Can You Still Be Successful If You Don't Want a Promotion?

Congratulations—you're awesome! Your company wants to promote you. But what happens when what you want is to stay exactly where you are?

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #587
The Quick And Dirty

Do you love the job you're in? Here are some simple ways to say no thanks to that promotion.

  1. Back off the shame. There's no reason to feel shame for being clear about what you do and don't want.
  2. Redefine leadership. You don't have to be a people-leader to be a leader overall.
  3. Find ways to help others grow. There are ways to share your knowledge and experience without taking a promotion.

Congratulations! You’ve landed your dream job. And you are, if you do say so yourself, crushing it. Your work is top-notch, your ideas innovative, you meet every deadline and ask for more. You’ve been recognized and celebrated. And your reward is—drumroll please—a bigger, more sought-after job!

The only problem? You don’t want the bigger job. You love the one you've got. That's why it was your dream job in the first place.

I received a question from Anna, a Modern Mentor listener in Oregon who's struggling with this very conundrum. She says:

Both my husband and I are in jobs that we currently really enjoy. We feel like we are constantly being offered ‘up the ladder’ positions that are not interesting due to the increase in stress and decrease in work-life balance. It’s uncomfortable to feel like you’re being pushed into something you don’t want to do, and there seems to be culturally-inflicted shame and stigma around not wanting to climb the corporate ladder.

My friend in Portland, I hear you. One of the tenets of this show is the idea that we all get to define success on our terms. If the idea of earning a promotion inspires you, lean on in! But if you're happy in the role you've got, know that success comes in many forms. No one should feel pressured to take on someone else’s vision.

Success comes in many forms. No one should feel pressured to take on someone else’s vision.

So, what can we do when we’re happy where we are? How do we continue to feel valued by our organization without feeling the shame my listener described?

Send shame packing

Anna used the term “culturally-inflicted shame.” Famed researcher and author Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling … that we are flawed—something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy.” 

So let's begin with mindset. It's natural to feel bad when you’ve done something you regret—you dropped the ball, you broke someone’s confidence. But feeling shame for being awesome at your job and not wanting to give it up? I say no way.

In the last full-time job I held, I had a reputation for being excellent at setting and maintaining boundaries, particularly as a working mom. During my tenure in that role, I had dozens of colleagues approach me and ask for my secret. My number one piece of advice never wavered—do not apologize for knowing what you need and protecting it.

Due to my childcare arrangements, I had to physically leave my office by 3:30 p.m. every day. I was strategic with my schedule—using my in-office hours for meetings and reserving heads-down work for my train commute and evenings after the kiddos were asleep.

This was my way of getting it all done. I never once apologized, because an apology implies guilt. And yet, I was exceeding every expectation. My schedule looked different from the norm, but there was never a cause for complaint. I was doing my job on my terms. I carried zero guilt.

This was my mindset. And mindset matters.

Don't apologize for expressing what you don’t want, even when it's a promotion.

So my advice is this—don't apologize for expressing what you don’t want, even when it's a promotion. Do be crystal clear about what makes you invaluable to your company in this role, and let that be your story.

Let's take a closer look at how this could play out in action. If you feel shame for not accepting a promotion, you might say something like, "I appreciate the offer. I apologize for not being able to accept the bigger job." 

But what if you tried something like this, instead? "Thanks for the offer. It's wonderful to be recognized for the value I'm delivering. I know I'm great at what I do, and I want to get even better. Moving into a bigger role would take me away from the craft I'm still honing."

Your confidence in and ownership of this message gives you a strong foundation to stand on.

Redefine leadership

The traditional wisdom in many organizations is this: we need to find people who are outstanding in their jobs, and promote them into leadership roles so they can enable others to be great at their jobs.

But not every great performer aspires to be a people-leader. It’s a different capability. And again, there's no shame in not wanting it. So, what do you do about it?

You redefine what leadership means to you. Maybe you don’t want to be a people-leader. But that doesn’t exclude you from leadership entirely. 

Not every great performer aspires to be a people-leader.

Leadership comes in many forms. Thought leadership and project leadership, for example, are excellent ways for a top performer to deliver more value without having to take on a people-leadership role.

Maybe you’re an A+ digital marketer and your company is trying to promote you into its leadership ranks. You love what you do, and you want to keep on keeping on. So, how might you redefine your leadership contribution?

Can you attend industry events and bring cutting-edge ideas back into the company? Can you participate in panel discussions at conferences and be a brand-builder for your organization? Can you read, experiment, innovate, and lead the charge on new technologies and platforms?

Or perhaps you can volunteer to take the lead on an important internal initiative. Can you raise your hand to sit on a committee reviewing new prospective marketing tools? The how is yours to define. But the counsel here is to be expansive in your thinking about what defines leadership.

Make your company an offer they can’t refuse.

Find ways to help others grow

Companies promote talented performers into leadership roles so they can help grow and develop other employees. If you’re someone your company wants to promote for that reason, then what are some ways you can help to grow and develop others without taking a promotion?

Coaching, teaching, mentoring—these are all wonderful ways to share your knowledge, insight, wisdom, and experience without taking on the administrative responsibilities of leading a team.

Here are some ideas you might consider pitching to your company.

  • Host a monthly lunch-and-learn on a particular topic. You can bring your expertise or invite people to come with questions you’d be delighted to answer.
  • Be someone’s mentor. Is there a high-potential employee who could benefit from your experience? Offer up some mentorship. Sit down with them once a month and invite them to share questions and challenges you might help them work through.
  • Start a book club. As a thought leader, likely you’re already reading widely about your craft. Offer to start a book club. Choose a book each month that participants will read and come together to discuss. It’s a way for you to facilitate knowledge-sharing without having to deliver it yourself.
  • Invite job shadowing. Don’t have the time or inclination to formally coach or mentor? Then invite a colleague to shadow you on the job for a couple of days. As you move through your days, offer them insights into what you’re doing, how you’re making decisions, and what questions you’re asking.
  • Record an evergreen webinar. Maybe you have ideas to share, but there isn't enough of you to go around. Record a webinar—even just a video on your phone—with some key ideas and bits of wisdom about your area of expertise. Let that recording be a resource that others can access on-demand. Each time it’s viewed, you’re adding new value, but without having to invest your own time or energy 

And there you have some of my favorite strategies for gracefully bowing out of a promotion while preserving your personal brand.

Remember—success is yours to define. Don’t be pushed down someone else’s path. Stay strong, stay clear, and own your vision.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.

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