You’ve been offered a promotion: but is it a poisoned chalice?

Nov 13, 2020 7 mins

You’ve been offered a promotion: but is it a poisoned chalice?


Gabrielle de Loynes

Rédacteur & Photographe

It has been handed to you on a silver platter all wrapped up in shiny packaging. Surprise! You’re getting a promotion. It’s the real deal, but it has come out of the blue and fallen right into your lap without you even needing to ask for it. It all seems a bit too good to be true. Come to think of it, what if the situation blows up in your face? After the initial euphoria fades, you should take the time to look at this seductive offer in detail, just to make sure it’s as promising as it seems. Unfortunately, it isn’t a good idea to just accept any promotion that comes your way. So how do you recognise whether an offer is not right for you, or one that’s misleading? Professional coach Marie-Laure Deschamp will help you to recognise whether your offer is more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing than a cute little lamb and how to turn down a bad promotion without offending your manager.

You are offered a promotion: observe your reaction

To promote someone is defined as to move them “to a higher rank or more senior job,” according to the Oxford dictionary. So when you are offered a promotion, “it flatters the ego and it feeds our need for recognition,” said Deschamp. “This reaction is perfectly normal. We all need recognition. However, not everyone is going to respond in the same way.”

There are three types of reactions, she said:

  • Joy: often felt by those with good self-esteem. “It’s been in discussion for some time now. Finally my work is being rewarded,” they think. For them, this is obvious recognition of their value.
  • Surprise: which often manifests in those who have impostor syndrome. They don’t feel worthy. They experience doubt and think that someone else would be better suited to this promotion. “I wasn’t expecting it,” they tend to reply.
  • Fear: which sometimes reflects a lack of self-confidence or a feeling of not being up to the task. “But it can also be useful and draw our attention to the fact that there may be a wolf hiding somewhere,” said the coach.

These emotions are a good indicator of the nature of the promotion. What feeling does this prospect evoke in you? What fear does it bring up? These are all signs that should prompt you to be cautious and to make sure that all the lights are green before you accept the offer.

When the promotion is a poisoned chalice

“No matter how much you welcome this promotion, the important thing is to ask the right questions,” said Deschamp. Before you get too excited, take some time to think it through. Is this new role suited to you? Is it coming at the right time? Here’s how to identify promotions that won’t suit you.

1. Promotion to manager: the pseudo gift

“Today, society is rejecting the idea that being a manager is the Holy Grail, as in, if you don’t move up and become a manager, you haven’t been successful in your career,” said Deschamp. “The problem is that not everyone is cut out to manage a team. It even happens that some excellent people, when promoted to managerial positions, can disappoint. Being a manager means dealing with more responsibility and stress. It’s a difficult job. I like to compare a manager to a duck: very dignified on the surface, but paddling hard underwater.”

Before accepting such a promotion, ask yourself these questions: Am I cut out to coach and lead a team? Do I have a strong enough will? Do I really want to do this? Will I be supported and trained in stepping up to the new role?

2. Promotion and moving up: the dangerous gift

“Sometimes, as part of a reorganisation, the company rearranges the organisational chart. If this reorganisation is carried out while the number of employees stays the same, we will see a game of musical chairs, which can lead to people moving up and to promotions at the top,” said Deschamp. In other words, the employee has no choice but to take the job or leave. “We end up in a situation where the manager is trying to ‘sell’ you a job that is not always right for you,” she said. So don’t get carried away. If the new role you’re promised seems very attractive on the surface, but it’s not in your line of work or has nothing to do with the job you’re doing now, you may end up paying the price.

3. Promoted too high: a rotten gift

Imagine that the company wants you out. In a somewhat cynical way, you could be offered a position that is known to be beyond your skill set. You accept the job and after the first mess-up, you’re fired. It was a trap not a gift. “Practically speaking, if you’re clear about your level of expertise and commitment, it shouldn’t come to that,” said Deschamp. “Indeed, if your annual reviews are not positive, if the relationship with your supervisor is a tense one, if you don’t get along with your team, or if you just do your job and that’s it, basically if you check one or all of these boxes: ask yourself why they’ve promoted you. It’s probably because there’s a wolf at the door. And it’s a good bet that the next promotion will be out the door.”

4. Pompous promotion: the empty gift

Ta da! You have been promoted to executive! Wow, it feels a little strange. But when you look at it more closely, there’s not much to it. Other than a rather pompous title, you’re not really gaining anything. On the contrary, once you’re an executive, you’re likely to have to work much longer hours. And the downside is that this overtime will be unpaid. Basically, “this type of promotion satisfies the pursuit of status rather than substance,” says the coach. “The roadmap doesn’t change, but it may change your relationship with others and the team on a daily basis. The title will feed your ego, but if you find out that it’s just hot air, you might even become the laughing stock of your peers.”

5. Dream promotion: the gift that has come too early

You finally get the perfect promotion. It’s the one you’ve been dreaming of for a long time, but it has come at the wrong time. You’re planning to start a family, you have a health issue, you have to help out a sick relative––in short, you’re not in the right headspace for it. There are a thousand reasons why you may be temporarily distracted from a professional goal. “Ask yourself: ‘What is my priority right now?’” said Deschamp. “Is it my family? Is it the recognition of my experience? Is it my career?” Be honest with yourself. The best answer you can give your manager will be a sincere one. If you decide to turn down their proposal, “tell them it’s a difficult choice, because deep down you would like to accept it but it’s not the right time,” said Deschamp.

Now that you know how to spot the traps, you should learn how to avoid them. And when you’re faced with a bad promotion prospect, don’t be fooled. Politely say, “Thank you for the gift,” but “No, thank you”.

6. Knowing how to say no to a promotion

Are you being offered a promotion? Don’t get too excited. Weigh up the pros and cons. Look at what’s underneath the beautiful packaging and don’t fall for an illusion. Perhaps you are afraid that if you turn down this offer, your manager will never consider you for promotion again? That needn’t be the case. It all depends on what you do next. So here is some advice on how to proceed.

  • Thank them

“The first thing to do is to thank your manager. Tell them that you are grateful and that it’s a sign of trust that you really appreciate,” said Deschamp. After all, this promotion has been presented to you as a gift. The least you can do is to express your appreciation. “But just because the promotion flatters you doesn’t mean you have to accept it,” she said. “You don’t want to fall into that trap, especially if you’re being pressured. So the best thing to do is to ask for time to think about it.”

  • Listen to your needs

“Once you’re calm, take a step back and make a list of your needs. Ask yourself what satisfies you in your current situation, especially with regard to your career, the skills you use, but also your work-life balance, your availability to your friends, your family and your relationship. Are there needs that are not being met?”

Take a sheet of paper and jot down the pros and cons of your job. Then add the pros and cons of the job you are being offered. “How do you feel when you look at the positive and negative points?” she said. If you’re hesitating, if you have some doubts, maybe you need to be reassured or need some additional information before you make your decision. “To accept, you have to be 100% on board. Don’t rely on the judgments or opinions of your loved ones or colleagues who may transfer their fears or needs onto you, just be completely honest with yourself,” said Deschamp.

  • Check underneath the packaging

There is the image you have of a promotion and then there’s the reality. Don’t trust the packaging. Look at what’s underneath. “Be very clear-sighted about the ecosystem you’re in. Find out why your managers have made you this offer. Why you and not other people internally,” said Deschamp. To reassure yourself, “you can ask for a meeting with the person who offered you the promotion. It will be an opportunity to dig into the pros and cons that you have identified. Insist on getting clear on the roadmap and what resources you will be given. Will you be able to choose your team? Who will you report to? What will the allocated budget be? Will you have access to training? You have the right to know more before you start.”

  • Verdict: satisfied or your money back!

So, you’ve made your decision? If you decide to turn it down, you have two options:

“If you get on well with your manager, you can thank them and respond naturally that you are not the right person for the job,” said Deschamp. “Explain why you’re turning it down. If it’s an issue of bad timing, tell them that. [Let them know] you’re interested in this type of position, but that you’re afraid of disappointing them (and yourself) because you’re not fully available and able to commit at this time.

‘If you’re uncomfortable, then you can be clever about getting out of this promotion. For example, you can say that you’ve thought it through and that you’re only capable of taking the job under such-and-such terms. It’s such a demanding “yes, but . . .” that they won’t be able to accept your terms.’

All in all, not every promotion may be right for you. A promotion tends to turn everything upside down whether you want it to or not. One thing is for sure, you should not let your fears, or what others think, make the decision for you. Listen to your needs, ask for clarity about the proposal and, if you like the content of the gift, take full advantage of it. You deserve it.

Photo: WTTJ

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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You’ve been offered a promotion: but is it a poisoned chalice?