What to Do When You're Passed Over at Work

11/09/2010 03:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mike was one of three management trainees recruited from the same university. They had the same grades, the same ambitions, and all were expected to succeed in the same Fortune 500 Company. Three years later, only one promotion was offered to them. Mike did not get it. Thunderstruck, he was ready to attack his boss, hate his buddies, and to quit. What could he do? Here are five suggestions for Mike and any of you who have been passed over.

1) Take time out in private to dump your rage and bitterness. Scream or cry where it is safe. But discharging the first wave of an emotional outpouring would only hurt you if your boss were witness to it.

2) Arrange a meeting soon with your boss. Calmly ask why you didn't get the promotion. Listen carefully to the response so that you can learn more about the reasons someone else was preferred. State that you are disappointed, that you want to do better and be rewarded, and that you are eager to improve. Ask what you need to demonstrate in the meantime and if or when a promotion might be planned.

3) Confront the situation directly by figuring out why someone else was preferred. Were you slower in developing technical or managerial skills? Did you have less of a positive relationship with your boss? Did you keep a lower profile about your achievements, your team's achievements, or your boss's? Did you fail to follow through on any project? Did you withhold any good ideas, take too strong stands, or embarrass your boss? Be painfully honest in this evaluation of your behavioral and technical performance and check this out with a confirmed friend and perhaps your boss.

4) Learn to improve on every front, especially where you are weak. Without rancor, take steps to get better. Enroll in management seminars, technical courses, even therapy if you can't free yourself from anger or if you find developing personal politics repulsive.

Take this opportunity to develop a special role for your company. Instead of competing in the same way, add another skill or dimension. Several possibilities often occur: 1) you are suddenly more valued and considered for projects that would never have come your way, or 2) the new specialty takes you on a different -- and more interesting -- path.

5) Or, you may discover that you are not as similar to your boss as you thought; the candidate who was closest to and therefore the most like your boss was rewarded. A personal analysis may reveal that you actually don't fit in as you had hoped. That information tells you that you must reconsider working for your boss, your division, or even your organization. Start looking around for that "chemistry" between another boss and you, another kind of work within the company, or the same work but within a competing organization. Don't spend your career disappointed and cynical; take the message of non-promotion and use it well.

Using this situation well means learning that not everyone moves ahead together, or evenly, in work as we all did in school. Life, after all, doesn't run in a gradual upward line on a progress graph as we might have fantasized. Instead, it plummets down and climbs up again more like the Dow Jones averages. Often what causes the climbs or the falls are things we understand; sometimes the reasons completely baffle us. What matters is that we want to live and work for something we care about. To do this we must develop discipline, even faith, in ourselves to participate in the best sense, and to continue to experiment and grow for our companies, our professions, and ourselves.

Make your luck happen!

Dr. Adele
Author of Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College