7 Traits of People Who Get Promoted

Do your employees wonder how to get promoted? Are there uncomfortable struggles between employees who think promotion is based on nepotism, longevity, hard work, favoritism, or various other standards? Does the whole thing make your head spin when you think about promoting from within?

Maybe you think promotion is just a job title, or that an employee will “grow into” the promotion. Promoting your employees isn’t easy. You can look for seemingly good indicators and then still get it wrong.

Keep The Peter Principle In Mind

If you promote based on someone simply being a good worker, you’re going to crash headlong into the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle is when someone is continually promoted until they hit the limits of their incompetence. At that point, they are no longer promoted and forever sit in a position they don’t do well at.

Basically, someone who is doing a great job in their current position might seem like a shoo-in for a promotion, but without core traits that are needed in higher promoted positions, you may have simply removed a person from a job they excelled at and put them in one they are completely unqualified for. Your best cashier might make a terrible shift manager. Your short-order cook, who seems to handle incredible stress and fast-paced work, might fail miserably as a lead chef.

Not every good work skill transfers well into a promotion.

This is completely unfortunate for the person being promoted and those stuck beneath them in their final position. No one wins, everyone feels frustrated by the incompetence, and true skills are being wasted where they don’t fit.

How To Get Promoted With Solid Foundational Traits

Solid foundational traits are qualities that indicate suitability for a variety of jobs and, ultimately, a position of leadership. These traits push back against the Peter Principle.

As an employer or manager, you must be able to look beyond “she’s a good worker” and see the traits that will transition well into the promoted position.

Trait #1: Understands The Job Definition, But Stays Flexible

Understanding what is expected, but also being adaptable to change is a core strength of someone who is ready for promotion.

A good employee understands their job description and does it, but an employee who is ready for promotion is able to understand and adapt to situations that go beyond those boundaries.

The workplace changes. Operational goals shift. Employees come and go. Customer demand waxes and wanes. A rigid definition isn’t always feasible, and flexibility is vital.

Look for an employee who:

  • can adapt in their work without holding a grudge or complaining,
  • who can learn on their feet and figure out a new system for getting the job done based on new expectations, and
  • who can learn and grow from mistakes

Trait #2: Sees What Needs To Be Done

Self-motivation is made up of two parts. The first is being able to see what needs to be done.

It sounds obvious, but not everyone has the ability to do that. Some people need a list of tasks.

There are two problems with that, the first being that employees that rely on being told what to do are unable to identify things to do on their own. That might work for a while, but for such people, once the list is complete, their job is done. Their work is always the minimum required, even if they work hard and do a great job with their assigned tasks.

It’s tiring to have employees that need you to tell them every single thing that needs to be done. There will always be gaps in things you didn’t think to tell them. An employee who can see what needs to be done is able to spot problem areas in customer service or experience. It means they have a big-picture view that extends past job requirement expectations.

The second problem in this situation is that employees who rely on being told what to do often don’t take responsibility for the outcome of their work. If something goes poorly, they can simply say that they were only doing what they were told. They have no ownership in what they do and how they do it.

An employee who has to have someone over them telling them what to do, no matter how great a worker they are, is not ready for promotion. Look for an employee who can spot work that should be done, could be done, or areas where improvement is within their reach. When someone solves a problem you didn’t have to ask them to, pay attention.

Trait #3: Does What Needs To Be Done, And Then Some

The second part of self-motivation is doing what needs to be done. Someone who sees what needs to be done but doesn’t do it is either purposefully lazy or prone to ordering people around.

In other words, identifying areas of improvement isn’t enough. An attitude of being willing to do the work that is necessary.

Why do some employees not do work they know should be done?

Maybe they think it is beneath them, or it is someone else’s job.

While there is validity in not doing other people’s work and meddling in everyone’s affairs, there are times when things need to be done for the sake of the customer experience or the bottom line.

This is directly tied into a work ethic that looks at work in a positive way instead of a means to an end. That is, an employee with this trait sees that work has its own benefit, and has an attitude that the goal is a successfully operating business or customer experience, whoever ends up making it happen. The flip side is someone who looks to do the minimum work possible to achieve the minimum results that would still be considered a completed job.

An employee who works to fill out the hours and get a paycheck is not promotion material. An employee who exceeds work expectations for the big picture, whether the paycheck reflects it or not, is.

Trait #4: Open To Receiving Direction And Training

There’s a fine line between being self-motivated and being unwilling to take direction from a boss.

Consider that 58% of managers say they never received any training on how to be a manager. That’s pretty scary. Here’s the question for you: if you are willing to offer training and direction, does the person have a willingness to receive it?

Being open to receiving direction and training is about having the right attitude.

It’s an employee who is always wanting to learn, instead of an attitude of knowing everything. They ask for input not because they’re afraid to work on their own, but because they value suggestions and are open to improvement.

A self-motivated person who isn’t open to training or suggestion is spurred on by thinking they know everything and that’s why they press on to do everything. Someone who genuinely believes they have something to learn can be redirected if they get off track.

Why is this a good trait for someone about to be promoted?

It’s because they never think they’ve arrived and sit back and stop growing. Instead, they are always looking to improve themselves, their work, and the same for those they will manage.

Trait #5: Listens First, Talks Later

Who doesn’t like someone who thinks on their feet?

Yet we often mistake a fast talker or quick responder to someone who thinks quickly on their feet when this is not always the case.

A fast talker, or someone who responds immediately to every question, does not necessarily indicate a fast thinker. It might simply be a case of someone who speaks before thinking things through. With that in mind, someone who doesn’t answer a question quickly doesn’t mean they are a slow thinker.

Managers and leaders are especially in need of great listening skills, for two reasons.

The first has to do with building a team where everyone feels necessary. Whether or not a manager is learning from the person talking to them isn’t the point. Part of listening to people is to give them a chance to be heard and feel that they are a part of a team. Being a good listener adds value to a person’s self-identity.

The second reason good listening is a required trait is the most obvious: that’s how you learn. Listening isn’t just hearing. It’s hearing, considering, thinking, and then responding or taking action.

Fast talking and thinking can be great, but cutting off fellow employees mid-sentence or blurting out the answers before anyone else, that’s a sign the employee is not ready for a promotion. They haven’t learned to lead others; they’ve only learned to put themselves out front.

Trait #6: Plays Well With Others

Listening well segues into the ever-necessary need to be able to work with and lead a group of people.

You have to play well with others if a promotion is going to work out. Playing well with others involves:

  • Good communication skills. Know when to talk. Know when to listen.
  • Patience and tolerance of a variety of personalities. Empathy and understanding go a long way.
  • Ability to lead unique individuals in a common direction. Being able to build a cohesive group out of individuals bouncing about like atoms is tough; it involves everything from compromise, cajoling, empowering, encouraging, and the tactful art of saying “no” without making it personal.
  • Not looking out for Number One. While self-promotion and personal branding are lauded in this day and age, extreme levels of individualism don’t bode well in promotions that involve leading or managing teams.

While you want your internal leaders to be strong individuals as far as creativity and related qualities, there is little chance that someone who is extremely individualistic in personality and contribution will succeed in a promotion. If narcissism and self-promotion are a characteristic of an employee, they aren’t ready for promotion, especially if the promotion involves leading a team.

Trait #7: Engages With Their Work And Team

An engaged employee forms solid and genuine relationships with those they work with. They take and receive advice. They participate in all things surrounding their job and place of employment. The offer input when asked.

In other words, an engaged employee actually cares.

This matters when it comes to promotions. In the opening paragraph, there was the suggestion that sometimes employers are careless with who they promote because they see it simply as a new job title with a few new responsibilities. The employee version of that mistake is seeing a promotion as more money and little more.

True engagement is about an employee’s motivation. Is it to make money or is it to be part of something that succeeds? Is it to have power and prestige or to lead others to success? Learn to spot a truly engaged employee instead of one who is simply actively looking for promotion and playing the right notes to get it.


When considering employees for internal promotion, look for traits that are universal. It’s not enough to just choose an employee who is a “hard worker.” You must find a combination of great work ethic, self-motivation, leadership, a desire to keep learning, and humility. The Peter Principle is an easy trap to fall into but will rob you of good workers and fill your staff with frustrated managers.

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