The Role of Power in Workplace Culture

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Being too good at your job can backfire.  

Imagine that you’re a Recreation Supervisor and you’ve just hired a smart-as-a-whip marketing intern (let’s call her Amy) who suddenly ends up exceeding all expectations.  Next thing you know, she’s made friends with all the campers, created a new community event, and established a rockin’ presence on social media.  When YOUR boss sees her good work, he makes it a point to recognize her at the next staff meeting.

As you clap in recognition for your direct report, you seem to be wrestling with two competing thoughts.  On the one hand, you feel proud of Amy;  she’s making a name for herself in your organization.  On the other hand, you can’t help but wonder if she’s going to outshine you.  “I wonder if she’ll be applying for the internal promotion… She seems like a strong candidate…will this end up impacting my job?”

It’s a selfish fear, but it’s there.  

Now imagine that you are the new intern, Amy.  You’re nervous about this new internship opportunity, and can’t stop thinking that that now is the time to prove your potential to everyone. You know that you’re working on a talented team, so you feel pressure to live up to the high expectations of your boss.  You feel proud when your name is recognized at the staff meeting.  “Finally,” you think, “they noticed.”

Assuming that you’re Amy’s supervisor, you have a choice.   At this point, the situation can either be confronted or ignored. If you confront Amy tactfully, the situation could be a bonding moment for the two of you.  If it doesn’t go well — and fear takes over — the situation could take a turn for the worse, especially if you feel threatened by Amy’s confidence.

You can bet that it’s a sticky situation for anyone involved. These kind of problems happen everywhere, but especially in very hierarchal organizations, where one’s job title determines how much power he/she has. Finding a tactful way to approach this issue depends on the personalities, job role, and culture of the organization. You must be aware of how both the new intern feels, and how your supervisor feels.  Play out the roles in your head, and map out the pros and cons to each circumstance.  What are the consequences if things go bad?  What happens if I don’t say anything?  There is always a consequence to taking action, but there are also consequences to NOT taking action.


Passionate employees who want to make a difference don't hide their flame if their boss is threatened. They won't change who they are. They won't play small just because their boss feels uncomfortable.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re the intern again.   But this time you don’t get recognition at the staff meeting.  In fact, you don’t get it at all. You’ve accepted that management staff is way too busy to be handing out compliments.   

I’d like to relay a sad fact to you all: don’t be surprised if your competence goes unrecognized.  If you’re a long-time recovering people-pleaser like myself, you might think: I just need to work harder.  They’re not paying attention because I haven’t done enough yet!  Work, work, work.  Then, suddenly, you have a faint whisper in the back of your head that says, “What if it’s not me?”

If your boss doesn’t recognize the majority of work you do, she might just be busy.  But if your boss is vying for a promotion, or a good annual review, or just positive recognition, realize that she my have fear around giving you credit.  Somewhere deep inside, it might rock her boat.

Why would anyone, especially an accomplished professional, feel threatened by your work?  It might be because you’re awesome!  Or it might be because every body has their own internal battles.  Keep this top of mind: It’s never all about you.  It’s very natural to be sensitive about your job.  Your security.  Your livelihood.   Your identity.   So if your boss starts acting strangely, or starts making a big deal out of small things, then remember: it’s not about you!  

Questions for Reflection

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re in a similar situation. There are no right answers.  

  • Do you feel you still have more things to learn and accomplish in your current position?
  • Are you okay playing by the rules of your organization?
  • Do you have a trusted colleague you can count on?
  • Do you feel like you’re running on a treadmill, not making any progress?
  • Do you feel like your work is being taken for granted?  Does that really matter to you?
  • Are you still making connections and building your network?
  • Can you still make a difference in the community?
  • Are you ok even if you can’t change your boss?  (you can’t)

Ponder on that awhile.  Just be you.

For further reading, check out Liz Ryan’s article on: “Are You Cursed by Competence?”

Why would a manager shoot himself in the foot misusing or abusing the talents of a high-performing, high-potential employee? They'd do it if they feared looking less capable than their own team member, for starters.

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