advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

Am I a threat to my boss?

I work for a medium-sized tech company that supports a variety of corporate clients, including banks and healthcare companies. I’m new to the working world – and I’ve only been with this organization for about a year. I love my job, though. The work interests me, and I have a great manager.

       Here’s my issue: Now that I’ve settled into my role—that is, I know the systems, software, and have started taking clients—occasionally I feel like I know MORE than my boss does about certain things. Just the other day, for example, I was telling him about a particular client and he asked me if I’d considered possibility X to address a particular issue they were having. I replied that not only had I considered it, I’d followed through on it was well – and that had led me to possibility/plan Y, which I was now in the process of implementing (with the client’s approval). In other words, I was two steps ahead of him! I could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or threatened by my being so on the ball. Like I said, I’m really happy with him as my manager, but I don’t want to sour our relationship by outshining him. Yet I also don’t see how holding myself back is helpful either, to me, him, or the company. What should I do? – Name withheld

First, congrats on the job, and the manager. It’s always nice to hear from someone who’s happy with their work situation.

So let’s try to make sure it stays that way.

Yes – it is possible for your manager to be both impressed and threatened by your performance. But that’s not necessarily your—or his—fault.

At many organizations, promotion to management is contingent upon having mastered whatever non-management role you held prior to being promoted. A top salesperson is made sales manager, for example, or an exceptional engineer is promoted to project manager. The logic here is obvious: Who better to advise, assist, support, and otherwise “manage” their less inexperienced colleagues than someone who excelled in the position? 

The problem, however, is the precedent this sets.

By rewarding a particular skill or technical excellence with promotion, managers come to view anyone more capable than they not as an organizational asset, as they should, but a professional threat. If my subordinate knows more than me, they’re apt to think, what’s to stop my employer from making THEM the manager? It is therefore completely reasonable—and indeed forgivable—for your manager to be intimidated by your competence. Frankly, I’m amazed more managers aren’t suspicious of their direct reports, given this approach to promotions.  

Of course, the best organizations and managers don’t see things this way. They understand that managing is a unique and challenging skill in its own right. The best salespeople won’t necessarily make good sales managers, and vice versa, and they recognize this. Instead, they choose individuals who they think will make great managers.

But back to your predicament.

Since it’s not clear to me which category your manager falls into (supportive or suspicious), here’s a couple of options to consider:

(1) You back off just a bit.

Keep doing the same fantastic job, mind you. Just don’t be quite so in-your-face about your successes. In the scenario you describe, for example, instead of basically saying “I already thought of that, stupid,” try “You know, I tried approaching the problem in the way I thought you might. That’s how I came up with this new plan…” Or “Wow – I guess great minds really do think alike!” In other words, soften your message by making him feel as if he’s contributed too, even if not directly (and even if he didn’t).

(2) You shine on, you crazy diamond.

Like I said, there are some truly great managers out there who are not threatened by their employees’ performance, or their accomplishments. If that’s your situation, your manager will actually want to hear about your successes. But if not, you’ll probably pick up on that pretty quickly too. Look for these telltale signs: He expresses little enthusiasm in your good work, and instead dwells on your errors and mistakes, often very minor. He may even try to take credit for what you do.

That probably doesn’t sound very optimistic. Don’t be discouraged, though. I’m hopeful your manager is one of the “good ones” – but even if not, so long as you don’t go all in outshining him in front of your colleagues, there’s a good chance you’ll be okay.

Finally, I think another round of congratulations are in order as well.

In case you aren’t already aware, what you’re experiencing—and having to navigate—is one of the many, many manifestations of that unfortunate workplace phenomena known as “office politics.”

Best of luck, and let me know how things turn out.

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