Nov 28, 2022 | Advancing Your Career

Do I need to manage people in order to get promoted?

Q. Dear Zenagos, The people in my company seem to get promoted once they prove they can manage a small team. I have no interest in managing people. I enjoy being an individual contributor and am considered an “expert” in my field of technology. How much am I limiting myself by avoiding managing people?

The path to promotion is different in every company. If you notice that people in your company are rewarded for managing people, that’s an important observation. You may very well be limiting your path to promotion by choosing to stay a sole contributor.

However, it may also be a coincidence that the people who have been promoted recently also happened to be managers. After all, there can only be so many managers in any given company. On average, most companies have a lot more sole contributors than managers.

Asking about Promotion Can Be Risky
In order to figure out your prospects for promotion on a sole-contributor career path, you are going to need to ask. However, you need to be careful how you pose the question. When you ask about the path to promotion, you apply pressure to your boss and your company. People respond to pressure in unpredictable ways.

If you were already making great progress toward a promotion, then asking about promotion might actually accelerate the good news. However, asking about promotion could also make your boss afraid that you will leave the company. Some managers respond to fear with aggression. Oddly, when these people become afraid you might leave, their response is to marginalize you or force you out!

When you ask for a promotion, the company can respond in one of four ways:

  • They can ignore your request,
  • They can say something positive but take no action (delay),
  • They can take positive action (i.e., give you the promotion), or
  • They can take negative action (marginalizing you or even firing you)

A 2011 Accenture study concluded that most employer responses are positive: 52% of employees who asked for a promotion received one, and only 10% were ignored (Vemparala, 2022). Before you ask anyone at the company about promotion, it is wise to make sure that you know how you will respond to each of these four possibilities. Don’t ask the question until you are certain that you can accept any of the four outcomes.

Find a Mentor
A cautious way to inquire about your company’s path to promotion is to find a decision-maker in the organization whom you can trust not to overreact. This should be someone you respect and who has influence (or “juice”) with the senior leaders in the company. Look for someone who seems to always be making progress – a winner. Note: Even if you feel a great deal of trust with this person, you should assume that everything you say will get back to your boss and the President/CEO of the company. Every senior manager’s first responsibility is to protect the company. So, always be thoughtful about what you say to your potential mentor about the company and the other people who work there.

Ask for Mentorship
Instead of asking directly about promotion at first, try asking the senior manager if you could be a mentee. Most senior leaders like to help others along and like to be seen as mentors. Explain that you really like your boss and your job and the company, but you think you need to improve. Then ask for some things you could focus on in order to improve. Some employees are hesitant to ask for ways to improve because they think it makes them look weak. However, humility sells. Once you have had a couple of mentoring conversations with your mentor, find an appropriate moment to ask about what leads to promotion at your company and whether managing people is a critical step on that path.

Think about What Matters to You
Once you have some information about how important management experience is to promotion in your company, you have a decision to make. Think about what matters to you. Why do you want to be promoted? Do you want to make more money? Do you want a bigger title? Are you comparing yourself to other people, and you want to be at the same level in the organization? Do you want to have a greater impact in the organization? Do you want to work on bigger projects? Do you want to be able to choose your projects? If you can pinpoint what it really is that would make you happy, that may make it easier for you to get it. Companies have limited roles into which to promote people, but other things may be easier to provide. If you can express what you want clearly, you may be more likely to get it.

Will a Promotion Really Provide What You Want?
Since pushing for a promotion could possibly have the effect of getting you marginalized or even pushed out of the company, make sure that a promotion is really what you want. You may not even like the job that results from the promotion. Sometimes, if you really think about it, it turns out that your job is pretty good as-is. If you’d rather keep the status quo, it’s good to figure that out before you put pressure on your boss.

Examine Your Options
If your exploration reveals that: (a) promotion in your company is tied to management experience, (b) being promoted really matters to you, and (c) you don’t want to manage people, then it may be time to consider another company. There may be another organization where you could meet your goals in a sole contributor role. It will take some time to learn what jobs are available at other companies and how they compare to your current job. Take the time to look at your alternatives, and see if there are any that are better than the job you hold now. If there aren’t, then at least you can appreciate what you have a little more.

Negotiate from a Position of Strength
If you want to try to force a promotion at your current company, first make sure that you are in a good position with your boss and other decision-makers. It is important that you have been actively involved in important projects in your company and that you have collected recent examples of your job-specific performance and soft skills (Glassdoor, 2021; Sinha, 2021).

If you have an offer from another company that provides what you want, let your boss know about the offer, and explain that you would prefer to stay in the current company if the following terms could be matched. Do make sure that you really have an offer that you would take – it is rarely a good idea to try to bluff your way to a promotion. Experienced senior managers will know exactly what you are doing, and you may not be able to predict their response. Be optimistic that your request can be met, but be prepared for the potential negative outcomes, as well.

One final note: Not everyone has the skills or disposition to manage others. If you have been avoiding management, you probably have good reason. Trust your instincts, and continue to search for a path that meets your needs.



8 habits of employees that get promoted. (2021, December 17). Glassdoor Blog. Retrieved on November 14, 2022, from

Sinha, R. (2021, May 4). Do you want to get promoted? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on November 14, 2022, from

Vemparala, T. (2022, August 5). 6 proven ways to get a promotion. Business News Daily. Retrieved on November 14, 2022, from


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