Employee Motivation and Engagement – Telling an Employee They’re not Ready for a Promotion Without Demotivating Them

Help employees fulfill their potential

This is the 4th Q&A of a 6 part series on employee motivation and engagement. You might prefer to start with reading the introduction here.

Sylvie asks;

How can I tell my top performing employee that he is not ready to apply for a team leader position without totally demotivating him? I can’t tell him, “You are not good enough.” I’m thinking I should just encourage him to apply. It would be so much easier.

Here’s my 4-step “tough love” answer

Many leaders dread this part of their job. They don’t want to disappoint an employee who displays an interest in advancing within the company.

Sylvie, I couldn’t agree with you more on your first thought. I mean, no one likes to be told, “You are not good enough” or “You are not ready.” Especially if it is a top performer who has probably received monetary bonuses for his performance. Which is probably the reason why you might find yourself in a position of giving him the “wrong” message by encouraging him to apply for a next level position. Although you mean well by doing this, there are 2 things to think about.

  • If he doesn’t get the job, this employee will be crushed.
  • If he gets the job and FAILS, it will be so much more devastating if he gets demoted. I have seen employees go on sick leave when this happens. You are not doing him or yourself any favors. There is a way to go about it, don’t FREAK OUT!

1. Start Off On a Positive Note and Ask Lots of Questions


It is great to hear you have an interest in growing within the company.

Ask Questions:

Tell me more about why you are interested in this position?

What do you know about the role of a team leader?

How will you contribute to the role?

(It is amazing how many employees have no idea what they are getting themselves into and think that it will not be much different than their current role).

If there is one thing I learned, it’s the power of asking questions.

Keep digging in their thoughts with more questions. If you start by telling him or giving him information based on how you see the situation, he will most probably feel attacked or offended.

By asking a few QUALITY questions based on how he sees the situation, he will discover it for himself through his answers.

Asking questions, gets the other person to reflect on themselves, come up with their conclusions without you having to tell them.

2. Let him Auto-Evaluate Himself

 Evaluate his skills in reference to the required skills and qualifications on the posting.

As you said,

“Never, do you tell him, “You are not good enough.”

  • It is important that the employee feels like you are working together with him. So, from the responses he has given you, get involved in elaborating in detail exactly what will be expected from him.
  • That’s right, dissect every qualifications on that post, describe it to him, tell a story (give him personal examples if you have to) and then ask him to evaluate himself on each one. What’s important here is that he is not general with his answers. Example: “I am a good coach” or “I have good people skills.” Ask him for specific examples.
  • You could even try a humorous approach. Don’t make feel like you are putting him on the spot. So, example, “Mike, I will pretend to be really hard on you, it will be a good practice for an interview and prepare you for what it will be like to be a team leader. This kind of stuff is what the role entails.”

By describing each qualification to him and allowing him to evaluate himself, he will slowly come to the conclusion on his own.

3. Give Feedback

At this point, chances are that employee has come to his conclusion that he is probably not ready yet. If not, it is your turn to give him an evaluation regarding the skills he is lacking and give constructive feedback. I can’t stress the next point enough.

DO NOT list his weaknesses!!

This will only aggravate and demotivate him deeper. Furthermore, if his “weaknesses” have never been addressed, he will be very confused.

  • Instead, refer to a particular skill you feel he needs to improve and give him a concrete example of how he handled a past situation and ask him something like, “what impact do you think it would have as a role of a team leader?His answer will help you to understand better his model of the role of a team leader. You will be in a better position to communicate by using their answers as resources.

Employees sometimes don’t realize that certain behaviors have a bigger impact depending on their role and responsibilities. Before doing this, let me stress another danger zone to avoid.

  • If you have not discussed the example with him before, STAY AWAY from it.

There should not be any surprises here.

Don’t despair. There is another path you go on.

  • Use analogies, stories (a personal story will do). Let him feel, touch almost taste what the responsibility of this role would be for him at the point that he is now. I always enjoy this one. Telling a story is magically powerful in building someone’s trust. Whether it is a personal story or about someone else and even analogies, they create a more intimate, interactive, comfortable space. What’s important is to tell your story with emotion in your own unique style. Let your employee visualize it. Give him time to feel and reflect through your story. He needs to feel that you are actually investing this time in his best interest.
  • Keep asking him quality questions in relation to the story you’re telling. Go beyond yourself. Step outside of your title. Make this about him. What’s really important here is the way you communicate this with him. If you take an authoritative approach, it will most likely not have any positive impact on him. Be yourself. Try to feel what he is feeling. Your thoughts should not be, “what is the professional thing to say?” or “How would so and so handle this?” Be present in the moment, the words are not as important as your actions, character and how you make him feel.

You will be a greater influence on him if you are real.

4. Support him in Getting There

At this point, the employee will come to his own conclusion that he is not ready now. It doesn’t mean that it’s over and things can go back to the way they were. Remember, this employee showed an interest in developing himself. He probably has no freakin’ idea how to get to where he wants to be. If he does not feel he is of value, nothing has been accomplished. So, you need to work with him in providing him tools, opportunities and support to improve to the next level.

It is important to mention and let him believe that you believe he can get there.

  • More importantly tell him WHY you believe he can. Be specific. He will gain so much more trust in you if you give him a specific reason rather than saying, “I believe you can do it” (it really doesn’t mean much).
  • Work out a plan together. Give him an opportunity where he can develop the skills he is lacking. If we stick to our example: Have him coach employees that are not meeting some of the company’s objectives. You must discuss this opportunity (or whatever else you give him) with him. Explain WHY you are offering this to him. Then to further evolve him, give him the responsibility in coming up with a plan, a structure on how and what he will do with it.
  • Give him CLEAR, SIMPLE expectations of his responsibility. Let him decide and put together the whole thing (You may ask to review it before he actually begins).
  • Make sure it is clear to him. Ask him how he would best think it should be set up. This will bring out his strengths and motivate him in meeting the expectations.


Setting up the schedule for each coaching, building a coaching file for each employee. Documenting the progress or difficulty of the employee. What’s important is that you guide him through it (Don’t tell him what to do), without giving him a task to comply to. This will only make him depend on you to make decisions. Meet with him once a month (with the option of coming and see you when he needs), review what was discussed in the previous meeting and set goals for the following month.

  • Please, do not make any promises you can’t keep. Don’t promise him that by doing this, he will get the job the next time around. It will kill his creativity. Now, he will be doing something to get a reward in the end. It should be an opportunity for him with no prize at the end. His goal should be to progress, not to get promoted. Let me explain. You see, if he does this just to get that job, he will not have any control over the goal he has set (because it is not guaranteed). Furthermore, he will limit his creativity. In the example of coaching employees, if his goal is to improve his skills to help others, he will have control over his performance. Obviously, it’s ok that he feels it can improve his chances of getting the job later. It should not be his goal. If he ends up getting the job, it will be the result of his goal.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Please, share any suggestions that I have not mentioned that has had a positive outcome in your role as a leader. Even if your role is not within the workplace, we can all learn and grow from you.

The full Q&A series are:

  1. Introduction
  2. Transition From Employee to Team Leader
  3. Getting Employees to Listen to You
  4. Managing Different Personalities in a Team
  5. Telling an Employee They’re not Ready for a Promotion
  6. Keeping Employees Motivated During Downsizing
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This entry was posted in Cleansing Your Beliefs, Curiosity For Knowledge and tagged , , .

11 Responses to Employee Motivation and Engagement – Telling an Employee They’re not Ready for a Promotion Without Demotivating Them

  1. Maria Garcia says:

    Thsnk you Antonia for your posts.
    I love this post, because you have explained many things, before touching this particular topic.
    Here is my opinion;
    As you pointed out on your earlier post, getting to know your team is, to me one of the most important aspects of being in a leadership position, why? Because a leader is a leader only if he/ she has followers. Secondly as a leader one most accomplish things through the efforts of one team, being productive and achiever by one self is not good enought, when one put in practice the one on one meeting, if the leader is a good listener he will find out what motivates each employee. Not all employees want a career out of their jobs, this doesn’t mean they won’t be good employees, it just means that they are comfortable to just obtaining recognitions, and increase of salary from time to time. Others however, even take un official lead in the group, they come up with ideas etc, its easy to spot this potential leaders, this are the team members one needs to listen very careful, what they are looking for their future career, and what motivates them.
    then at that point is a good idea to start the career plan for future promotions. The sad case is that, as leaders sometimes we don’t f spend the time to get to know our team, and we fail to be honest, sometimes objective with our team members. Asyou mention laying down all the expectations, qualifications for future promotions is a good idea.
    It helps the employee to get ready for future promotions, and it saves lots of headaches and resentments. Giving them the tools and support is also a big part of a leader. I have seen some leaders telling employees it’s is not their job to develop them. I understand that until some degree it is one’s responsibility to develop one self if one wants to succeed in life, but as a leader of a group I take big part in developing my team.
    In my opinion being honest, objective and supporting goes a long way.

    • Antonia says:

      Hi Maria,

      Thanks again for your valuable and powerful input! Especially pointing out that as a leader you need followers. Individuals who follow because they want to based on trust and believing in the leader’s vision, not because they have to. You have really brought out some strong points. Your contribution has been very helpful:)

  2. feroz says:

    I am a top performer being passed on either by playing political games and then by these mind games that you have listed above. Good article but, if the employee ends up leaving then at what cost? the manager’s might get somebody in the same position with little or less knowledge and commitment and spend a good amount of time to build similar expertise.
    I love the company that I work for but not a big fan of the management i work under.

    • Antonia says:

      Hi Feroz

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts from an employee’s perspective!
      Many top performers end up leaving a company for the reason you have mentioned. I agree, at what cost? Employees are a company’s biggest asset and best advocate.

  3. Pingback: Keeping Employees Motivated During Downsizing

  4. meagan says:

    It seems so simple, yet communication is still one of the biggest problems. Leaders who don’t communicate effectively get in the way of their teams effectiveness, productivity and motivation.

    What’s worse is that some leaders don’t see that they need to develop inter-personal skills. They believe that they are fine (because of their title) and just the employees that are not receptive.

    • Antonia says:


      If we were to step outside the work field for a while, isn’t communication also the biggest thing getting in the way of most relationships?

      At the root, you are absolutely right, communication is what gets in way of employee motivation. I have spoken with many leaders and individuals, this one always comes up…actually leaders themselves have voiced communication to be the biggest problem in their organization. As you said, they need to be willing to develop instead of blaming employees.

  5. Agustin says:

    There’s a very important point here, that from my experience should be highlighted:

    Employees, very often have the misconception that getting a promotion is entirely based on their performance in their current role. Of course, it is important and will be taken in consideration, however, they don’t realize that being successful in one position doesn’t mean that they can transfer that same success in a next level position. Therefore, other very important skills will be considered in the decision making.

    As a leader, it is important to be honest and fully give this information to the employee. An employee who is motivated in developing further, will eagerly follow the steps he needs to take to get there. What’s devastating is when he is not told the why and how.

    The strategy in this post on getting him to discover for himself where he is and what he needs to be ready, is actually a great approach. Asking questions is great, but it does take practice. Giving this kind of news is not easy. I would suggest you practice with a colleague you trust. Role playing has helped me in getting feedback from my colleagues.

    The worst thing to do is to sweep this conversation under the rug to avoid it. At some point the dust will turn to mud.

    • Antonia says:

      Hi Agustin,

      Honesty is very important! Thanks for highlighting it!

      Something I noticed, is that most often, dishonesty is provoked by fear. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feeling, we don’t want someone to think badly of us, we don’t want someone to do better than us…

      It comes down to building trust in ourselves first and in others. If we are confident in ourselves, trust ourselves, we would trust our actions, our feelings and would realized that dishonesty is damaging to ourselves and those around us.

  6. Erika says:

    In all my years of experience, I would say that this is probably one of the main reasons, if not the #1 reason, why top performers leave a company!

    In almost all cases, top performers are not being developed and given new challenges. Very often, I have heard and seen leaders trying to keep them where they are because the employee’s stats were their stats ( this not a mafia!). Sadly, if the employee would apply for a higher position, chances are that maybe they had never developed a certain skill to do that job. Now, the employee is obviously bored at what he is doing and is seeking a new challenge….but never has been given the opportunity to exceed. Finally, to be told, you are not qualified, with no explanation and no opportunity to move forward.

    Top performers need to be challenged, they need to be developed…if not you will lose them. If you leave them hanging, if you are not honest and work on bringing out their full potential, the success of the company and your leadership success will soon deteriorate.

    • Antonia says:

      Thanks for bringing up another very important factor, Erika!

      Absolutely, a very high percentage of top performers end up leaving. The thing is they don’t leave because of a company, they leave managers! That’s huge!