How to Manage Expectations on Pay and Promotions

The vast majority of people who you manage (if not all of them) will want to advance their career. This usually means two things:

  1. Getting paid more.
  2. Getting promoted.

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to work alongside them in achieving these things. Of course, you can’t do it all for them, but you do need to be proactive in giving them the support and environment they need in order to stand the best chance of succeeding.

A key part of supporting them is often overlooked and it’s going to be our focus today: managing expectations. 

Then north star here is to avoid surprises if someone doesn’t get the promotion or pay rise that they expected. It’s totally fine and expected for them to be disappointed upon hearing this kind of news, but it should never come as a complete surprise. 

Let’s look at a number of ways that you can manage expectations with your team, whilst giving them the support and guidance that they need to get the pay rise and promotion that they want. 

Personal development plans

A personal development plan is the perfect way to set and manage expectations on someone’s progression. It allows you and your team member to agree upon things such as objectives, priorities and achievements and most importantly, creates clear accountability for taking steps towards a pay rise or promotion.

Within someone’s personal development plan, you should clearly define what their current role is and what they’d like their next role to be. For example, they may currently be a Senior Web Developer but would like their next role to be a promotion to a Team Leader. 

Once this is agreed, you need to define the steps that they need to take in order to be considered for a promotion to Team Leader. A few examples may be:

  • Effectively managing and developing the people who they currently manage.
  • Balancing day to day work with managing their team members.
  • Leading projects effectively and overcoming challenges in a calm and collected way.

Essentially, they need to know what kinds of behaviours they need to be displaying and the actions they should be taking that shows you (and any other stakeholders) that they are ready and deserving of a promotion. 

If you don’t provide this and simply define the role, they are flying blind and when this happens, they often default to a place where the passage of time is what they look at to work out when they may get promoted. If it took them 12 months to get their last promotion, they’ll probably believe that they just need to wait for 12 months until their next one comes along. This is because many people will see their progression as linear:

Linear Career Progression
Linear Career Progression

Whereas in reality, it can look more like this:

Realistic Career Progression
Realistic Career Progression

Setting clear expectations and defining steps that they need to take will avoid this situation.

Clear accountability

I’ve seen many situations over the years of team members who feel entitled to pay raises and promotions, without necessarily expecting to do the work involved to earn them. Part of this can stem from the point above around these steps being more about the passage of time as opposed to someone’s actions and behaviours. Another part of it can stem from the success and fast pace of an industry.

When these things happen, it can lead to individuals not taking accountability for their own development because they expect the promotion and pay rise to just happen naturally. So why would they take accountability for their own development?

You can avoid this and encourage accountability by providing clarity on your role as their manager and what is down to them.

For example, you are absolutely responsible for ensuring that they have a clear and up to date personal development plan in place. But you’re not responsible for filling all of it out for them – they need to take a leading role in this.

Another example is that you may well provide ideas and inspiration for the objectives that they want to move towards, but once they’re agreed, it’s down to them to achieve them.

You need to send a clear message and you will support them, but ultimately, they need to take ownership of their own development and make it happen, because you can’t do it for them.

Clarity on the pay review and promotions process

You also need to be clear on the logistical side of the process by communicating things such as:

  • How often they can expect a pay review.
  • Whether or not ad hoc pay reviews can happen in between scheduled ones.
  • The criteria that you use to determine whether to award a pay rise or not.
  • The salary range that is in place for their particular role.

The same needs to happen for promotions, so you need to communicate things such as:

  • Approximate timelines for their next promotion to be reviewed.
  • How you and other stakeholders will assess their eligibility for a promotion.
  • What happens if they go for a promotion but don’t get it.

All of these points can help them understand more about the process itself. This particularly helps if they don’t get the pay rise or promotion that they want because you’ve been transparent about the process. They may still be disappointed of course, but it’s much better for them to be disappointed and understand the reasons behind the disappointment, than to be disappointed and also feel disgruntled at not really knowing why or how the decision was made.

Clear communication on the progress they’re making

Alongside the personal development plan, you should be reviewing it regularly and giving them feedback on how well they are progressing towards their objectives and the promotion or pay rise that they want.

If they are falling behind the timeline that you’d originally set, you need to be clear about this with them. Not only does this give them a chance to put more effort in and try to get things back on track, but it shows them that on their current course, they won’t get the promotion or pay rise that they wanted.

As we said earlier, the north star here is to avoid surprises. 

Being clear with them regularly on how well (or not so well) they are doing does exactly this and means that they don’t go into a review meeting expecting a promotion, only to be told that they haven’t quite got there yet. 

The goal isn’t to avoid disappointment, that is nearly impossible. But the goal is to avoid a combination of disappointment and complete surprise. Complete surprise will damage their morale and most importantly, their trust in your as their manager.

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