Four ways to ask for a promotion with vastly different results

ask for a promotion

Ask for a promotion if you aren’t offered one

You don’t ask for a promotion because you want your boss to offer it to you. Getting offered a promotion feels great. She does the hard thinking. You don’t have to go to her, because she comes to you. And you are now in the driver’s seat. No wonder so many people wait for this to happen.

But waiting requires patience, and who in our world has time for patience? (You know I’m joking, right?). Plus your boss may never make the offer. She may not know you want a promotion. Or she thinks the perfect time for it is next year, after you’ve completed that massive project everyone is talking about. Or she has 99 other things on her mind, including things you’ve asked her for. Plus, she is the kind of person who asks for what she wants. You haven’t asked for a promotion, so you must not really want it.

That brings us to the second method for getting a promotion: asking for it. I call this a request.

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Not all requests are created equal. Some are likely to get you what you want. Others will give you things you don’t want and never expected. Occasionally this will turn out in a good way. More often, as my late grandmother would say, not so much!

The illustration above shows four very different results of asking for a promotion. I’ll walk you through them in a moment. But first, we need to introduce an equation that will make your life better.

Remember this equation when you ask for a promotion

Your goal isn’t to ask for a promotion, but to get one. You want a promise. And a request can be many things, but one thing it is not is a promise. That requires something more. Which leads us to our equation:

Request + Acceptance = Promise

This isn’t calculus, but the math matters. To get a promise of a promotion, asking isn’t enough. You need your boss to accept the request. She needs to say Yes.

I can hear you saying, “This is so simple.” It is.

I can imagine you thinking, “Amiel, you are insulting my intelligence.” I am.

And I know what you want to remind me. That a lot more than Yes can happen between the request for promotion and the promise. There can be negotiation, clarifying questions, long pauses to think, counteroffers, checking in with other stakeholders, and various power moves like the single raised eyebrow, which is hard to do but brutally effective.

But here’s the thing. Every single day, smart and savvy people forget this equation—or act as though it doesn’t exist. Either they fail to make the request or they forget to create a request that their boss can accept.

So, the first thing is to make the request—to ask for a promotion. You have to speak. Second, you need to make an effective request. You could be introverted or extraverted. You could be soft-spoken or carry an oomph in your voice. In every case, it helps to speak clearly. This means being two things:

  1. Clear about what kind of promotion you want
  2. Specific about when you want it

I call these the What and the When.

We all know there is much more to asking for a promotion than the What and the When. There is thinking carefully about what work you actually want to do and what title you want to carry, assessing your capacity, framing the request (the Why), timing it (when your boss is in good spirits), identifying your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), considering who else will be impacted if you’re successful, and preparing for the conversation. It’s far more complex than what and when.

However, I’ve been consulting since 1993, and consultants are required to use four-quadrant diagrams. So, for, now we’ll stick with two variables: the What and the When.

Three ineffective ways to ask for a promotion

The illustration above shows the four possible scenarios that can result when you ask for a promotion. Three of these you generally want to avoid:

  • If you’re unclear about what you want, yet specific about when you want it (e.g. “I’d like to take on a larger scope”), then you get more responsibility and headache but with the same title and no more pay. Yuck.
  • If you’re clear about what you want, yet vague about when you want it, then you stay in the same position until the day you either retire or die. Important side note: some people want this to be the same day, but I recommend against that. Die or retire, but for heaven’s sake, don’t do them at the same time.
  • If you’re unclear about what you want and vague about when you want it, your boss gets frustrated with your entire personality and sends you to assertiveness training. Which is fine, except if the instructor doesn’t teach you the importance of What and When. If this happens, the next time you ask for a promotion, you’ll utter the same confusing nonsense but with a clear, rich, powerful voice.

Want a bigger, better job? Ask for a promotion like this

By now you’ve mastered the math of the promotion—or at least peeked at the above illustration—so the fourth scenario is easy.

You are clear about what you want and specific about when you want it.

Plus you’re boss has the desire, status, and budget to do her part.

The result? You get promoted to a bigger, better job.

This is what you want. This is what you longed for. So, yes, if you want to send me a Thank You note, I will read it and smile.

There is one caveat to all this: I can’t guarantee that getting the promotion will make you any happier. You might hate the new job. You might distrust the new boss. You might feel overwhelmed by all the new money you’re making (OK, probably not this, unless it’s a lot of money). But my diagram doesn’t include the word “happy,” so for now, we’ll assume that this concept doesn’t exist.

How you ask for a promotion is relevant to everything you want in life

Things happen in the world when people make commitments to each other. When they make promises.

So if you want people to promise you things that you want, remember these points:

  • A promise starts with either a request or an offer. If there’s no request or offer, there’s no promise—and you don’t get what you want.
  • If nobody is offering you what you want, consider what request you could make (and to whom—which is a topic for another day)
  • Your request doesn’t automatically lead to a promise. The other person needs to say Yes.
  • The other person is more likely to say Yes if your request is effective.
  • An effective request includes, among other elements, a clear What and specific When

What request—for a promotion or anything else—will you be making today?