What to say when you win a promotion over an older colleague

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Promotions are exciting but they can get complicated quickly – especially if an older, more experienced colleague was passed over for the job.

Unfortunately, you can't control who was selected or even if your new subordinates are angry about the choice. And if you address the hurt feelings directly, you just might make the situation worse.

Luckily, it is possible to move a team past its anger. Here are four steps to conduct a conversation with your coworkers when a promotion leads to a tricky situation.

Step 1: Acknowledge the situation, be empathetic but don't get drawn into a conversation about feelings. A discussion about why someone is angry about getting passed over could easily lead to hurtful statements such as "You're not qualified to be my manager" or "My performance has always been stronger." If you try to defend yourself, tempers could escalate or you might say something hurtful without meaning to. Don't devote your time to repairing the damage of a promotion you didn't hand out. Focus instead on succeeding at your new manager role and moving the conversation forward.

Step 2: Talk about the goals the department has to achieve, both for your company and your customers. When people have something to think about besides themselves and their own feelings, their energy can be directed more productively. Remember: you were promoted to accomplish certain goals, and regardless of any hurt feelings, those goals still need to be accomplished.

Step 3: Ask them about their career aspirations. Just because they didn't get this particular promotion doesn't mean that they can't get other promotions. What do they enjoy doing? What's a project they are proud of? Find out more about your employees — your new direct reports – and what they want.

Step 4: Discuss their career goals and think about ways you can help them plan their career. You're the manager now. That means you have access to resources, insights and training to help employees grow and develop.

Here's a sample scenario for how these steps might sound in real life. Imagine that Pat, your irritated former coworker (who's older and has more years on the job), walks into your office. He sits down and says:

"So I guess you're the boss now, huh? I don't know why they chose you over me, but whatever…"

You reply:

"Pat, I'm really excited to work with you. This department has lots of big goals to achieve for our company and our customers, including [insert your goals here and spend a few minutes reviewing them]. Also, I know there's still an elephant in the room. But, conversations about things we can't control aren't going to help. So let's talk about what we can control. And specifically, let's talk about your aspirations because there may be ways that I can be helpful, with assignments and opportunities I see. By helping me better understand your goals, I can be more helpful to you."

Re-directing the conversation will accomplish several things. It helps you:

  • Empathize with and acknowledge a tough situation.
  • Make it clear that a decision was made, but that there's still a job that needs to be done.
  • Avoid getting pulled into a long conversation about someone's feelings (which will only exacerbate the hurt).
  • Express excitement about working with your team.
  • Give them a path for achieving their career goals by stressing that there's more opportunity for growth in their role if they can work with you.

Your coworker might still be irritated. However, with time you can build a new kind of working relationship and the trust you'll need to get things done.

Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author and teaches the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently.

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