A hungry, driven employee is every manager’s dream. But when you have a direct report whose ambition and desire are greater than his ability or experience, managing expectations isn’t easy. How should you handle someone who is constantly asking for a promotion, raise, or responsibility for which they aren’t yet ready? What’s the best way to help them set realistic goals? And how can you do it without discouraging them?
What the Experts Say
As a manager, your goal is to keep your team engaged, productive, motivated, and happy. That’s easier said than done — particularly when you’re dealing with a colleague constantly angling for more money and advancement opportunities. To manage an overeager employee, you need to have “a series of conversations where you ask a lot of questions,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, social psychologist and author of No One Understands You and What To Do About It. You have to figure out what “goals your employee has set for himself and why he wants what he wants,” she says. Then you must “paint a picture of what needs to happen” before those things can become reality, says Joseph Weintraub, professor at Babson College and coauthor of The Coaching Manager. “You want this person to feel that you have their best interest in mind and you want them to succeed.” Here’s how to do that.
When it comes to setting employees’ expectations, “more information is always better,” says Halvorson. You should have frequent, “explicit conversations about reasonable promotion trajectories and pay” with your team. Be up front about organizational constraints. Explain that you have a limited budget and only so much leeway when it comes to titles. These discussions should take place in both one-on-one and group settings so that “people understand you’re not feeding them a line; you’re giving everyone the same lay of the land.” It’s important to talk openly about how career paths can diverge. Sharing your personal professional experiences can be helpful. “Sometimes a promotion doesn’t always mean vertical progression. It can be horizontal as well,” says Weintraub.
Validate (with a caveat)
When a bright, talented employee is eager to move up but isn’t quite equipped to do so, one of the most powerful things you can say is, “‘I believe in you’ — if you genuinely mean it, of course,” Weintraub says. “Employees are always wondering, How valued am I?” and your vote of confidence is critical. But “after you acknowledge the contributions the person has made,” you must quickly get to the bad news. “Say, ‘You’re not ready today. This next level has a different set of criteria and skills. But let’s talk about how you’re going to get there.’” Your tone and demeanor should be positive, even if there is initial frustration and disappointment on the receiving end because you’re not telling the employee what they want to hear. If they’re motivated enough, your response will “become fuel for them to tackle the next challenge,” says Halvorson. “The message you want your employee to take away is, ‘I can do this.’”
The next step is coaching. Help your employee understand what knowledge, skills, and experience they need to learn before a promotion or raise is possible — and let them know you’re there to help them succeed, says Halvorson. “Your message is, ‘If you have your eye on that job, here’s exactly what you need to do.’” If, say, your reservations stem from the fact that your colleague has spent little time dealing with other functional areas, discuss ways they can do more of it. You might suggest they work on a cross-functional project, volunteer to do a short stint in another division, or join a company-wide committee that requires interacting with people in other parts of the organization. Halvorson recommends that you “suggest a lot of different things” and allow the employee to choose which they want to pursue. “When people feel they have a choice, they are more effective and more engaged,” she explains. Be sure to “follow up” with them regularly on their progress, adds Weintraub. “Set a specific time, a month or so out, so that they know you are serious about helping.”
As you’re coaching, try to get a handle on what motivates this employee. “It’s helpful for you to learn what makes this person tick,” says Halvorson. Ask open-ended questions like “What are you looking for?” “What’s important to you?” “What do you see yourself doing a year from now that you’re not currently doing?” and “What does success look like for you?” The answers to these questions will “open your eyes to other ways you can help” the employee, she says. “If the person wants recognition, status, more autonomy, or more control, there are ways you can provide those things without giving them a promotion or raise.” The answers also will help you “create stretch goals that take employees out of their comfort zones,” says Weintraub. Perhaps this employee might benefit from a short-term foreign posting, taking on a high-profile client, or being given a virtual team to manage. In this case, you might say, “Realistically, you’re a couple of years away from [your goal]. But here’s another challenge you could be ready for sooner.”
Beware devoting too much attention to ambitious — and vocal — employees or caving into their demands too soon. If you only grease the squeaky wheel, you’ll undermine your credibility and stoke resentment from the rest of your team — particularly from workers who are just as talented but not as demanding, according to Halvorson. “Fairness is huge,” she says. Weintraub concurs. “You don’t want to reward the wrong behaviors by succumbing to the person who’s the loudest,” he says. “If you promote someone before he’s ready, you’re not doing that person, or your organization, any favors.”
Candor is not easy. And yet “feedback is unambiguously a manager’s job,” says Halvorson. “You need to tell the truth and be strategic in how you deliver it.” Weintraub agrees. When the employee who’s asking for a promotion “has inherent weaknesses,” or if you aren’t confident they’ll ever be in the running for a particular job, you must avoid false promises and hollow praise, and instead “have the courage to be honest” and offer “a reality check,” he says. Be frank that the person lacks certain leadership qualities, for example. “Say something like, ‘The career move you’re talking about is not the one I see for you. But here’s one I do see for you, and let’s talk about how you can get there.’” Remember, however, that people can change. “You don’t have a crystal ball,” Weintraub says, so don’t be overly negative.
Set clearer expectations when you hire
Of course, the best way to manage your direct reports’ expectations is preemptively. “You need to make sure your new hires know how one succeeds at your organization and have realistic goals before signing on,” says Weintraub. “There shouldn’t be any surprises.” Halvorson concurs. “Be proactive.” At the very least, spell out your company’s development plan and promotion structure during the onboarding process. “This helps you avoid problems down the road,” she says. “Don’t wait for someone to ask, ‘Why didn’t I get promoted?’”
Principles to Remember
- Talk openly and publicly about your company’s promotion structure to increase the sense of fairness among your team members
- Encourage and validate your employee by acknowledging the contributions they’ve made
- Coach your employee to help them acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience they need to advance
- Be dishonest. If you don’t have confidence that the employee will ever be in the running for a particular job, have the courage to tell the truth.
- Reward the wrong behaviors. Promoting your squeakiest wheel is a surefire way to undermine your credibility.
- Overlook the importance of setting expectations during the hiring process. Explain to prospective employees how to succeed in your organization.
Case Study #1: Use “radical candor” and look for ways to challenge your employee
Suresh Khanna, CRO of AdRoll, the online advertising placement company based in San Francisco, says that many of his employees have asked for promotions before they were ready.
A few years ago, he hired a new sales rep, we’ll call him Tom, who was a “great cultural fit and put up solid — but not the best — numbers.” And yet in spite of this average performance, Suresh recalls, “it felt like in every one-on-one meeting, he was asking for a raise, a promotion, or talking about his desire to get into management.”
Finally, when Tom asked to be appointed team leader, Suresh decided to use “micro and macro strategies” to deal with the situation. On the micro level, he validated Tom’s “importance to the company” and the team. “I told him he had done good work here and I was really proud of him,” he explains. Then Suresh switched to “radical candor,” telling Tom he saw “a skills gap. I said, ‘The quality of your work is not what I need to see to be at that level. But let’s solve this together. I will be rooting for you. And when the time comes and you’re ready, I will be your biggest advocate.’”
Suresh explained that he felt Tom needed to work on his listening and problem-solving skills — important criteria for a coaching role.
He then offered to “create opportunities for him to develop those skills,” and made good on the promise. For instance, when AdRoll opened its Sydney office, Suresh asked Tom to be “one of the ambassadors” to the city charged with hiring and training the sales team there.
On a macro level, Suresh worked to do a better job of setting expectations for the entire team. “I would take opportunities during sales meetings to describe what greatness looks like and to talk about mastering your role. It’s not an overnight process, and it takes a lot of discipline,” he says.
He refined the hiring process at AdRoll to ensure prospective employees understand what their trajectories at the company might look like. “We have conversations throughout the process and again when we deliver an offer. We reinforce what the job is explicitly, and we say, ‘This is the job we want you to do for at least 18 months,’ which in the tech industry can sometimes seem like a long time,” he says. “When employees feel antsy, it’s often because they do not understand the career path they are on.”
Tom is still with the company but is not yet in management. In the meantime, he has gotten raises and lateral promotions. He now occupies a hybrid leadership role that involves helping AdRoll commercialize its products. He remains eager but has recalibrated his goals. “When I ask him questions like, Are you learning? Are you growing? The answer is yes.”
Case Study #2: Understand what matters to your employees
Adam Wray, CEO of Basho Technologies, a database company in Bellevue, Washington, has grown accustomed to employees asking to take on more responsibility than they’re capable of or than his company has to offer.
His response is to engage them in a discussion about their long-term career objectives. “I ask them, ‘Where do you want to be three, five, and 10 years down the road? Where do you see your life going?’ That way I have an understanding of the set of experiences they need to incorporate into their skill set” to achieve those goals.
Recently, one of Adam’s reports — we’ll call her Maria — asked for a promotion that involved managing a large, geographically diverse sales team. Maria already ran a small, local team, and although Adam thought highly of her, he doubted she was up to the challenge of overseeing people distributed across several continents.
Adam responded by expressing confidence in Maria’s abilities and outlining “three areas where she excels.” Then he turned to “three areas that needed more work.” The goal was to help Maria see “her strengths and weaknesses in a positive way.”
Adam told Maria he didn’t have an open position that fit his criteria, but he honestly wasn’t sure Maria was ready for the job anyway. But he didn’t end the conversation there. He dug a little deeper to better understand what mattered to her, learning that “Maria wanted recognition. She wanted to play on a bigger stage in the company.”
After taking this in, Adam worked to raise Maria’s profile. He wanted to “give her relevant experience” so she could “learn the skills she didn’t have.” Specifically, he encouraged Maria to get more involved with the inner workings of a team of presales engineers. “I said, ‘Prove to me that you can help these engineers be more efficient and work better together. If you can help them succeed in their jobs, we will look [at your request] again in 12 months,’” Adam recalls. “It was not a commitment to giving her the role, but it was a commitment to reconsidering.”
During their regularly scheduled monthly meetings, Adam asked Maria for updates and coached Maria through any problems she faced. They also had multiple informal conversations over email and HipChat. Adam talked with the presales architects to get feedback on Maria’s progress.
After a year, Adam felt that Maria had proved she was capable of “positively influencing” a team not in her direct domain, “one of the ultimate leadership skills,” and decided to give her the promotion.
By Rebecca Knight