When Your Manager does not Support Your Career Goals

By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, FAAN


“No one can make us feel inferior without our consent.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

It happened again last week.  One of our young, rising star nurse leader graduate students came to talk with me about a dilemma she was having at work.  We had just met earlier in the day with her mentor who is a senior leader in her organization.  The mentor was excited about her career potential and made suggestions about organizational development programs that my graduate student should attend to further develop her career goals.  My student said very little in response to these suggestions but later told me that it was highly unlikely that her manager would support such a request.  She has worked on her unit for the past four years.  She will soon be finished with her masters degree.  It becoming very clear to her that she will probably not be able to achieve the career advancement that she had hoped for on her own unit.  The reason is that her manager does not support her advancement.  She has verbally been told by this manager that she is not ready to move up in the organization.  When questioned for specifics, the manager had little to offer in terms of suggestions.  Her question to me was this What do you do when you love your unit and love your team but know that you will have to move on to move up?  She already knew the answer to the question.  She probably does need to look for opportunities outside her own unit.  Fortunately, she works for a large health system and will likely have little problem finding good career opportunities.  Not everyone is so lucky.

Why does this Happen?

Nurse managers may not support the career goals of staff for a variety of reasons.  These can include the following:

  1. Fear of competition from a talented subordinate
  2. Lack of security about one’s own place in the organization
  3. Jealousy that senior leadership has noticed the skills of a staff member
  4. Concern about losing a clinically experienced and competent staff member
  5. Feelings that the staff member is trying to progress too quickly on the career ladder
  6. Flawed chemistry between the staff member and the manager

It is important in these situations for you to take the high road despite your disappointment and feelings of lack of support.  Always behave professionally and never say negative things about the manager to other staff.  Also do an honest assessment of where you are in your current role.  Ask yourself if you really are ready for a promotion and have your work achievements reflected positively on your manager and team.  If you are unable to immediately move into another role, it is important to find a mentor who will support your career aspirations.

What We Know about the Importance of a Supportive Manager

There is one consistent finding in the leadership research both in nursing and in other professions.  The primary reason staff leave an organization, department or unit is a lack of support from their manager.  In their research looking at nurse manager support of staff, Schamlenberg and Kramer found that support of the ability of staff nurse to continue his/her education and career goals was highly valued by nurses surveyed.  While ultimately you must take responsibility for your career goals, a supportive manager can pave the way to greater career opportunities.  One of the best pieces of career advice that I ever received was to always work  for leaders who were very accomplished because they would be less likely to be threatened by the career success of a staff member.  When interviewing for positions, you should consider this and look for managers who are known for recognizing the talent on their team and supporting their superstars.  Also an aspiring nurse leader, this will be a  important lesson for your own future.  As a manager, you will want to know the career goals of your staff and be explicit in your desire to help staff achieve them.   Kouzes and Posner, two well known leadership experts in the field of business, have noted that the most significant contribution that leaders can make for the future is develop their successors so they will adapt, prosper and grow.  This is good advice for all nurse managers to remember.

Dr. Rose O. Sherman, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN is a Professor of Nursing and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. To read more of her articles, visit her blog, Emerging RN Leader.