When You’re Held Back Because You’re Too Good

Held back, originaly uploaded to Flickr by Matthew Wilkinson.Have you ever been denied a promotion because you were too good at your current job?  Reader N suspects this may be what’s at play at her workplace, and wonders what she can do about it.

I just read your article “Getting the Work You Want” and I wanted to ask a follow up question. I’ve found myself in a position of getting passed over for moving into a complex litigation team, despite having openly expressed my interest, and my superior agreeing that I would be better used in that area. (I’ve had this reinforced by rave reviews for my senior attorneys and from fellow co-workers who I’ve helped out.)

From what I can tell, it seems that my superiors (and theirs) place more value in the fact that I can manage my workload and simultaneously back up three to four people at a time. I’ve backed up coworkers in the complex team, too, but as for moving up with them permanently… nothing.

So what’s a girl to do when I have spoken up and asked… and nothing happens? Have I shot myself in the foot by having quality and quantity? Should I just take the rave reviews and recommendations and look for work elsewhere?

Fabulous question. There are a million reasons why people don’t get jobs and promotions — including not being right for them.  That said, something I’ve seen happen is when a boss keeps a “good worker” in the trenches because his or her own life is made so much easier by the worker.  The boss knows the job will get done, and done well. He or she doesn’t have to hire or train anyone new.  It’s great!  For the boss, that is.  For the worker (which may be Reader N, here) you don’t grow at all.  For a particularly selfish boss, he or she may also try to restrain you from working with other people, give you lackluster reviews or recommendations to keep you with them, and maybe even talk down to you to make you question whether or not you “deserve” better than your current job.  (Pictured: Held back, originaly uploaded to Flickr by Matthew Wilkinson.)


This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to be the master of your own career.  You need to be the one constantly assessing where you are — and speaking up until you get to where you should be, even if that makes you feel pushy.  If you do find yourself in a situation where a boss is holding you back, in my opinion, there isn’t much you can do about it beyond getting away from the the toxic personality. And if that means taking a new job, so be it.

However, I would give every boss the benefit of the doubt — once.  For example, here, Reader N says “from what I can tell” — N, have you spoken to your superiors about why you didn’t get moved to the area you wanted?  This is a 100% valid question. Approach it with a learning mindset — be as far from “entitled” as you can be. Frustrated is fine — exacerbated even — but be careful about crossing into “angry and emotional.” Sit down with your superiors, show the different ways that you made your preference known, the positive feedback you got, and then express your confusion over the lack of movement that followed. I’d also ask when you can next expect to be moved to your preferred area.

Once you have their official answer, look at it objectively.  Maybe you were lacking a certain skill.  Maybe Person X had more of the skills needed.  Maybe they wanted to keep you in your current department until a particular big project finished.  Maybe a more formal process is required for a move like the one you want.  Whatever they say, try to make sense of it.  It’s still fair for you to get angry, and it’s still fair for you to look for a new job — but it’s also fair to say “Oh, that’s what happened,” and then sit tight until the next window of opportunity arrives.

Readers, have you ever been held back because you were doing too good of a job?  What did you do about it?  What is your general approach if you don’t get a promotion you’ve lobbied for?


  1. Intrigued by this and looking forward to responses. For me, I wonder if it’s “too much work” to put more on my plate or give me more responsibility. There’a an oldtimer, medicore, coaster-type employee who stays under the radar because no one has the “energy” to manage him out. He does C- work but has no major screw-ups and just bumps along… So frustrating!

    • Just thought I’d mention that Alexandra Levitt has a great new book called “Blind Spots” in which she discusses why certain people are promoted and others aren’t. One of the big things she emphasizes is perception. Who knows what you do and why it matters is the most important factor in getting promoted. Keeping your head down and working hard won’t necessarily get you noticed by the decision-makers. Networking and promoting yourself in the right ways is key.

  2. momentsofabsurdity :

    Sorry for the threadjack – I’m annoyed with myself because I made a mistake at work.

    I *know* mistakes happen but this is the first time I’ve made a mistake that was bigger than “Oh, I sent that email to the wrong person” and it’s a mistake the client has noticed and wants an explanation for. I’m kicking myself. I already emailed my boss apologizing and taking responsibility for the part that was my fault (he hasn’t responded) but I am just super annoyed with myself/worried. It’s not a big enough mistake to get me fired but it’s a big enough mistake that I needed to send my boss a full account of exactly what happened when to allow this particular issue to slip through the cracks.

    Sigh. Advice?

    • Everyone makes mistakes! I know it won’t help out much right now, but this is a good thing to remember.

      It sounds like you’re on the right track by fessing up to your part of the mistake. In addition, think of some sort of “action plan” to present to your boss that will either rectify or ameliorate the mistake. Going in with an attitude of “I made a mistake, here’s what we can do to fix it, and it will never happen again” is miles better than “I made a mistake. Whoops!” (or even worse – “Not my fault!”).

      But be careful, and this is where I needed the most help when I was just starting out, only apologize and fess up to the things that are actually your fault. In my desire to smooth the situation over and please my boss, I used to apologize for things that I had no control over and should not have taken responsibility for. Instead, be polite, be sincere about your mistake, be professional, and assure your boss that you’ve learned X lesson from this and that it won’t happen again.

      • momentsofabsurdity :

        Thank you! I have only taken responsibility for my part (but I have taken full responsibility) and my boss is visibly annoyed with me. Frankly, this project we’vebeen working on has been a series of mistakes (not mine) that have rendered it a clusterf—- and this is (at this point) just my contribution to the GIANT MESS. Still, it doesn’t make me feel better. I’m annoyed with myself for not catching it. Sigh…

      • Research, Not Law :

        Great advice here. I second it all.

        Take a short walk. I get so tense when something like this happens and my mind goes on lock down to obsesses over it. When I return to my desk, I feel more in control to address the situation.

    • There’s a great book on the handling of mistakes in medical practice called “forgive and remember” — in essence, it’s your job to admit to the mistake, remember it, and never do it again (so far as that’s possible), and it’s your boss’s job to forgive you for it. I think it’s a great way of thinking about how to deal with and move forward from mistakes (even big ones).

      • Found myself in a similar situation friday and am really trying to embrace the “learn the lesson and move on” mantra – I have a tendency to beat myself up over mistakes, which only makes things worse. I like “forgive and remember” that’s a good way of putting it.

      • momentsofabsurdity :

        That is a really good way of putting it, thank you so much!

    • Focus on what you can do now to minimize effects of the mistake. People usually want solutions instead of focusing on how the problem happened. Try to transition your mind set into “What do we do now?” Your boss will appreciate if you come to him with ideas on how to fix or minimize instead of problems. (Even if he doesn’t agree with your solutions, at least the conversation is more likely to take a turn to practical options vs. finger pointing.)

      After you’ve had a bit of distance, you also may want to approach your boss with how you’ll make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

      And don’t be too hard on yourself. Mistakes are part of learning.

      • S is quite correct. I’ll just add that emailing your boss about your error–instead of admitting the error and proposing solutions in a face to face conversation and helping him prepare to talk to the client about it–may have aggravated him further. He might have viewed that email as you dumping the whole problem on him while being too chicken to fess up in person. When the time is right for a follow-up conversation, make sure he understands that you chose email for some legitimate reason, i.e., to avoid delay, make sure the nature of the error was clear so he could communicate it to the client, or whatever. Depending on how screwed up the project is, someday you may even share a laugh with your boss about it.

    • NE Attorney :

      I agree with all of the above advice. For what its worth, when I was a junior associate, I made a huge mistake and we were called out by the court for it. The partner and I read the court’s order at the same time. I was paralyzed with fear when I read what the court wrote. I apologized to the partner, offered to help ameliorate the situation and then hid in my office for the rest of the day. The next day, I went in and apologized again and said that I was sorry that I had put the partner in a position where he had to explain my actions to the client. He said that I now had the “fear of god put into me,” and that was a good thing but that it was time to move on. I found the moving on to be the toughest part (after the initial shock/fear) of the situation. When your superiors move on, you should too. Don’t beat yourself up for too long.

      Four years later, I still work for that same partner every day. I honestly think that springing back from that mistake (taking ownership, apologizing and then attacking the next assignment) is what impressed the partner. Good luck.

  3. This sounds alot like me! I took on alot of responsibility, and the manageing partner now wants to keep me RIGHT where I am where he knows that I am doing to much work. Since he does NOT want to do it himself, or hire 2 new peeple, he has kept me doing ALL the EBT’s for the entire firm.

    I would like to get more DIVERSIFIED legal experence, but he says I am the resident expert and he does NOT want to loose my expertise at EBT’s. FOOEY!

    • philalethes :

      I had a similar problem. KEY: 1. it is foolish for a leader to have only one person who can perform a task critical to the company.

      Express to him that it is IMPERATIVE that you teach at least one other person to perform the duties just as well as you can accomplish them. IF god forbid, you have an accident or even a vacation “you would feel responsible” that you didnt pass on knowledge that is critical to his firm running smoothly (from the team perspective). He will not lose, its a win-win.

      Then …slowly start to transfer the EBT duties over to the other person. “Test” them on a day when you are present to supervise, etc. Then take a four day weekend. Then “get busy” with another assignment from the boss, etc. Give lots of praise to the other employee and praise them in FRONT of the boss.

      Good luck.
      ~be a steel fist in a velvet glove.

  4. *Sigh* If only this was my problem. My husband has this issue, and precisely because of it he has been promoted heavily with his title despite keeping the same duties. His boss is so afraid of losing him that he’s able to rise faster than anyone else (annoying his co-workers) but he’s still left doing the same work, twice as much as anyone else. Of course, he has the title any the money, but not necessarily the responsibility. Such a weird place to be…

  5. Just to commiserate, a friend of mine was past up for a sergeant law enforcement position because he was just “too good to lose on patrol.” They instead promoted someone who constantly caused fights and caused complaints because that person was “much more suited for desk work.” Friend ended up getting the next sergeant position but it was very frustrating. At least his employer was honest.

    • I think it’s common as you move up the ladder that you won’t get to rise any higher unless you find a replacement for your current role. You can prep one of your juniors for the role.
      Also, promoting idiots is common if no one can successfully manage said idiot. It means fewer complaints for senior management to deal with.

  6. Yes, I can relate to this, and I think it’s a typical problem for women to have. One, as Tina Fey says, “b1tches get sh1t done” , and we tend to do it ourselves rather than delegate. Two, we’re less likely to ask for the promotion.

    I think delegation is key to managing this problem. I think women more than men worry that if they hand off a task to someone else, the other person won’t do it as well. Or do we even worry the other person will do it better?

  7. Can't wait to quit :

    I have watched the “keep the good worker in the trenches” scenario happen to the woman who sits across from me. She is really good at her job, which is the junior (but not administrative) one in the job hierarchy she inhabits. She is really, pathologically, over-helpful, and a total doormat, so she can always be counted on to pick up slack for others. She has asked to be promoted to the middle level of the job hierarchy, but has been denied, I think because she is the senior person at that junior job, and her bosses think she can train and mentor the others at the junior level (this is a whole ‘nother issue, as she is so timid that she can’t really inhabit that role). Meanwhile, a person with the same junior level job, a slacker attitude and a talent for self promotion and not pitching in on the team has been promoted to the middle level job, and begun to bully my cube neighbor. It’s really sad to watch, but my cube neighbor has been unable to bring herself to follow tips I have given her that come right out of “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”, because she is completely and totally un-assertive. She feels like the constant helping of others is “teamwork” without realizing that they are on the team too and should be doing their own work.

  8. I left my last job because of this – I was doing the work of two FTE’s, plus cross-trained to back up another person on my team when he hit overflow, managing a contractor and training/managing a particularly dense assistant. Asked for a raise, didn’t get it; asked for a grade promotion, didn’t get it. Was told there wasn’t the flexibility at the moment and I should wait my turn…while watching other people move up, have positions created for them, etc. I’d been burned the year before by ‘waiting for my turn’, and so I quit.

    The good news is that I was able to find a better job – higher pay, higher level, and more in line with my own managerial style. I just regret that I didn’t leave sooner. I really thought that if I just worked harder and did more, I’d be rewarded and that was very naive of me. The people they hired to replace me are both earning the same amount as I did, so obviously there was money to have given me a raise. They’d just correctly pegged me as someone who could be pushed around.

    • This happened to me twice, and leaving was really the only option (after speaking up, etc.). Each time I was replaced with more than one person, in one case each of them were paid much more than I. So, same as you, there was obviously more money to give me a raise. None of my replacements lasted longer than 6 months.

  9. OT- It’s a long shot, but if anyone can recommend a good couple’s counselor in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area, please respond. (I get such good recs on these threads)

  10. Well, gee, right now I am more worried about being held back because I am not getting my sh*^ done. For the last couple of months I’ve been buried in time-consuming minutiae that has to be done, so more big-picture, creative things have been taking a back seat. It’s not that I’m hugely overloaded with work, but it’s just that I find the minutiae so draining that I have nothing left to give to the creative work. I think if I could get some of the creative stuff moving, things would be better for me here. I guess I am just venting – I think I just need to designate time to ignore the minutiae and work on the creativity, but how do those of you in similar situations get your energy back for doing creative work?

    • This might sound counter-intuitive, but I’ve found it helpful to do something uber-creative on the weekend that has nothing to do with my professional work. One weekend, I blew off “important” stuff and made our Christmas cards. One weeknight, I went to a painting class with my mom. So fun, completely “useless”, but helped remind my mind that there’s a creative brain in there! So, I recommend doing whatever creative outlet you do, ie photography, quilting, drawing, singing, whatever, and taking the time to spend a day doing that. My day spent creating a mess of paper, ribbon, and ink did more for my professional output than a week of staring at a blank computer screen that mocked me for being mentally blocked.

    • Here’s my method:
      1. Figure out what’s actually preventing me from getting it done (usually a combination of disruptive co-workers and masses of minutiae).
      2. Prioritize the minutiae, and figure out what can either be put off a little longer or delegated (there are two of us in my office with the exact same job, so we trade off “little stuff” to allow each other time for “creative stuff”).
      3. Figure out when your best times are to do the creative stuff (for me, it’s mornings or late afternoons), then block off the time in your calendar (public and personal) and your to-do list.
      4. Close your email program, mute your phone, put on some headphones, close your door/put a sign on the back of your chair if you’re a cube dweller, and do anything else you can to minimize interruptions. Chances are pretty good that if you’ve taken care of the big fires, everything else can wait half a day.

      I also keep a list of “big projects” (including outlines of goals/key tasks) up on my cube wall so that if there’s a lull in the minutiae, I can jump into something pretty quickly. I also try not to take common vacation days (for example, the days between xmas and new year’s are my favourite days of the year to work, because I can get so much done with everyone else, including customers, out of the office).

    • All good advice, thanks. I particularly like the idea of focusing on creative stuff over the weekend. I told myself that this year I would spend more time cooking and baking, which for me is sort of a creative outlet. Maybe it will help in ways besides eating better.

      • I recently spent a day making homemade bread with my husband. It was actually quite rejuvenating, even though I’m not a baker. We made a day of going to the market and picking ingredients, having coffee while the bread was rising, and taking pictures of the process. HIGHLY recommend asiago garlic bread and hazelnut dark chocolate bread if you go that route :)

      • has happened to me- only switching jobs worked. :( rut was too deep, once doing minutae often, couldn’t switch out of it even when had something was more interested in on plate. maybe fear of not doing well on that one subconsiously? think it’s mindset/habit- if you get used to doing rote stuff- it’s a whole other way of being to not.

  11. stupidiest threadjack –
    does a thread about “tucking shirts in” sound familiar? I feel like i look dumb today, and can’t figure out whether i should tuck my shirt (a Banana Rep pretty basic button up) into my pants or not. I work in a pretty casual office, but I felt like looking nicer today…is tucking in lame? BTW – I’m mid 20s, and in no sort of mangement position. Just soliciting some opinions about tucking shirts in!

  12. gov't attorney :

    I’m currently in a similar situation. I’ve lobbied for a promotion, others have lobbied for me, and I was told over and over again there was no money. Recently they promoted someone else who really has no experience to be the head of my unit, and I think it’s mainly because she really hasn’t shown herself to be competent in any of the key tasks the other people in the unit are doing. There’s one attorney who would have been perfect for the job, but I don’t think management wants to take him out of his current position because he’s just so good at his current job. This isn’t just a situation where one person thinks this person isn’t qualified for the promotion- every person in the department has the same concerns and several people have voiced them. I think the most likely result is that a lot of people who weren’t looking for jobs before will look now because they won’t feel comfortable having someone with no experience doing this year’s evaluations.

  13. If you’re not sure of why you didn’t get a promotion, a great way to bring it up is to mention that you’ve really enjoyed doing X, Y and Z with the group, and would love to do more of it, and what can you work on to improve your chances next time a position opens up? Keep notes, follow up on the recommendations, and when the position opens up you have great interview fodder (whether formal or just a drop-in to say “I heard there was a spot opening, and here’s why I’m perfect for the position”).

    It also may be worth looking elsewhere – if you bring in an offer, and they want to keep you, make the transfer (or a clear path to the transfer) part of your conditions for staying.

    • I agree with EM. If you have a competing offer from another company it forces management to realize you’ll be leaving your current position one way or another. By promoting you the company would at least keep you in their rank and as a company asset. If they don’t agree to promote you, they probably never will and you should definitely leave. Sorry…

  14. I had to read this post twice because it sounded exactly like my situation. And believe me, it is frustrating. I have done the same thing, been too good at what I do so that I can take on my work and that of others without the quality of the work suffering. Time and time again I have asked for the title promotion and nothing. I have asked mid-year, prior to senior management discussing reviews, at my review and following the completion of big projects. I have always been advised that my department head would discuss my requests with her superiors, however, to date nothing has changed and my department head often forgets any discussion took place.

    That being said, this has happened to me before (and all the more annoying is my current HR department knows). I was treated the same way at my previous employer which resulted in my quitting that job for this one. So you can imagine my frustration and complete disbelief that it is happening again.

    To answer the question initially posed, my advice is to search for the job whose title and responsibilities include what you want to and/or currently do without being properly recognized. That’s what I’m doing. If I change jobs with the hopes of advancement to that position in the future (even the near future), chances are good that by then I will again be recognized as being exceptional at multitasking and denied yet again my goal. It’s best to market yourself as capable and eager to perform the responsibilities you desire with the skills you possess. Good luck to you!

    • Sydney Bristow :

      Since you’ve had the discussions with her in person, could you either follow up in an email or bring it up for discussion originally in an email? Then she wouldn’t be able to “forget” the conversation ever took place.

  15. I think if you truly are a high performer that is being kept in place (or down), your best bet is to go on the market and get a new job / better offer. Sometimes the marketplace is the best source of information for your employer. Once you and your employer know exactly how much you’re worth, it will be clear that they either need to move you up or you need to move out and up.

  16. I don’t think this has happened to me but would have to think on it. Do you all ever just say directly to them: I need to move into management/abc/xyz soon at this stage of my career- would love to do it here within our group if possible. Let’s talk about my development plan.
    That signals that you will need to move on, if not. This seems like a fairly common conversation at my company. And people do move around, a lot. Others stay analysts forever.

  17. I had a similar situation at my last employer.
    I’d go home and whine about things. Raises were modest at best, promotions dried up after a quick rise thru several ranks.

    Bottom-line? I was part of a highly political and childish environment and they just didn’t like me or value my work. If you keep getting those signals, it’s because someone’s sending them. Don’t ignore it, it’s not going away.
    I wasted almost 3 years waiting for things to change. Looking back, I should have invested my time much more wisely (looking for a new job).
    In the end, I sought out a new position in a company that values performance and have been promoted three times and increased my earnings significantly – oh yeah, and I LOVE .

  18. *LOVE my job

  19. It’s also worthwhile to consider that with some more senior positions, being able to manage people doing the junior jobs is a more important than being super-competent with the junior job yourself. The senior jobs also involve skill sets that are totally absent from the junior jobs. I think it’s possible to overlook the importance of showing aptitude for senior skill sets because you spend all your time excelling at the junior skill sets. It’s very easy to get pigeonholed as a “hard worker” but not necessarily a “leader” and can be difficult to overcome that perception.

  20. Grrr!

    I suspect this situation happens more to women then men, as many people in the work place do believe that no matter how many degrees that we have or what we have accomplished, that our role in the workplace is to make everthing work smootly without the expectation of anything other than the tinyest crumb of appreciation in return.

    To directly address the original poster, well if you are so frigging valuable in your current job, then what about asking for a raise that reflects your value?
    I agree with a previous poster, if your needs are being ignored, then there is a reason for that. This is why, even though I am pretty happy in my current in house legal position, I am always looking at the job market and applying for new jobs. (you would be shocked at how easy it is to get an offer if you are not actually looking!!)

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