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ATD Blog

Responding to Underachieving Employees Who Want a Promotion

Friday, May 5, 2023

We’ve probably all known that person: they always ask for extensions on deadlines, never volunteer to help, and end their workdays early. Yet despite doing the bare minimum, they still expect performance raises and promotions. You don’t want to offend them or cause drama, but they don’t deserve what they’re asking for.

If you’re like many of the managers I’ve heard from over the past few years, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and burned out. Management is hard. Really hard. And just as you’re digging deep into your own reserves to perform in your job, here comes one of your employees, asking for more. Maybe they’re young. Maybe they’re new. Hopefully they’re eager. Possibly they’re demanding. At their best, they’re ambitious. At their worst, they’re entitled.

So, how do you talk with an employee doing the bare minimum and expecting great rewards? First, try reframing your question: How can you help an unready or underserving employee learn and grow into the promotion or appraisal they seek? This is a crucial moment with the potential for great learning and growth.

Here are three tips from the Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue course from Crucial Learning to help you navigate this moment.

Reframe How You See Them

Let’s assume you’ve worked long and hard to get where you are today. Therefore, you may find it mildly irritating (or even downright infuriating) to have someone younger and newer come along and blithely expect to get what you’ve earned. You may judge that person as entitled, foolish, or ungrateful. If this is even close to the story you are telling yourself, stop.


In any conversation, our perspective of others reveals more about us than them. You must reframe how you are seeing this person. Advocating for yourself, speaking up, and asking for career opportunities are all good things, so let’s reframe. Here is a person asking for career development and mentorship. Viewing them in a positive light will increase the likelihood of having a positive conversation.

Be Specific About Expectations

There is a clear gap between what this person does and what they need to do to be promoted. Describe that gap with specificity. What do you need to see before you can promote them?


Be careful not to fall into the trap of saying, “You need more experience” or “You need to be here for X amount of time before you can be considered for a promotion.” If they need more experience, explain why. What kind of experience do they need? Can you help them gain that experience?

Compare and Contrast

Sometimes, even when we are explicit about expectations, the other person still may not understand what “good” looks like. You may need to show them what good or great performance is. Identify someone on your team or in your organization who is a top performer, ideally in the role your employee wants to move into. Create an opportunity for your employee to observe that person. What do they do differently than others? Why does it matter? Ask your employee to compare their behaviors, interactions, and deliverables to this top performer.

Reframing our perspectives means acknowledging that these employees want to grow and contribute. Helping them do so is the true job of a people manager.

About the Author

Emily Gregory is coauthor of Crucial Conversations and a Crucial Learning master trainer who has helped thousands of organizations such as Intel, Yahoo, and the Mayo Clinic achieve new levels of success. Emily holds a Medical Doctorate degree from the University of Utah and a Master of Business Administration from the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University.

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