How To (Politely) Turn Down a Leadership Role
The traditional story goes that career success comes from climbing the ladder to higher and higher management positions.
But, not everybody can be a great manager.
And truth be told, not everyone wants to be a manager — and that’s okay.
If your boss just offered you a leadership position that you don’t want, there are some (polite) ways to turn down the offer without compromising your ability to progress and grow at the company.
“True or false: The only way to succeed is to become a manager.”
You guessed it… false.
The statement above is a myth. Research shows it is possible to progress both laterally and vertically regarding career growth; you just need the right employee development.
While some employees prefer a more linear path and want to climb up the ladder into management roles, others are happier by moving sideways and grow as individual contributors.
Both avenues can lead to success and it just depends on what you want from your career.
One thing to keep in mind though, is that if you’re good at your job, chances are that, with time, your boss might offer you a leadership role.
Now, I’m not saying be bad at your job from now on, or reduce your efficiency. NO!
All I’m saying is, be prepare for when that moment arrives.
You might feel pressured to take the offer.
Some people might even say, “this is a great opportunity,” “wow! you’re lucky they are offering you this,” etc… But you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to.
Regardless if you choose to turn down a management position, that conversation is never easy.
That’s why in this blog, you’ll find prompts to help you decide if you should turn down the promotion, how to politely turn it down, and five considerations to keep in mind when having the difficult conversation. All without compromising your ability to progress in the future.
Table of Contents:
Why Should You Consider Turning Down a Manager Role?
Most of the time, a promotion is welcome, often anticipated and celebrated.
However, there are some situations where it’s not the right career move.
If you’re on the fence about a job promotion, consider these instances and gauge if the best option for you is to decline the offer 👇
You might be interested in the role; however, the timing isn’t right.
You might have a lot of stressors in your personal life that you know will affect your overall performance at work and affect the team you will oversee if you do take the offer. Or it might require a physical move that will take your partner away from their job.
This one takes a lot of self-awareness.
And you could feel as though you’re not prepared to take on the additional responsibilities. It’s okay if you think you need more time in your current position to develop your skills before moving up.
🔝 Upward Movement:
The managerial role is usually a behind-the-scenes role, but you’d prefer to stay in an action-based position.
↗️ Lateral Movement:
The job offer might imply you have to go to a different department or team, and you would prefer to continue working with your current peers.
The promotion comes with a lot more responsibility but the pay raise does not justify it.
How to Politely Turn Down A Leadership Role
Having difficult conversations is always hard... that's why they are called difficult conversations.
And turning down a promoting definitely falls into this category.
Below are four tips or scenarios to have these conversations.
Clear, Upfront Communication
As Anne Sugar, executive coach and speaker for the Harvard Business School Executive Program, writes “if you choose to turn down the leadership path presented to you, it’s your responsibility to define what your success and growth at the company look like.”
Maybe you already know where you want your career trajectory to lead you, and it doesn’t include management…
That’s fine, but to avoid confusion tell your manager during your one-on-one meetings or feedback sessions.
Communicating clearly and being upfront is key.
Before going into the discussion, create a career advament plan.
You can even use this simple template.
Once you have a better idea of where you are and where you want to go, it’s time to initiate that discussion.
Sugar suggests something like: “I was hoping we could use some of this time to discuss my career path here at [company]. I want to make sure I’m transparent about how I think I can best contribute as I grow. I’m primarily interested in improving my technical expertise within the department and that’s where my skills can be best utilized. I don’t have as much of an interest in managing people. Focusing on my expertise and craft — that excites me.”
In some cases, you might not be able to be as proactive with your conversation and a promotion may be sprung on you.
If you didn't have the chance to communicate your disinterest in management before and offer is made, there are other ways to turn down the leadership role.
Let's explore them. 👇
Create a Business Case
After thanking them, and before declining the offer, tell your manager you want time to consider it.
Take a day or two to prepare a case for why staying in your current role and department will ultimately be good for the company (use the template above to emphasize your skills).
The goal is to show your manager how you can contribute to the company’s long-term success and strategic goals.
Sugar suggests something like, “While I appreciate the opportunity, I think I can contribute more to our annual goal of yielding a 20% increase in social media engagement in my current role as a contributing editor. If I move into management, the dashboard I am working on might not get finished. On top of that, I’d love to keep honing my skills around data analysis and copywriting.”
You might add, “Copywriting is what I’m most passionate about and where I see myself advancing down the line. As we expand, I want to take on more responsibilities as an individual contributor in this area.”
Obviously, this is a very specific description for a content editor, but twick it to your role and goals.
Keep in mind you may not be given a lot of time to explain yourself during the meeting, so keep it short and practice beforehand.
Tip: You should also consider how you can expand your current role to benefit the company.
Companies should have a dual career path for their employees. If your company doesn't offer one, consider presenting a similar option to this dual path case.
The most important thing is to be sure to thank your boss for the opportunity.
You don’t want to burn any bridges, especially if you’re trying to stay in the company and grow eventually.
Take a deep breat, calm down your nerves, collect your thoughts and then express you’re grateful and flattered before communicating you aren’t interested in this opportunity.
Now, they might be surprised to learn you are turning down this promotion. Remember recruiters and the talent team is made out humans too, so they will also be flushed with emotions and perhaps even stress from trying to fill in the vacant position.
Tip: To keep your cool, Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, recommends that you keep your voice steady and avoid fidgeting during difficult conversations.
Addressing your manager’s concerns before they are brought up will help you get what you want (to stay at your current role or explore non leadership roles).
For example, think about why they are asking you to take on this role in the first place. Can you make other suggestions to help fill that need?
Perhaps you can recommend other candidates, a colleague who might be suitable or eager to step on the role.
Think about what the company’s needs are (and of the team) and suggest a few areas in which you can help right away without stepping on the role.
Act as a coach by asking questions such as: “How can I help you right now?” or “What projects can I work on until the manager role is determined?
Considerations when turning down a promotion
The Indeed Editorial team recommends these considerations when turning down a promotion to ensure it is an effective conversation:
Remain positive during the conversation to maintain your relationship with your manager and with the company.
Explain your career goals
Share your hopes for your growth with the company during your conversation.
See if you can create an effective plan for your development with the organization.
Employee development is more than just employee training. It’s an investment plan that pays off in the long term.
When companies take the time to invest in their employees they see lower turnover rates, less training and on-boarding costs, improved employee performance, and overall business growth.
If your company doesn't have an employee development action plan, the wheel below is a good first step.
You can also check Unicorn Lab's blog tab where we share resources to develop teams and individuals.
Consider trying the position
If you're still on the fence, rather than fully turning down the position, ask if you can try it on a temporary basis to see if it's the right fit for both you and the company before committing full time.
Think about the consequences
Know that your manager may not react positively to you turning down the promotion — this should not deter you from your choice though.
Remember to share your gratitude for the offer and reassure your manager or boss that you want to stay in your current position.
While it can be flattering to be recommended for a people leadership role, you don’t have to take it if it isn’t what you want for your career, if the timing isn’t right, or even if the compensation is not worth it.
Remember: there are many ways to find success.
Ensure that you are prepared to communicate what you want in a positive and productive way.
Alternatively, consider reading this blog or bringing it to your manager’s attention: