26 Tactics for Getting Promoted at Work

Good leadership may be causing you to miss out on a life-changing opportunity.

Posted Feb 03, 2021

PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock by Getty Images
Source: PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock by Getty Images

Getting ahead in life is hard work, and it doesn’t always depend on real competence. The consensus in academia is that around 65 percent of leaders end up failing spectacularly, probably because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

How is this possible? How is it possible that bad leaders get promoted in organizations while good leaders get left behind?

Consider research in sociobiology that suggests two games are going on in organizational life. The first game is called a within-group competition. Here, teammates compete with each other to stand out, visibly demonstrating their competence and negotiating and debating for the top spot. Political races are an excellent example of within-group competition. We’re all on the same team, but there is a competition to decide who will lead us. Political candidates debate each other, give speeches, use marketing tactics to get your vote and bash the other candidates' reputations.

The second competition is a between-group battle. And this fight concerns our team versus the other team. While national politics is a within-group competition, one country competing against another is a between-group competition. In business, this is about out-competing rivals for market share, technological advancements, customers, talent, and so on.

Now, consider this: Is becoming a politician based on competence? How much of what it takes to be elected is based purely on social skill, projecting confidence, talking in absolutes, giving people hope, and sharing a compelling vision?

Here’s the thing: Research in the social sciences shows that it’s all about your reputation in the group, which is facilitated by political skills, influencing capabilities, charisma, and confidence.

Here’s the other thing: Effective leaders are usually better at leadership than getting promoted. What it takes to win against your peers is the opposite of what it takes to be a good leader. Getting promoted requires influence, confidence, and charisma; whereas, good leadership is about inclusion, humility, and calm stability. As a friend of mine likes to say: “Boring is underrated.”

Can you think of a time when a charismatic charlatan overpowered a reasonable, conscientious person? I hope so; 70 percent of countries in the world are dictatorships. It happens all the time, all over the world. And I think that’s an unfortunate aspect of the human condition.

So, here are 26 lightning-quick tips for the introverted and humble leaders out there struggling to make themselves heard, feeling frustrated with their career progression when they are undoubtedly qualified for the job.

Keep an eye on your reputation. There are two aspects of personality: identity and reputation. Identity is what you think about yourself, and it just doesn’t matter that much. Sure, it matters to the extent it influences your ability to project confidence, but it isn’t the key ingredient in getting promoted. As Freud said, what you think about yourself is inconsequential because you made it all up. Conversely, your reputation is the key to career success and, as you might imagine, successful people vigorously manage it.

  • Take a personality assessment to see how you likely come off to others
  • Ask those you trust for honest feedback
  • Imagine yourself from the other person’s perspective  
  • Be careful coming across as better than other people, especially the boss
  • Be an archetype of the culture; going against deep-seated values will get you demoted, not promoted
  • Control your emotions and words to adapt to the situation
  • Appear as you have it together; never show you’re struggling
  • Avoid fighting with colleagues at all costs
  • Share your successes and how well your team is doing
  • Don’t get sucked into the drama of complainers, whiners, and those antagonistic toward the organization

Learn how to be charismatic. Contrary to popular belief, charisma is entirely trainable. Charisma is about what people do — not who they are. People have tendencies, called personality, but ultimately charisma is observed by other people. So then, what can you do to go from bland and boring to magnetic appeal?

  • Tell compelling stories like a marketer that paints a before and after picture
  • Simplify your message so everyone can understand
  • Use metaphors to conjure vivid images
  • Show moral conviction and passion
  • Leverage extreme contrasts to make your point
  • Ask rhetorical questions
  • Sit up straight with your chest out and chin slightly up
  • Dress the part; it’ll make you feel more confident
  • Take a public speaking class
  • Demonstrate sincerity, honesty, and openness

Use the power of influence. People who want power read books about influence, such as Robert Cialdini’s research-backed book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Instead of reading the book cover to cover, create an actionable, self-improvement plan that incorporates these six techniques.

  • Reciprocity: Give to receive, and it doesn’t have to be tangible gifts
  • Scarcity: Don’t appear too available or you risk coming off as weak and dutiful
  • Authority: Be an expert, know the business (or at least build a reputation of business competence)
  • Consistency: Gain small commitments and steadily increase them over time (the foot-in-the-door technique used by salespeople)
  • Liking: Be friendly and respectful, show empathy, and improve your charisma
  • Consensus: Show that other people are doing it, too, or that what you’re asking them to do is best practice


Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Harper Collins.