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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 a little over a year. I love my job, though. I find the work interesting, and I have a great manager.

 

Here’s my issue: Now that I’ve settled into my position—that is, I know the systems, software, and have started taking clients—sometimes I feel like I know MORE than my boss about certain things. For instance, the other day we were talking about a particular client and he asked me if I’d considered possibility X? 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 or three steps ahead of him! I could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by my being so on the ball…or threatened by my being so on the ball. Like I said, I’m really happy with him as my manager, and I don’t want to sour our relationship by outshining him. But I also don’t see how holding myself back is helpful either, to me, to him, or the company. What should I do? – Name withheld

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

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

Here’s what’s going on: Yes – your boss may be simultaneously both impressed AND threatened by your competence. But it’s not necessarily your—or his—fault.

At many, many organizations today, promotion to management is contingent upon having excelled in whatever non-management role you held previously. Top salespeople are often promoted to sales manager, for example. Or an exceptional engineer is made a project manager. The logic here is probably obvious to you: Who better to advise, support, or otherwise manage their younger and/or more inexperienced colleagues than someone with a history of demonstrated success in the position?

The problem, however, is the precedent this sets.

By rewarding technical excellence with promotion, managers understandably  view anyone they perceive to be more capable than they not as an organizational asset, as they should, but as professional threat. If I was promoted based on what I know, they’re apt to think, but my subordinate seems to know even more than me, 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 that more managers aren’t suspicious of their direct reports, given how most managers are promoted.  

Of course, at the best organizations managers don’t behave this way. They understand that technical skill and managerial skill are completely different abilities. The best salespeople don’t necessarily make the best sales managers, for instance, and vice versa. These organizationsand their managersrecognize this. They promote individuals who they think will make good managers, not because they have a particular skill set, or expertise.

But back to your situation.

It’s not clear to me which category your manager belongs to (supportive or suspicious) – so 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, instead of basically saying ‘Yeah, I already thought of that, stupid’, try something like ‘I thought about what you’d suggest. That’s how I came up with the idea…’ or ‘I guess great minds really do think alike!’ In other words, soften the message by deflecting some of the credit his way, or making him feel as if he somehow contributed (even if he hasn’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’ competence, or their accomplishments. If that’s your manager, he’ll actually want to hear about your successes. But if not, you’ll probably pick up on that pretty quickly too. Look for the telltale signs: He’ll express little enthusiasm for your good work, and instead dwell on your errors of judgment and mistakes. He may even try to take credit for what you do. Continue to pay close attention until you have a better sense of what you’re dealing with.

I know this doesn’t sound terribly optimistic. Don’t be discouraged, though. Here’s hoping your manager is in fact one of the ‘good ones’, and continues to be as supportive as he currently seems.

And then finally, perhaps congratulations are in order as well?

If you weren’t already aware, you’re dealing with one of the many, many manifestations of that thing called ‘workplace politics.’

Good luck, and let me know how things turn out.

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