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The big “no thank you”: How to turn down a leadership role at work

One of the joys of management is getting to promote someone internally. Aside from being less hassle than hiring externally, promoting from within is an opportunity to reward someone’s hard work. But what about when your star candidate declines your generous offer? A high-performing worker turning down a leadership position isn’t unheard of, so you need to be prepared for the eventuality.

Why would someone turn down a leadership role?

There are plenty of reasons why someone might refuse a promotion, like stress, self-doubt, or a lack of fair compensation. All of these reasons can also be applied to employees who are specifically turning down a leadership position.

If anything, these issues are worse for people being offered leadership roles. Managers are often expected to go the extra mile as proof of commitment, such as working overtime. In fact, research from TUC previously found that managers work a significant number of unpaid additional hours each week. The only non-management professionals to do more unpaid work were teachers.

So, even if your employee accepted a non-management-based promotion in the past, don’t assume they’ll agree again.

Leadership often comes with the biggest changes in responsibility, which can cause significant change in a person’s day-to-day work experience. An employee might not be interested in management because they value their working relationships more than getting promoted. It could also be because management responsibilities would them away from the part of their career they love. For example, a doctor who thrives on patient care may not relish more admin and less ward time.

Are the stakes higher when turning down a leadership position?

If you’ve previously declined a smaller promotion, suddenly having to turn down a management role can feel an escalation in anxiety.

On one hand, being offered a management role after refusing promotions implies it didn’t affect your employer's view of you.

But, on the other hand, turning down a leadership role can seem like a bigger rejection. It’s a more significant offer you're saying no to. While turning down a smaller promotion might seem like you’re playing hardball and holding out for more, carelessly turning down a management position might be more likely to suggest you’re not particularly ambitious.

Turning down a management role

Turning down a leadership position might not be so nerve-wracking if you’re done with your employer, but the reason many people are nervous about turning down a job offer like this is because they would actually quite like to keep working in their current role.

If that sounds like you, then the most important things to bear in mind are to be polite in your refusal, and that you need to clearly explain your reasons for declining. Clarify that you’re passionate about the work you’re already doing, and if possible, talk about how you want to develop in ways besides a promotion to management. If you do all that, you shouldn’t have anything extra to fear from saying ‘No’ to being a manager.

However, if you’re still worried about how the conversation will go, it’s worth practicing with a friend or colleague. It’s not always the easiest thing to figure out how your behaviour might be interpreted by others. What you might think sounds light and conversational could sound aloof and dismissive to someone else. So, taking a dry run at turning down a leadership position with someone you trust can provide valuable perspective.

Employees should turn down leadership roles if they don’t want them

The thing is, as much as you want to be careful in how you decline being promoted, the benefits of accepting a promotion you don’t want are far outweighed by the negatives:

  • A poorly fitting job is awful for wellbeing: It really goes without saying, but if you don’t like your job, it’s going to make you miserable. Add to that the fact that managers in fast-paced organisations have a lot of particularly stressful plates to keep spinning, and you have a recipe for total disaster. If you’re happy where you are, don’t upset the apple cart just to please someone else.
  • Employers have a long and proud history of promoting the wrong person: Your employer might be fairly passionate about cajoling you into a management role. They might insist that they can see your potential, and that you’ll flourish once you’re used to it, but that doesn’t mean you should listen to them.

    That’s because, statistically speaking, they’re probably wrong. Research from Gallup shows that companies fail to promote the right candidate to management 82% of the time. So, the next time your boss talks down to you about what kind of job you’d excel in, just ignore it for the hot air it is.
  • A bad manager destroys employee engagement: But what if you let them persuade you? Well, that way lies madness. People the world over may like to joke that their bosses don’t do anything, but that’s not true. Managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. This means that, if management really isn’t for you, it’s everyone else who suffers.

Does the workplace culture towards promotion need a change?

Ultimately, businesses need to branch out from the old-fashioned idea of a management-centric career path being the universal standard. While it’s easy to assume that someone turning down a leadership position or any other promotion is a sign of laziness or a lack of commitment, the truth is usually a lot more nuanced. And, by alienating the sections of your talent who aren’t interested in bossing others around, employers risk losing:

  • Their hardest working ground-level employees
  • Their most innovative creatives
  • Potential mentors and knowledge specialists

In the end, employees should remember that good alternatives to management won’t be commonplace until you start seriously advocating for them. Turning down promotions you don’t want is just the first step.

Time to find out how a simple employee check-in could help improve your workplace culture?