How to motivate high performers when you can’t promote them, according to the Harvard Business Review

Sergey Nivens/

Unfortunately, there are probably more qualified sales reps than there are high-powered sales jobs to go around. This means that promotions to reward top performers aren’t always feasible, at least in the short term. It’s no wonder then that a recent survey from McKinsey found that lack of opportunities for advancement was the number one reason why participants said they had left their old jobs.  

Sometimes managers do want to promote certain employees, but employees may either lack specific skills that are necessary for sales management, or there aren’t enough sales manager positions to accommodate everyone.

But what do employees really want when they say they want a promotion? Knowing how employees see themselves at the company and what they really want out of their job can help managers who want to retain top talent but don’t have enough coveted titles to go around. 

Employees who desire a promotion usually want some combination of the benefits below: 

  • Workplace status
  • Occupational status
  • A public form of reward
  • A greater scope of responsibilities
  • A greater scope of influence within the department or organization
  • A perceived opportunity for greater impact on broader outcomes
  • An opportunity to manage direct reports
  • Better salary/benefits/comp plan

For higher pay

When sales managers understand why employees are looking for promotions, they may be able to provide some of those benefits without a technical change of title or position. For example, higher pay is frequently the primary motivator for many employees. A more competitive comp plan or bigger holiday bonus could assuage employees who remain in their current positions.

For greater influence 

What if an employee wants more influence over accounts or systems in the workplace? Are there meetings your employee can sit in on or steering committees they can join to have more of a voice in the company?

For public recognition

Maybe your employee wants to be publicly appreciated for the work they’re doing. “Sales rep of the month” or other similar systems for recognizing high achievers at a company can go a long way toward making employees feel like their work matters. 

For managing people

Maybe an employee is really good at leading and managing people even if they’re not in an official management position. Make them an informal co-lead of a team, give them an opportunity to coach newer employees/interns, or let them shadow a manager for a day to glimpse the workings of the role. 

Remain Realistic

Don’t expect employees to be satisfied with these smaller solutions forever. They will expect to be promoted eventually, and if not, as the McKinsey survey notes, they’ll likely seek employment elsewhere. Always be transparent about the possibilities of promotion whether or not it’s what the employee wants to hear. Ideally, managers should simultaneously be advocating for the advancement of the employees they are helping out in the short-term.

Listen Closely and Deeply

Understanding what employees really want from their workplaces and their careers is always a good thing, as it helps managers invest the right resources in their employees. Managers should aim to become partners, rather than rulers, when it comes to career advancement for their employees.

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