Applauz Blog

Applauz Book Club: How to Offer Career Development When Promotions are Scarce

Published: July 26, 2022

  7 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

promotions are so yesterday book summary

In this edition of Applauz Book Club, we read Promotions Are So Yesterday by Julie Giulioni and learn how you can give employees growth without promotions.

📖Applauz Book Club is a series that outlines noteworthy ideas from popular books on the topics of work, HR strategy, and management. Here's last month’s Applauz Book Club article, How to Build a Deep Purpose Organization.

Organizations and managers face this common problem – employees want career growth, but promotions are in short supply.

As a result, you might find managers dodging career talks to avoid disappointing employees.

But it's impossible to avoid.

Most employees want some form of growth at work. And they view career development as a core expectation of their bosses.

Ultimately, when managers fail to meet this need, many employees wind up quitting.

A solution: The multidimensional career

In her 2022 book, Promotions are So Yesterday, Julie Winkle Giulioni believes companies can avoid this problem; she urges leaders to start by expanding their understanding of what it means to "grow" at work.

She explains companies should shift away from the traditional, rigid view of career growth.

In other words, Giulioni believes promotions, moves, or title changes should not be the only way we define growth or career development in the workplace.

Work has changed, she states.

The typical workplace hierarchy has shrunk, people are working later in life, and there are not enough new positions to accommodate all employees who come on board.

Simply put: It's time to challenge “climb culture.”

Key Take-Aways

Here’s a summary of the major take-aways from the book

Giulioni wants readers to know growth at work doesn't have to mean climbing the ladder.

Employee development should encompass so much more than this one-dimensional model.

To prove her theory, she surveyed 750 working professionals. She presented them with many types of development options, and she asked them to select which ones they preferred.

The findings may surprise you...

Most people chose "climb" (i.e. advancing through official promotions) as their LEAST desired development area!

These are the alternative dimensions participants selected in order of importance:

  1. Contribution: satisfying the desire to make a difference at work.
  2. Competence: enabling employees to develop specific skills, knowledge and capabilities.
  3. Connection: supporting the steps necessary to expand and deepen social networks
  4. Confidence: cultivating a realistic understanding of where the employee's limitations and abilities lie.
  5. Challenge: allowing employees to step up and step out into situations that stretch beyond what is known.
  6. Contentment: helping employees find a heightened sense of satisfaction and ease.
  7. Choice: enabling employees to exercise a greater sense of control over decisions.
  8. Climb: advancing through promotions or new positions.

This model serves as the foundation for approaching employee development. In short, these are the different avenues managers can take to provide growth to employees.

You can even access her official assessment here if you want to know where your employees stand within these seven dimensions.

Taking the time to nurture these areas of development takes time and effort on the manager's part, but it will pay out tenfold. The impact of investing in employee growth on engagement and happiness is massive. Ultimately leading to happier, more productive and loyal employees.

fingers walking up block steps that spell CAREERHow to Promote Employee Career Development When Promotions are Scarce


Humans all desire to contribute to something bigger — for example, the act of serving, offering one's knowledge, skills, and experience. This internal motivator is strong for most people.

It's no surprise that Giulioni found "contribution" to be the number one opportunity desired by employees.

Cultivating contribution comes in all shapes and sizes and is fully under the managers' control. Yes, it will take some effort and time to nurture these opportunities, but Giulioni emphasizes – it's a win-win.

"When approached thoughtfully and with intention, enhanced contribution simultaneously benefits both personal growth and organizational results."

In this chapter, Giulioni offers steps for managers to carve out avenues for employees to contribute.

It all starts with:

  • Dialogue: Find out what the employee wants to offer. Start by asking questions like "what more could you offer in your current role" and "how might you find greater purpose and meaning in your work." Giulioni offers a complete checklist of questions to get the conversation started.
  • Connect the dots: Help employees pause and take a step back. Help them define the importance of what they already do.
  • Optimize the current role: Giulioni believes managers can optimize and enhance any role by taking a critical look at what else is possible.
  • Adopt a project: In any organization, there are always improvement opportunities or projects to complete. You can help employees fulfill their need for contribution by connecting them to these projects.

She closes by emphasizing the importance of recognition. “Drawing positive attention to employees who invest in their growth sends a message about what’s important to you and may inspire others to make a similar investment.”


Developing specific skills, knowledge, and capabilities is what the competence dimension is all about. In Giulion’s research, "competence" ranked second among career growth desires.

Many people expressed how "learning and growing were fun and enhanced their engagement."

For employees who desire greater competence, Giulioni urges managers to start by having a focused conversation. The goal is to zoom in on the skills they would like to learn.

Some managers may object to this approach and say, "we are simply too busy to learn new things."

Giuloini admits this is an objection she gets a lot from managers. But she affirms that development should be "woven into and around authentic tasks and genuine contributions."

In other words, invite the development right into the jobs they already do. This chapter contains many practical tools and questionnaires designed for managers to kickstart and guide these critical discussions.


It is not only great work performance that leads to career success. It's also the quality of your work relationships.

As such, several participants expressed "connection" as an important dimension of career development.

That said, connections are not only about tangible relationships. It's also about a general feeling of belonging to a group.

Giulioni believes managers can help employees reach a greater sense of belonging and connection with some time and effort. And, of course, guided discussions.

For example, by setting up a "collaborative project" to bring people together or "enhancing visibility."

In short, ask yourself whether you can help an employee gain more organizational visibility?

For example, can you help employees with the following:

  • Attend an event
  • Meet key leaders
  • Lead a meeting

All these small actions are within the manager's control. These actions can help enhance an employee's reputation and expand their potential, which is a very important component of growing at work that doesn't necessarily involve an official promotion.


An employee who is more confident has a greater sense of trust and appreciation for their own skills. In turn, a company will see a range of positive outcomes for both the individual work and the organization. 

Giulioni offers some practical strategies for managers to build their employee's confidence. 

For example,

  • Share your own struggles: relay stories of when your own confidence was compromised.
  • Hone what is known: reinforce success around a current skill or task the employee is already doing.
  • Challenge comfort zones: nudge employees out of their comfort zone to build confidence.
  • Learn from success: after something goes well, help employees derive insights and growth from their wins as much as they do from their losses.

Giulioni asserts that building your employee's confidence is worth investing time in. Not only will it enrich the employee-manager relationship, but when people believe in themselves, "it triggers a cascade of positive responses, relationships, and results."


Employees who crave challenges are passionate about accelerating their growth, unearthing talents, and improving their performance.

As a manager, your challenge is to help employees step into situations that stretch them beyond what is known. However, Giulioni points out that you must find a sweet spot.

In other words, it is possible to stretch employees beyond what they're capable of, which will often result in a loss of morale and spirit. This is the opposite of what you're trying to achieve!

As such, she offers several avenues managers can use to help employees take on a new challenge.

For example:

  • Raise the bar: can you put employees on the task of doing something better, faster, or cheaper for your customers.
  • Adding complexity to current task or role: can you create more challenging conditions for the role the employee is already doing.
  • Venture into the void: are any unclaimed projects or gaps between departments and teams that need to be filled?

Giulioni closes the chapter with an important note. Be careful not to pass off harder or more work as a "challenge." A challenge must be aligned with an employee's growth goals to be deemed a career development activity. In short, a two-way discussion should always take place before you assign a new responsibility. By skipping this step, the challenge will only appear as more work.


Those who desired more contentment at work expressed a need to “enjoy their work” and “feel fulfilled and satisfied.” Contentment is also related to desiring greater well-being, balance, health, and rest.

She suggests as a leader to exemplify that contentment is a valued workplace need by taking care of your own well-being. If employees see you model healthy behaviours, they will be more likely to do it themselves.

She also suggests getting on the same page with your employee – understanding what fuels their contentment.

For example, it could be:

  • More appreciation and recognition
  • More autonomy
  • More friendships
  • More fun
  • More meaningful work
  • More creativity

Giulioni offers a checklist to help managers get started on having a conversation with employees about contentment.

Once you have this conversation, Giulioni recommends making structural tweaks to the employees’ work and responsibilities – an exercise she calls “job crafting.”

You craft the job to meet the needs you identify in your initial conversations. She states that managers should view work as a puzzle – “It’s a matter of shifting tasks among employees to introduce variety, interest, and the meaning they crave.”


Autonomy is a basic psychological need we all share.

According to her, employees often seek promotions when, in reality, they are seeking more autonomy.

A need for more autonomy might be at the center of an employee's desire for promotion.

If so, this is a perfect opportunity to infuse more freedom into an employee's role.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Help employees recognize the autonomy they already have: make them aware of what they may be taking for granted.
  • Become a macro manager: this is the opposite approach of a micro-manager. You can use the tools she offers in this chapter to determine what end of the spectrum you fall under.
  • Give greater decision-making power: give employees more autonomy by giving them greater power over the decisions they make at work.

But she warns us to avoid what she calls the "delegate and dash" approach.

If you want to see success in increasing employee decision-making, you must offer them ongoing support. This includes checking in, tracking their progress, giving frequent feedback, and coaching them as they continue to assume greater responsibility.

Won’t People Still Want Promotions?

Giulioni closes the book by addressing an important question.

The answer is obvious – yes.

Giulioni admits that even with this new model, employees will likely still desire promotions.

So why are people so glued to precious promotions?

Long-standing cultural beliefs and norms encourage people to focus on promotions as the main indicator of career success.

Giulioni explains it will take some larger cultural shifts for companies to move away from promotions as the only means of growth.

For example:

  • Children are asked at an early age what they want to be (not what they want to do). It sets the stage for people to think of their worth based on their title and profession.
  • Our society pressures us to respond to the question "what do you do for a living" with titles and labels.
  • Many people implicitly believe a person's worth is determined by how fast he or she climbs the ladder.
  • Promotions are linked to better compensation. Companies must find ways to provide greater compensation that is not dependent on promotions.

Until we start to question these beliefs collectively, change will be slow.

However, she emphasizes that managers are critical in pioneering this movement. To that end, she urges managers to "just start."

"Continuing to confuse career development with attaining a specific position will only limit the growth that both employees and organizations need."

Start small, she says.

Pick an employee you already have a great relationship with, start a conversation, and get the ball rolling. It will take effort and dedication on your part, but in the long run, these steps are guaranteed to help employees feel their growth is a priority, resulting in greater engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

A Happier Workplace


Subscribe and join our community of curious HR Professionals and Managers.