 months is a completely ridiculous measure of whether someone is promotable.

    If you lost the company several hundred thousand dollars with your one mistake then OK, promotion denied. If you had a typo in the company newsletter your produce, then come on now!!

    In other words, I’m inclined to believe the OP that this is a carrot dangling situation and Alison’s advice is excellent – just nod and smile and continue to send your resume for every job you can find that is appropriate for you.

    I would love to hear a follow-up from the OP on this when she finally quits. I’m betting the manager will say something like “But, we’ve got that promotion paperwork ready to go, I just have to submit it…” Yeah, right…

    1. Kara*

      Agreed. I found myself wondering how giant the one mistake was, because to my mind, it has to be huge and expensive in order to deny promotion based on it. One mistake in six months? Does no one at this company make mistakes, ever? And I’m the sort to beat herself up over mistakes, but that strikes me as nuts.

      1. Jessa*

        And if the mistake was that huge why is the boss continuing to even MENTION promotion.

  6. Erik*

    I’ve been through the “carrot in front of the donkey” trick several times. The best thing to do is nod, smile, and look elsewhere.

    Sometimes you’re better off voting with your feet.

  7. Elizabeth West*

    This manager is a manipulative idiot. You don’t want a promotion there. It will only come with more crap. What Alison said, totally.

    Off-topic, but I just saw Pacific Rim. Verdict: predictable as hell, but fun. Stay through the end of the credits.

  8. Chris*

    I had a manager like this… it was a low-paying retail stock position, and our numbers were down (in terms of stocking speed). So, she said that if we improved over the next month, we would all get a ten cent raise. Cool. So we DID. We improved by about 30 percent. She never mentioned it again, and when we finally asked her, she said, “well, we don’t have the payroll budget for that. And crash! There went morale. Our numbers got even worse, and stayed bad.

    Don’t promise if you won’t follow through. And don’t give bullshit reasons for things that are quite obvious to sane people

  9. Athlum*

    Wow, I rarely disagree with the prevailing opinion here, but I guess this is one of those times. Every three months for over a year, you ask; you’re told mistakes are getting in the way; and you accept that because you have indeed been making those mistakes? Why don’t you try to improve your own performance for a consistent amount of time before asking again, and then point to that performance improvement as evidence you’re taking your manager’s feedback seriously?

    I think the coworker promotion is a red herring. Maybe the coworker continues to make those mistakes but put a system in place for dealing with them before they got dumped on the manager’s desk; maybe there are extenuating circumstances; or maybe the manager realizes she made a mistake promoting that person, can’t take it back now, and doesn’t want to make the same mistake promoting you. It would not surprise me if the manager initially offered the promotion as an incentive to get you to improve your own performance (but obviously wasn’t clear enough on that point), and since that hasn’t fully worked out yet, you and she are stuck with this difference in understanding of what you’d have to be doing day in/day out to justify the higher pay grade.

    FWIW I’m assuming we’re talking about real mistakes that affect the quality and success of the work, not typos or other meaningless/inconsequential errors (which I doubt would even register, they’re so common, although if “I made one made one mistake” is indicative of your eye to detail…). But I’m kind of floored that you think you’re going to get promoted outside the organization when your work isn’t even up to standard at your current level, much less the higher level you should be succeeding at before asking to be promoted – and your references at your current job may say something similar.

    Good luck to you, whatever you decide to do!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It sounded to me like the manager is the one who keeps bringing up the promotion every three months. If that’s wrong and it’s the OP who keeps bringing it up, then yes, I agree with that it’s time to stop bringing it up and instead focus on improving the quality of the work and then see what happens.

      maybe the manager realizes she made a mistake promoting that person, can’t take it back now, and doesn’t want to make the same mistake promoting you.

      I thought about that too, and that’s definitely possible.

      1. Ruffingit*

        I’m thinking it’s the manager who brings it up as well because the OP says My manager has been talking about promoting me for a pay grade increase for over a year. Every three months, it comes up in conversation….

        Given that she states it’s the manager who has been talking about it, I’m thinking it comes up in conversation because the manager brings it up.

        And in any case, this is a case of bad management in my eyes regardless because if the manager is bringing it up and not discussing exactly how the OP can get that promotion (as in, “We need to see you perform XYZ tasks at Y level for the next 6 months and we’ll revisit this in 6 months) then something is wrong because the manager is not telling the OP how she can get the promotion.

        Same thing applies if it’s the OP who is bringing it up. At that point, the manager needs to say “We’ve discussed this and I’ve told you what you need to do specifically to get the promotion. We can revisit this topic in six months/1 year/whatever time frame is appropriate.”

        So really, in my mind it doesn’t matter if it’s the OP or the manager bringing it up, it’s the manager who needs to be directing the conversation.

        All that said, I think the OP is just being jerked around and needs to find another job ASAP.

        1. Ruffingit*

          Does the manager tell you what these mistakes are exactly that she thinks you’re making? If you’d be comfortable sharing, I think that would help give context here because I find it hard to believe that one mistake in six months is enough to torpedo a promotion. This sounds like such head game crap to me and I’m sorry you have to deal with it.

          1. Anonymous*

            It’s difficult to explain. I am fully aware of what the mistakes are and accept that they can prevent a promotion. As soon as I made the last mistake, I was aware I would not be getting a promotion. I just don’t see the point of her bringing up a promotion every three months. I am also not blind to the fact a co-worker made similar mistakes, was promoted, and I am still out performing her. Typically, people are looking for a promotion. I’m just looking for these excruciating conversation to stop. Which I guess, like Alison said, I need to turn my energy elsewhere.

            1. Ruffingit*

              I understand. It is ridiculous for her to keep bringing up the promotion in this situation. It sounds like she may be doing it as a way of saying “Stop making mistakes and this can be yours.” Thing is, it doesn’t appear you’re making that many mistakes and even if you were, her bringing this up every 3 months is a bit much.

              This is one of those situations where you wish you could say “Listen Manager, you and I both know you’re never going to promote me so let’s cut the crap and move on.” :)

            2. Mister Pickle*

              (I know I’m very late to the conversation here – but I had a manager who played this kind of game with me) The reason your mgr brings up the promotion every 3 months is for purposes of _control_. Think about it: the proverbial carrot dangling in front of the donkey is used to control it: make it go, make it turn left, etc.

              When this happened to me, it took awhile, but eventually I just abandoned all hope of a promotion in that organization, and it felt like Freedom. Eventually I moved to a better job, got the promotion, and left him wailing and gnashing his teeth.

    2. EngineerGirl*

      This could be it. Each promotion means that mistakes have a greater impact if the employee messes up. So the manager could be trying to manage that. However, the manager owes the employee a conversation if this is the case.

    3. Anonymous*

      OP here. I don’t expect to get “promoted” elsewhere. I am not looking for some higher paying job or some job with more responsibility. Just looking for a new one. My understanding is my work is up to par w/ my current level, but not good enough to be promoted.

  10. Brandy*

    Your manager stinks. If I were in your shoes, I’d find a good time to meet with your manager (perhaps after one of these “promises of promotion” comments, but really, I’d do it the next time I complete a big task that I could use for ammo) and ask about it. “[Manager], you’ve talked about promoting me/bumping my paygrade for almost a year now, and I’d like to have a concrete understanding of the requirements for taking this next step.” Ask her for specific goals/targets. Document when you reach them. Then go back and have the “I’ve met your criteria, let’s make this happen” conversation.

    In parallel, I’d begin another job search.

    1. Lillian*

      This is good advice, imho. If you get a specific, written list from your manager about the specific goals and targets you must meet, it would help focus your efforts in the right direction and shows your manager you are serious about improving. And if you meet the specified goals, it will be harder for your manager to justify not giving you the promotion later. Of course she could still come up with other reasons not to give you the promotion but at least you know you did everything you could.

  11. Lillian*

    In addition to what Alison advised, I would also add that it’s important to keep calm and try not let this affect you emotionally and mentally.

    I’ve been in a similar situation before and each meeting with my supervisor was excruciating because I *knew* I was not getting a promotion but she never told me how I could work towards it and just picked on mistakes (some real and some manufactured!). I don’t know what kind of tone the OP’s manager takes at these meetings, but mine was ultra critical of every small thing and I got defensive, hung-up and super stressed-out. In the end I left for a better job and healthier work environment, but not before my self-esteem had been shot to pieces. Don’t let that happen to you!

    1. Ruffingit*

      Such great advice! When you’re working with someone who dangles the carrot and picks on mistakes that may not be relevant, it’s really important to learn to disengage. It’s not about you. It truly is not personal as much as it seems that way so don’t let it get to you. Smile, nod, compose your grocery list in your head as she goes over all your mistakes for the 100th time, nod some more, and move on mentally and then physically as soon as you can.

  12. Done*

    That sounds exactly like my workplace. At my performance review, the Director, Associate Director and my Direct Supervisor all said that I was doing a wonderful job and there was NOTHING to correct. But then five minutes later when I ask about more compensation, all of a sudden the Director cannot “vouch” for me because of two SNAFU’s that happened so close to this review, (one I will take the blame for, the other had NOTHING to do with me, but because I was the one at the front desk, I was automatically included due to how the person in trouble didn’t want to get in trouble alone.) She told me to ask last September about a promotion, then she said “ask me in October,” then November, then December, so forth and so on. I stopped asking about it in January because I didn’t want to seem like a bother but SHE told ME to ask HER. Every single time, it would be “oh..I never met with them yet,” “Oh, about that..yeah…I will let you know as soon as I hear something.” Stellar performance review, but you can’t “vouch” for me to upper management because of my “SNAFUs?” Despite the fact that I was doing a “great job” a month before that SNAFU? Not to mention passing the buck, laziness, unprofessionalism and using “Oh, I don’t remember!” when you are supposed to be responsible for something are all acceptable there. Not to mention, if the other receptionist makes a mistake, I get called in too and it’s kept “general” so the other person “won’t feel like they’re being singled out.” Which is what they should be doing so that person can realize they are messing up! It is unbelievably frustrating and irritating. Everyone is going to be shocked once I hand in my two weeks notice because I am such a “stellar performer.” Well, I sure as hell am not treated like it.

    1. Ruffingit*

      That stinks, definitely leave ASAP! It’s clear you’re never going to get what you need in that environment. UGH.

  13. chikorita*

    “Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door”. As AAM says, it’s time to smile and nod and start job-hunting. I think that whatever you say to your manager, it isn’t going to change her mind.

    1. Diane*

      That’s genius! I’ve also heard: “If you’re constantly fighting your way upstream, ask yourself how many salmon survive spawning.”

  14. Chloe*

    Just to provide some light relief…KATE IS IN LABOUR!!! Cannot believe how excited some people are about this so just wanted to come and be saracastic in a safe place.

    1. Ruffingit*

      LOL! That poor woman. I remember being a kid and thinking it would be so cool to be famous. Now, I can’t even imagine it and I feel badly for people who can’t even go to the store (or have a baby) without millions taking an interest.

    2. Natalie*

      You mean you’re not camping out in front of the hospital while a total stranger gives birth? No way!

  15. VictoriaHR*

    I was in that situation for several years. We had high turnover in my department and I was one of the senior members of the team. But I was still a regular representative and not a specialist. I had several supervisors, and all of them dangled a promotion to specialist in front of me like a carrot. We had one-on-one’s every month, and every month there would be a new thing for me to work on in order to get that specialist position. I’d work on that thing, and the next month there’d be something else. It was exhausting. I agree with Alison that they’re never going to follow through.

    1. Ruffingit*

      How did you finally end the monthly torture? I hope you found a specialist job and were able to tell them (politely of course) that someone else decided to actually give you the specialist job that your current workplace kept promising.

      I can imagine that it was exhausting to have to continually “improve” something different all the time. That really stinks and is very demotivating after awhile.

  16. Dee*

    I can relate to the OP when your boss dangles a promotion in your face and IMO has zero intention of actually following through. A few years ago, I went to my then boss and discussed promoting me from a coordinator level position to manager level position. I asked her if there were any deterrants to me being promoted one pay grade. I asked her were there any performance issues I needed to address that might impede me from promotion. She stated besides budgetary considerations, there were not any, and she would revisit again as she wasn’t ready to move forward.

    I had no problem with this and went on my merry way. I did revisit the topic and brought it up approximately 3 months after the initial conversation. This time my boss snapped, “I’m still not ready to discuss it and don’t ask me about it again because I will get angry.” Alrighty then. I though 3 months was an adequate amount of time and with her response, I decided I needed to seek other job opportunities and promote myself (I had been with the company 2 years at this point).

    I decided to begin job hunting and trust me I was not going to bring up the issue again because as far as I was concerned, it was a moot point. Fast forward to another 3 months during my performance evaluation, my boss states ” I’m supportive of promoting you but I would like you to do 1, 2,3, 4, and 5″. This was perplexing to me since when I previously asked, she said besides budgetary considerations, she was happy with everything I was doing. I politely nodded and smiled and never addressed the new conditions she added to dangle the promotion in my face. I had already decided I needed to seek other options, so I had zero intention of following through on these requests.

    Ultimately, I realized my boss just didn’t want to promote me, but wanted me to play this bait and switch game, that I had no desire to play. I eventually did find another position that was a great promotion for me.

  17. CEMgr*

    OP, I find myself very curious about the once-in-six-months mistake. Would you be willing to share the nature of that mistake with us?

    (BTW, every workplace I’v ever been in is filled with people making objective mistakes right and left. Paradoxically, the bigger and more painful the mistake, the less likely is is to get called out or even noticed. A typo or a misstatement in a meeting is smaller than say, failing to plan the technology roadmap for the next two years and thus provide for budget and staffing that leaves the company 30% short of achieving its $3B revenue goal.)

  18. Anonymous*

    I’m going through exactly the same thing at work, where my manager actually hired someone from outside the company to fill the management position I was after due to very vague mistakes that I’m still not clear on. Meanwhile the new person had no work experience beyond making sandwiches at McDonald’s and every day she manages to screw up in a new and interesting way.

    I’m wondering how the OP (and I) should go about this. How does one address their reason for leaving during interviews without sounding bitter or whiny?

    1. Ruffingit*

      I would think you could address it like this “I had gone as far as I could go at Company X and I’m seeking new opportunities to grow professionally.”

  19. mollsbot*

    RUN, OP, RUN! I had a job just like this. Always a chance of promotion, but they never acted on it.

    If they wanted to give you a promotion, they would have already. If they wanted to give you a promotion but the budget doesn’t allow it, they wouldn’t be giving you the excuses they are giving.

    Good luck!

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