Can’t Promote Your People?  Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior manager in a large government agency that has been decimated and paralyzed by our current administration. Don’t worry, I am not going to get political.  But I do need help, because growth and opportunity have ground to a standstill in our organization and I have a whole team of mission-driven, smart, passionate folks who really should be promoted.  

We old timers are used to rolling with constant change because our senior leadership can and often does change every four years. But this is the first time things have been this dire. 

What do I do when I have four people who should be promoted to their next position and should be getting a bump in salary, but I have an available position and budget for only one?  I am afraid if I move one person, the rest will be so mad that they will quit and then I really won’t be able to get anything done. I am at a loss as to how to keep people motivated under these circumstances.

Swimming Upstream

Dear Swimming Upstream,

It sounds as if you are fighting the good fight in an impossible situation.  I’ve worked with a lot of folks in government, so I’ve had a front row seat to the four-year merry go round.  It can be hard to get anything done under the best of circumstances, which these clearly are not.

You can’t be the only leader dealing with this situation—in fact, it must be situation normal for everyone in management.  Your first stop is probably to discuss this with your boss, who I hope has some ideas for you.  Perhaps there are some underutilized development opportunities for the whole team that can be creatively deployed.  It is probably worth doing some sleuthing—you never know what possibilities have been forgotten because their champion left with the last administration.  Check the fine print!

The silver lining of this situation is that the cause of the standstill is clear to all.  In regular for-profit organizations, when this kind of thing happens it can be hard to know who to blame—and the mission is often uninspiring. Things like hiring freezes, travel bans, and pay cuts happen all the time in almost all organizations. In smaller, flatter organizations it is almost impossible to use promotion and large salary bumps as a motivator, so management must find other ways to keep people engaged.

Your team must know what is going on. They can’t be expecting you to pull a rabbit out of a hat.  I am always a big fan of telling the truth as you see it so they know what to expect.  If you can promote one person, you will want to be clear about what criteria you are using to make the choice.  The least fraught would be to promote the person with the most longevity, but we know that isn’t always how it works based on availability of openings and skill sets.  It is certainly everyone’s prerogative to quit—but if, as you said, they are mission driven, you might encourage them to hang on for a few more years when there’ll be an opportunity for the situation to turn around. It is easy to lose steam when the powers that be are not on your side, but that could change relatively quickly.  Keep the focus on what you can do under the circumstances and the differences you can make.

Courage, Swimming Upstream. Remember that everyone in your agency is in this together, and you can use the awareness of being the underdog to fire up everyone’s sense of purpose.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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