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3 ways to respond when your manager underestimates you.

Christina @ WOC in Tech Chat on Unsplash
Source: Christina @ WOC in Tech Chat on Unsplash

One reason why our manager’s view of our potential matters so much is because leaders’ expectations tend to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When leaders have high expectations of employees, employees are more likely to rise to the challenge. Researchers refer to this as the Pygmalion effect. In contrast, when leaders have low expectations of employees, those employees are less likely to thrive. This is referred to as the Golem effect.

Golemhood isn't your destiny

What if we are one of those individuals whose manager doesn’t seem to think very highly of our potential? Do we resign ourselves as victims of social science, simply accepting that our manager’s perspective will write our future? Of course not!

Though science has shown a tendency towards leader expectation becoming self-fulfilling prophesy, that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. There’s a big difference between tendency and inevitably. Plenty of people have achieved great feats in spite of others not thinking they could.

I hope your manager recognizes your strengths and potential. But if they don’t, you still get to choose how to respond. Here are some tips to help you turn a sour situation into one that keeps you growing, and acting with integrity. Each of these 3 tips addresses something you can do within your own mindset. There are additional strategies you can leverage using the support of others, which will be addressed in future blogs.

  1. Stay curious - A boss’s low opinion of us can feel like a threat, as we may fear it will impact our livelihood. Natural responses to threats include fight (getting critical, active aggressively, or acting passive-aggressively), flight (avoidance), or freeze (feeling stuck). And while these reactions are understandable, and helpful in certain situations, in this situation they can compromise our capacity to show up as our best selves. One antidote is to practice curiosity. Brené Brown writes:

“When I feel myself reaching for my favorite armor (perfectionism, anger, being the knower, trying to control, emotional intensity, getting critical), I try to remember that the antidote to armoring up is staying curious.”

  • We can get curious about ourselves by digging deeper into our initial reactions to ensure a more thoughtful response. The last time I felt unrecognized, I realized it wasn’t the lack of recognition from my manager that was getting to me, it was the lack of professional growth that comes along with being challenged at the right level. So while I continued to perform the agreed-upon tasks of my job, I simultaneously sought out additional challenges to help propel myself to the next level. Try asking yourself:
    • Why am I feeling (fill in the blank)?
    • What's my part?
    • What can I do to shift the situation positively?
  • We can get curious about our manager by checking our assumptions, and asking ourselves the following questions:
    • What story am I telling myself about this person?
    • Am I sure it’s true?
    • What’s another possible explanation?

2. Define yourself for yourself - Celebrated poet Audre Lorde—a black, lesbian mother in an inter-racial marriage, born in 1932—understood the danger of allowing others’ expectations to define us. In a 1982 speech she shared:

“If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Thank goodness the Golem effect is only a tendency, not an inevitability, or we’d lose out on so many of the heroines and heroes who defied expectations and achieved the greatness that inspires generations.

A boss looking down on you can rattle your foundation. One way to make that foundation unflappable is to know what you stand for at your core. What are your strengths, values, and purpose? Getting clear on this helps us define ourselves for ourselves, so others’ definitions hold less weight.

3. Find the silver lining - It can be helpful to reframe negative experiences into “research.” How can this experience help you in the future? A 2018 study from the University of Central Florida found that negative experiences with a boss can actually help us become future better leaders.

Take time to reflect upon objective behaviors (negative and positive) your boss is doing, and how these behaviors impact you. Note which ones you would like to emulate, and which ones you’d like to avoid. Leverage the experience for your own leadership training, feeding your capacity to be a great leader to others.

Final thoughts
I hope you always work with leaders who uplift you and bring out your best. Science suggests that leaders who underestimate you may trigger lower performance. But this is not inevitable. Science also suggests a bad boss can help you become a great boss. Be proactive about stacking the odds in your favor by staying curious, self-possessed, and optimistic. Take this negative experience with a manager and use it as fuel to become the type of leader you wish you had. When you do this, you will make it such that even a bad boss, even indirectly, can make the world of work a better place.

More from Sarah Greenberg, MFT
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