What to do if your manager is holding you back from being promoted or derailing your upward mobility at a company

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If your boss is holding you back, get specific about their expectations of what you need to do to get promoted.
  • Harrison Monarth is an executive coach and the CEO and founder of Gurumaker, a leadership development service.
  • He says its not uncommon to encounter managers at work who seem disinterested in your career growth or who actively undermine your efforts to get promoted.
  • It's important to enter these conversations with care, loop in HR when necessary, and consider a lateral move across the company if you're struggling to get noticed in your current position.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

You may be doing everything right. You deliver projects on time and under budget, you speak up in group meetings and contribute valuable insights, and your peers describe you as a collaborative partner who is great to work with.

Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker
Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker.

And yet, your career doesn't move an inch. In fact, you get the sense that your manager is actively blocking your path to promotion, putting you off whenever you raise the topic, offering vague scraps of hope with comments like "Keep doing what you're doing" or "I'm working on it," without every following up. Or worse they're offering deceptive assurances that "You're next in line," all while you're watching less competent peers climb past you.

This was the case for one of my coaching clients, a research scientist who had even won a coveted internal innovation award for his contributions to his company's R&D efforts. Expecting to be promoted to the next level, as had been the custom whenever a researcher at the organization won this prestigious honor, my client instead found that his public recognition came without the anticipated career bump. He was stuck, and he couldn't figure out why.

Those who don't validate their employees' contributions or fail to take an active interest in their development and growth may find themselves the hot topic in a talented departing team member's exit interview with HR. 

That said, ambitious employees shouldn't start packing immediately to pursue opportunities elsewhere when they've spent years building a track-record and valuable relationships inside their organization. Even if their manager seems indifferent to their career-growth at best or hostile to their professional advancement in the worst case, here are three workarounds I recommend to my clients.

1. Gently force the conversation

While it's easy to speculate about all the possible reasons for your manager's reluctance to actively support your career development, the more proactive way to get to the bottom of things is to assertively engage your manager in a conversation about career opportunities in the company. 

As I mentioned earlier, it's part of a manager's job to develop talent, so this isn't a conversation that's easily dismissed. 

Go into the conversation with a clear agenda. Ask where you stand and what it will take to reach the next level, with as much specificity as possible, so you can develop an action plan that will position you for a promotion when one opens up.  

Be sure to completely align with your manager's expectations, the capabilities and resources it takes to succeed, how success is measured, and that you'll receive timely, constructive feedback that allows you to make any course corrections in real time. There should be no surprises if everyone sticks to the same plan.

There may, of course, be other factors that influence promotion decisions, sometimes outside of a manager's purview, but push for transparency and regular communication so you can revise your strategy as needed and stay on target. 

Read more: 6 steps to nailing your remote performance review - and successfully setting yourself up for a pay or title bump

2. Build your network and engage with other company stakeholders

Another of my clients, Diana Roland, was a VP in risk management at a global insurance firm, and after having been bypassed for promotion to the enterprise leadership level twice, she tactfully confronted her manager about the seeming impasse in her career. 

Her manager, who'd thus far made little effort to advocate for her at senior management levels, nor provide her with opportunities to gain visibility with key decision makers, presented her with the Catch-22 that she wasn't visible enough, that "no one knows you up there," and that this hindered her upward mobility.

A natural introvert, Diana asked my help to develop her political savvy and build the relationships to make her valuable contributions get noticed at more senior levels. We found ways to increase her face-to-face time with key decision-makers without having to rely on her manager to champion her good work.

After creating a stakeholder map of the organization, we were able to pinpoint the influencers and potential allies that Diana needed to proactively engage with, to raise her profile and better position herself for a role on the enterprise leadership team.

3. Consider a lateral move

When the trajectory of a career path seems blocked by an unsupportive manager, it may make sense to make a move in a lateral direction. While many leaders rise through an organization in their specialty, others have found success by gaining experience in various other functions to build strategic acumen and visibility.

Andi Owen, CEO of furniture maker Herman Miller, built a successful career over 25 years at Gap Inc. by broadening her skill set and constantly opening herself up to new experiences and learning. In an interview with Adam Bryant, she said, "I tried a lot of different things and I moved laterally a lot. Instead of staying in one function, I jumped into new areas. I was really comfortable feeling really stupid for six months to a year and learning a new skill."

The key to success, as Owen said, is to be "comfortable feeling stupid" for a while, as reflecting and learning from new experiences on the job takes time to lead to new capabilities.

Read more: 19 books that'll give you hope and inspiration in uncertain times, recommended by founders, CEOs, and business coaches

My former client, the research scientist, was concerned that his manager saw him as competition, and that promoting him would have made them peers. It would have given him more control over several key projects they'd been working on together, potentially presenting a social threat to his manager's own career ambitions.

However, by being intentional with the professional development conversations on shared expectations, key capabilities, and specific performance feedback, my client led his manager to conclude there was no justifiable reason he shouldn't be promoted. 

In doing so, and presenting a promotion as a win-win situation, you can also help your manager realize that they can fulfill their own role as a developer of talent while you flourish and move up in your career.

Harrison Monarth is the CEO and founder of Gurumaker and author of Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO. An executive coach, he teaches C-suite leaders, senior executives, high potential managers. and other top professionals effective leadership and positive behavior change for professional and organizational success. For more information, visit his website and connect on LinkedIn and Twitter @HarrisonMonarth.

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