‘My Co-worker Got Promoted Instead of Me But I Do More Work!’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’m struggling to deal with my emotions after my co-worker was chosen for a promotion ahead of me, and I was given vague feedback.

I’ve worked for my company for two years. I’m on a team of two, and recently we both interviewed to become our team lead because our manager is moving up. At the same time, a similar lead role opened up in a parallel team where I have work experience. So I essentially had one interview for two different lead roles, and didn’t get either of them. 

On my team, my co-worker was apparently chosen for the lead role because she came across as more motivated than me. On the other team, someone who started less than a year ago was chosen because they have prior experience as a manager, whereas I don’t. In that case, my manager told me there was no question that the newer person would get that role.

But I feel upset that I wasn’t chosen in either case because both of these people will benefit from manager training and get to develop their careers at the company. I’ve stayed late many times, I’m often the person who people come to when they have questions, and I’ve happily accepted new challenges and changes to my role. In the past year I’ve reported to four different team leads because their predecessors left the company or moved up.

Something like this hasn’t happened to me before, and I don’t know how to deal with my emotional reaction. Unfortunately, I cried when my manager told me. It’s her first time as a manager, and I think she handled it clumsily as well, saying (when I asked if there are things I could improve on) that I shouldn’t focus on things I can’t change. I was flummoxed when I heard this and didn’t know how to ask more questions. I did say out loud that I didn’t feel any leadership from my colleague. I know I shouldn’t have said that. But I often feel like I’m pointing things out and explaining things to this co-worker, and it just bothers me so much now that I will have to take directions from her.

I feel depressed and like the floor has dropped from underneath my feet. I’m normally cheerful and happy to chat with everyone at work, but I just can’t bring myself out of this slump. It’s been three weeks since I found out. I’m trying really hard to be professional but I fear I’m creating a bad atmosphere, and I don’t want that either.

I believe I performed badly during my interview and wonder if the decision was based on this instead of my work record. I was nervous because one of our C-level executives was present, and I was meeting them for the first time, and they asked most of the questions. 

After the decision was made, my senior manager sent me a private message offering to explore different growth opportunities and support me, so all is not lost. I haven’t taken her up on this yet. I’m finding it so hard to recover.

There are two basic possibilities here: You were passed over unfairly … or, well, you weren’t.

But that second possibility doesn’t mean that you suck at your job or anything like that! It just means that your colleagues might have been stronger matches with these particular positions. You’ve got to remember that your employer isn’t just assessing whether you could do the job well; they’re assessing whether you would be the best person for the job out of all the people they’re considering. So they might think you’re quite capable, but your colleagues were just stronger matches with what they were seeking for those roles.

The fact that the position on the other team went to someone with management experience makes that possibility particularly likely. First-time managers have a huge learning curve, generally require a ton of training, and can be hard to work for. So it makes sense that your co-worker’s management experience would be a significant point in her favor.

The situation is a little murkier with the position on your team, especially since it sounds like you feel like you’re a stronger worker than your promoted co-worker. But it’s very possible that the hiring team was prioritizing different factors than you realized (or than you yourself would have prioritized). For example, they might have been looking less for subject matter knowledge and instead for qualities like a strong drive to get things done (which might be what they were getting at when they told you she seemed more motivated), skill at identifying and communicating ways the team could perform better, willingness to make hard decisions and have awkward or difficult conversations, finesse when dealing with other departments or upper management, and so forth. Those things are all crucial for a manager, and they might not be the same things you weigh when you assess your co-worker.

And of course, you might have all those skills too! But your co-worker might have more of them (or has demonstrated more of them in front of decision-makers). Hiring always means grading on a curve — so you could be great, but not necessarily the person who appeared to be the most strongly matched with that particular role.

None of this means you failed or that you’re not appreciated. When there are multiple good candidates and only one or two slots, the reality of the math is that some of those good candidates won’t get the job. That math can be painful, but it’s not a personal reflection on you.

Or, of course, there’s the other possibility: that you were indeed passed over unfairly. It’s really hard to know from the outside if that’s actually the case — and it might be equally hard to know from where you’re standing, too, unless your co-worker who’s becoming your team lead is truly and egregiously terrible.

It really doesn’t help that your manager fumbled the conversation when she told you the news. Telling you not to focus on things you can’t change isn’t exactly a message designed to make you feel invested in your future there, nor does it give you any insight into what you could do to get promoted down the road. (See above re: first-time managers being tough to work for.)

What she should have done is talk to you about what a path to promotion might look like for you, even though this one didn’t work out, and what things you can work on to better position yourself when opportunities come up in the future. If she had done that, I suspect you wouldn’t be feeling quite as crushed. Disappointed, yes — that’s normal. But hopefully not as dejected as you’re feeling right now.

But there’s really good news buried in your letter: your more senior manager did offer to talk with you about other growth opportunities! That’s exactly what you should want in a situation like this, and you should take her up on it. Thank her for offering to give you feedback, say you’d really like to take on more responsibility, and ask her for advice about what you can start doing now to make a promotion more likely in the future.

If she also gives you vague answers with no specifics, that’s a red flag suggesting you might need to leave the company in order to move up. But it would be really premature to conclude that now.

Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘A Co-worker Got Promoted Instead of Me But I Do More Work!’