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Why Some People Get Promoted (And Others Don’t)

There are two steps to success: 1. Do great things. 2. Tell people.

Success is not a straight line. While patience and great work are essential, they don’t pave the way forward in a logical progression.

Consider how some people who are terrible at their jobs still have them—even get promotions—while others who are great get stuck, plateau, or quit because they’re blocked from advancing. There are many other forces at play. Your achievements don’t line up all orderly and dutifully so you can collect your rewards.

Do Things, Tell People

Good work doesn’t necessarily speak for itself. Somebody has to speak up for it, and it makes the most sense for it to be you. “Do things, tell people” is one pithy formula to success, according to programmer Carl Lange. What’s so often overlooked, of course, is the “tell people” element.

Just as artists and authors hire managers and agents to get their work in front of the right people, you must do this for yourself. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, visibility is the vital key to becoming the kind of person who gets promotions, raises, and access to opportunities.

As he shares in his book, Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t, research confirms that there’s a real disconnect between your performance and your job outcome. The “effect of your accomplishments on those ubiquitous performance evaluations and even on your job tenure and promotion prospects” is much smaller than you’d expect. As annoying and unfair as it can be, perception often becomes reality in the workplace. 

Research confirms that there’s a real disconnect between your performance and your job outcome.

We miss out when we wrongly assume that other people will know about our great work without having to tell them. Believing that pointing to your achievements is being overly self-promotional and that good work should be enough on its own is, ironically, selfish thinking. You’re almost always on your mind—but that goes for everyone else too. Most everyone is busy with their own concerns, problems, and lives.

That means people, including your boss, usually have very little sense of what you’re accomplishing and what you’re doing with your time. If you aren’t proactive about reporting your accomplishments, you’ll never get recognized for your good work. Even great managers who proactively care about your development can have a lot on their plates, and it’s helpful to make relevant information visible for them.

If you’re too busy keeping your head down, nose to the grindstone, it’s harder to see you. Part of managing yourself and your trajectory means making it easier for people and opportunities to find you. Getting coy or bashful about your accomplishments does both yourself and your work a disservice—and may unintentionally make the job of managing you harder.

Assume that people don’t know what you’re working on. Gain some sense of control of how you’re appearing on others’ radars, and to do so, you have to send out a signal.

The Other Half of Your Job

Even smart, talented individuals require corralling to work well together as a team. Having to work with others on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard can be enough to break down an individual’s creativity and productivity. That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical. 

Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures, which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces. In his studio, if you’ve merely just done your work, he says, you’ve only done half of your job:

‘[S]ent does not mean received’ is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps move things along.

What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in knowledge work. Productive people often respond to the frustration of not getting enough done by going into heads-down mode, but disregarding the fact that you work with other people just exacerbates the problem.

Plus, focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more that needs to get done, and that’s a trap. Yes, productivity means you get stuff done—but moving that work forward relies on communicating about what got done.

Send 1 Simple Email

Getting ahead, however you define it, requires people to notice your work. The most direct way to do that is to tell them and be a good advocate for your efforts. Nobody is a mind-reader. The tricky part can be how to tell people so that you feel authentic to who you are. For many people, the thought of being more proactive about sharing accomplishments at work can be daunting and a real turnoff.

At his blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker provides an elegant solution to this problem that takes minimal effort and doesn’t require you to turn into a loudmouth braggart. His recommendation? Every week, send one simple email to your boss.

Take a few minutes on a Friday and jot down a simple description of what you accomplished that week. Your boss will be able to see the progress you’re making and appreciate not being left in the dark wondering whether you’re doing your job.

What makes Eric’s one email idea so powerful is that it turns what could come off as a loaded act of self-promotion into an ordinary, informative update that perpetually builds up your credibility with your boss. While others scrabble to ramp up their lobbying for promotions during performance review-time, you’ll already be top-of-mind, without having to gather and tout your accomplishments in the strained atmosphere of a formal review.

Every Friday is just a suggestion. Feel weird about sending something every week? Do it every two weeks or every month. Deliver something in your boss’s language, at whatever frequency and style she or he will understand.

Alternatively, start keeping a record for yourself. It’s so easy to get swept away with daily grind that you forget what you get done, and progress and achievements slip away from your mind. Capture your accomplishments by keeping a running record. You’ll have information at your fingertips when it comes to review time or when you’re thinking about next steps. This light tracking also helps you keep what you get done at the front of your mind, making it easier to figure out where you want to go and how to get there. 

Here are three more tactics to increase your visibility:

1. Don’t end the week with nothing.

Entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie’s excellent advice is to work on more visible projects. He writes:

Prefer to work on things you can show. Prefer to work where people can see you. Prefer to work on things you can own. Why? Because when your work is in public, you can show it to people. That’s often the best way to demonstrate that you’re capable of doing work like it.

To sum up: “optimize for impact and visibility.” The nature of knowledge work makes it inherently difficult to see the fruits of your labor. Can you choose the more impactful project? Can you work on some aspect that is customer-facing? Can you turn what you learn about management, customer service, or selling, into a presentation or guide?

2. Ask for help and feedback.

People are often afraid to ask for help, for fear that it makes them look less competent. Yet asking for help is part of getting better at your job and shows that you care enough to be proactive about learning and fixing problems.

Managers and co-workers would much prefer you reach out for help and feedback rather than be kept in the dark because you’ve placed yourself in a cone of insecurity. It’s much easier, even instinctive, to go find a corner to mope, brood, or hide in when you’re stuck — but working out loud and asking for input is what increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to climb outside the rut.

Many people — the good ones, anyway — enjoy helping others, and being asked can be flattering to boot. Instead of committing the work sin of radio silence, reach out for support and feedback, and then also ask how you can help others.

Asking for help is part of getting better at your job.

3. Work where people can see you.

Gaining visibility might require going outside your office. Maybe you have a side project, or maybe your work culture isn’t a healthy environment to pursue visibility.

Promoting yourself doesn’t have to be on someone else’s terms. Write a book, start a blog, make a side-project, collaborate with new people outside of work, or speak at panels and conferences. Tell people about what you’ve done, what you’re doing, why it’s important, and how you did it. Give talks, teach others, raise your hand for new projects.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an employee, a boss, or looking for work, when you “do things, tell people,” you open doors because people know where to knock and why. Those people may be customers, potential partners, or powerful leaders who can act as sponsors and mentors. You hold the magic power to make the invisible visible to help yourself and your work create more impact and opportunity.

[This essay was adapted from the e-book “What You Don’t Know About Management.” Download your copy here.]

How about you?

How do you communicate your successes?

Janet Choi

Janet Choi is the Marketing Manager at She writes about motivation, psychology, how people work, and how to communicate like a human being. Lover of ice cream and words. Say hi @lethargarian or on Google+.

Comments (38)
  • Evan Pham

    It boils down to relationship, right? All relationships and expectations in your team and company should be carefully monitored and managed. Take a weekly pulse (or email) to make sure you’re working on the right things. What are your team’s expectations for you? Are you meeting them or exceeding them?

    Moving up the ladder is tough and complex. It’s not as easy as putting your head down and betting on karma to handle things. Hope is not a plan!

    • Janet Choi

      Really great point Evan. Like the rest of life, it’s pretty much all about relationships. I like how you put it: “hope is not a plan!”

  • Ted Hart Karczewski

    This was a great read. I wrote a piece last week about the value of asking for help. I think it’d a great follow-up read to this piece (jumping off point #2), Janet!

    I’d love your thoughts or feedback.

    • Janet Choi

      Hi Ted. I enjoyed your post and glad you told your own story rather than scouring the web for reasons!

  • Max Steffen

    This is a very helpful read for self-employed individuals and small offices too.
    I send out an email 2-3 times a year. You can find the last one under the link below:

    Thank you Janet.

    • Janet Choi

      Thank you Max! That’s great to hear. How’s the reaction been to your emails? Have you tried upping the frequency a notch?

  • Lena Gruber

    Very helpful article, will recommend it to friends.
    Lena’s last comment

  • Soon Min

    A great post which i wish i read earlier on in my career. It’s a common occurrence to hear that phrase of ‘if i do good work, they will see it’. So much so that i saw a colleague stew in bitterness, despite trying to put up an apathetic front.

    For those particularly interested in point #2 and working out loud, there’s another good blogger whose mission is to pursue that. His name is John Stepper and he can be found at

    • Janet Choi

      Hi Soon Min. I enjoy John’s blog as well! Thanks for including it here.

  • Sid

    i would be lying if i said i never had to face the issue being highlighted here. I realized keeping my boss posted was the only option…and i had made a small xls based tracker for this…sharing it here hoping it helps the larger audience…feedback is most welcome. thanks

    • Janet Choi

      Cool! Thanks for sharing Sid!

  • Michael_N

    A good addition to the list would be to take on work that others don’t want to do, yet has great importance to the team’s objectives. I’ve done that a few times over they years and it’s worked great.

    • Janet Choi

      That’s a smart move. There’s always something that people don’t want to do. How do you approach someone to take on their work?

      • Michael_N

        Janet, In my experience I’ve always worked with my manager to get the work reassigned to me by expressing what the benefit would be. I think that’s a better approach than going to the other person directly. They can’t make the decision anyway.

      • Janet Choi

        Really interesting. Thanks for sharing Michael!

      • whatever

        Wait for them to complain or complain for them. There was a CFO at my old job doing awful, awful data entry. He was new to the company and i think didn’t quite understand all the help he had around him. We were small so i think he wanted to give the work up in fear someone would screw it up. Plus i was interested in some other complex stuff he had that i wanted to learn about. One day he was going on and on about this awful data entry he was doing and i simply said ‘oh, how about i start doing that next month’.

        Worst thing and best thing i ever did. Turns out the works was that awful, time consuming, maddening, etc. Lol almost quit my job over it at least 3 times. I had a manager i reported to, our relationship went to crap over it, but we patched that up. My manager of course had things they wanted me to do, but my manager just couldn’t up and say no to this CFO b/c their job was also to make him happy. However, i built trust as a recent graduate. After that he started just giving me everything he could haha. It was awful but great, because my job role had changed so much, i was suddenly doing so much no one knew about there was no way anyone was gonna get rid of me. Best job security ever. I learned a lot too about building trust, managing relationships with upper level management, and taking control of what i do.

  • Bruce Walters

    No matter how talented you are, rest assured there is someone less talented than you in a position above you doing everything possible to keep you from being noticed, or taking credit for your hard work while blaming their blunders on you

    • Janet Choi

      Hopefully this isn’t the case on all work environments!

  • Wilson Usman

    Amen to this post.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks for reading!

  • vincent barr

    Hm, on the one hand, it’s good advice. On the other, I would prefer to work for an organization where performance and promotions are based on outcomes, not visibility (or positioning).

    • Stephen Newton

      The point of this piece is that the organisations for which you’d prefer to work, if they exist at all, are exceedingly rare. So you have to adapt to the real world, while trying to make it better.

    • Rj

      Good luck with that. In the United States, it doesn’t matter what you know and how hard you work. It’s all about who you know!

      • Michael_N

        This has not been the case in my experience. What I have seen is people adopt this attitude and have it affect their work and relationships with peers.

    • Janet Choi

      Thanks Vincent. I believe that even in healthier work environments, visibility matters, but at least it can feel less like a performance.

    • whatever

      yes, but managers aren’t trying to ignore you on purpose. remember, their job is to oversee, they don’t always dig for stuff. They usually respond to what’s shown to them, because again, the manage. People bring things to them to review. So it only makes sense that you need to make yourself visible. Not so much saying you need to be flashy or fake, but you need to know how to adapt to their limited view

  • cptfunkadunk

    Out of sight, out of mind. This is very practical advice

    • Janet Choi


  • Funwithguns11

    Can you explain this to me? I used to work for a boss that had 7 people quit in a 1 year period while working for her. The company’s solution? Promote her.

    • Rj

      It’s the American way. Bullshit your way to the top! It’s all about who you know not what you know. In America, if you can dig a hole, say you are an engineer and you get promoted!

    • whatever

      she probably convinced management she is the future of the company and that those people quit because they were bad seeds and weren’t going to go by the bigger and higher standards required of them. Sometimes that is true, but if that many people are quitting either the company isn’t paying enough for a crappy position to attract the right talent, the culture sucks, or the manager sucks. It’s gotta be one of those 3, that many bad seeds just aren’t possible in my opinion. Also management may have promoted this lady to where she mainly oversees and doesnt work directly with people. Trust me, we’ve got some managers like that, very talented but can’t run a ship of over maybe 3-5 people to save their life. It’s best if a middle manager or two reports to them.

  • Rj

    It’s disturbing that knowledge and education doesn’t seem to matter in the United States. It’s all about whose ass you kiss.

  • Steven Lawson

    Why not lace all your hard work and efforts with a bit of self promotion? It’s the same structure you would use at the interview stage in order to get the job in the first place. Think about it? If you got the job in the first instances, clearer you display such qualities.

  • JG_Omh

    Very nice article! it inspire us to do this little animation. Thanks!

  • llpf

    I like the article! Promotions can be attained with an excellent performances. I mean you are very good both in task and people oriented…. but if you are good in task and
    poor relationship of subordinates, no way I will not promote you!….


    I have met all the expectations worthy of a promotion, but my boss feels threatened by my capacity and leadership strengths; when and how should I leave that establishment and move on?

  • fdsagr

    This is the dumbest shit I ever read. Either employers likes you or they are messing with you and will find any silly excuse to fire you plain and simple. I’m glad that I live in U.S.A a country of law not men where there are progressive laws that protect employees and we have right to form a union. As soon as people open their fucking eyes we need to regulate banking industry and prevent jobs from leaving country. People need to start voting.

  • fdsagr

    This is the dumbest shit I ever read. Put it in the trash where it belongs. I SAY PUT IT IN THE TRASH I WANT TO SEE YOU DO IT.

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