You will be underestimated at some point in your professional life. If you haven’t yet been the underdog, it’s bound to happen. It doesn’t matter how impressive you are as an individual, how many letters and designations are in your title, or where you’ve worked. Even the most qualified individuals get typecast into roles and find themselves victims of all kinds of stereotypes. While great employers challenge you with a position which poises you for growth, many companies seek only to maintain a status quo which they’ve likely already outgrown, and revising the organizational structure would mean – you guessed it – uncomfortable change.
Whether you’re put into a position for which you’re overqualified or for which you aren’t being adequately compensated, these are both common forms of underestimation. See, being underestimated doesn’t just mean that someone thinks you’re incapable of something or doubts you, it can also mean that they don’t understand and value what you do and what you’re made of.
Being consistently underestimated can be demeaning, especially when it affects your life in a professional, monetary, or social context. But you can move past it, and maybe even learn to laugh at it. Although you may not be able to change someone’s perception of you, you can change your own value proposition and reinforce the way you view yourself, which is something that should never be compromised. Once you can adequately communicate what you’re worth, you will have no problem outwardly conveying that message to everyone around you.
It’s Not You, It’s Them – But It Might Be You
I frequently emphasize the importance of believing that you’re never wrong for feeling something. Emotion is human, and our reactions to people and circumstances are often hardwired into us. Just like you’re not wrong for getting your feelings hurt if someone offends you, you’re not wrong for recognizing the injustice of being underestimated (and wanting to do something about it). But it’s important to work in chronological order when looking for solutions to relational problems. You can’t start in the middle and work backwards. The first steps are always to retrace the events that led you to the present, reflect inwardly, and try to identify the origin of the problem.
Since we’re talking about being professionally underestimated, think about the application process. When you applied for this position, did you undermine yourself? Was there another (higher) position available, for which you felt unqualified but could have landed? Did your own personal insecurity cause you to stay inside your comfort zone, otherwise known as the place where nothing grows?
Now think back to the precedent you set during the interview process: Did you present yourself as you’d like to be perceived, or did you shy away a bit? Did you put your best foot forward, or did you present a slightly inferior version of yourself? And what did you accept? Was the ensuing job offer exactly what you had hoped for, more than you could’ve asked for, or do you feel like you settled? Did you have an offer in mind that you felt you were honestly worth, and were your expectations met? Do you feel like you measure up to what you were offered, or do you feel like you’re worth more (than x salary, benefits, position, responsibilities, the way you’re treated)?
Conversely, did you over-sell yourself and give your employer the impression that you were comfortable taking on more than you can actually handle? Did you present yourself as a real “team player” and “go-getter,” or did you present yourself as a “leader”? Sure, many leaders get to be leaders by exhibiting the qualities of team players and go-getters – but these buzzwords have different meanings to the ears of employers. Whether you undersold or oversold your potential, your abilities, and what you were looking for out of the job, if you gave your employer the impression that you needed the job more than the job needed you, the reason you’re being underestimated might be staring you right in the face. But it’s not too late to course-correct.
Get Right With Yourself First: Writing Your Personal Value Proposition
Admittedly, this is pretty generic advice that you could apply to any area of your life, especially in relationships. But in a professional setting, writing your value proposition may be difficult because it’s tied to your income and livelihood. Many people are uncomfortable deciding what they think they’re worth because they’re afraid to be told they’re wrong and they feel like it’s better to have any job than no job. But the right employer will make you feel like they need you (and are lucky to have you). They will try to impress you, show you why their company is a great place to work and why they’d love to have you, rather than sitting back and asking to be impressed. So don’t be afraid to prepare a personal value proposition and keep it in your mind (or in your pocket) the next time you go on an interview.
When writing your value proposition, it’s important to adopt an abundance mindset (as opposed to one of scarcity). More on abundance vs. scarcity mindsets here. If your beliefs are self-limiting, you will not be able to effectively communicate your value and the energy you give off will resonate at a much lower level than the energy of self-assured confidence, which will increase the likelihood of being underestimated. You have to set your sights high and really believe that you’re qualified, worthy, and capable. Bill Barnett wrote an article for The Harvard Business Review in which he lists four steps to build a strong PVP:
“Set a clear target:” think of the target as something that needs you, not something you need.
“Identify your strengths:” where does your expertise lie and why is it valuable? Be specific.
“Tie your strengths to your target position:” think like an employer and illustrate why your skills are a fit for the position (keeping in mind that they’re trying to fill it. This is about more than you looking for a job).
“Provide evidence and success stories:” you are so much more than your resume. Talk about achievements and situations where you used your talents to overcome obstacles, accomplish goals, and exceed expectations.
When preparing your PVP, I would also say to do your research. Find out what type of compensation the other top-level talent in your area is being offered for similar roles. The benchmarks won’t totally define what you should ask for and what you’ll actually get, but at least you’ll have more insight so that you can negotiate strategically instead of being way off-base with your expectations. It’s like making an offer on a house: if the asking price is $250k but the market value is only $240k and it needs a ton of renovations, then you could go in strong with an offer at $200k (or maybe even lower) without running the risk of offending the seller. You might receive a counter offer, but you’ve shown that you’ve done your homework and know what you’re willing to pay for the value of the item in question. And if your offer is refused without any further discussion, then it wasn’t the right house for you. Make sense?
Nope, It’s Definitely Them
If you’re already well-versed in knowing your worth and presenting yourself accordingly, but you’re still getting treated like less than, it may be time to take corrective actions. Being underestimated can mean more than being overlooked for a desirable promotion – it could also mean that you’re treated unfairly in the way a colleague communicates with you or in the way you’re perceived by the rest of the company via that person’s opinion of you. Aside from being undervalued or inadequately compensated, underestimation can also masquerade as being unappreciated, undermined, misrepresented, and mistreated.
Perhaps your counterpart expects you not to speak up, thinking you’re not assertive enough to defend or promote yourself. Maybe they diminish you by expecting you not to be a change-maker, thinking you’ll sit there quietly embracing the status quo while watching others around you climb higher, because they don’t think you have it in you to compete. Anyone who doesn’t listen to you, consider you, and validate you or who discounts you as someone who is fearful, small, and unlikely to succeed or separate from the pack has their own personal issues (get the book The 4 Agreements and reference agreement # 2).
They most likely lack certain components of emotional intelligence, they may be egotistical, entitled, or believe that advancement happens by means of intimidation and ruthlessness and at the expense of others. Inside, they may feel insecure or threatened, regardless what they convey on the exterior (or they really could just be a mean person). Either way, it’s time to shed light on the areas of your career and professional relationships that aren’t living up to your personal value proposition.
Reframe Others’ Perception of You
When stepping up to the plate to present your worth to those who underestimate you, remember these two things:
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and
It’s important to be as professional as possible.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and just because you march into your boss’s office and demand a promotion doesn’t mean you’ll get a raise tomorrow. You need to be assertive and confident while maintaining your professionalism, objectivity, work ethic, poise, and dignity. Don’t whine, grovel, tattle, finger-point, demand, complain, or insult. Do provide factual basis for why you feel that you’ve evolved beyond the work you’re doing, why you feel ready to take on that big project or next position, and how you’re willing to help the company advance in order to prove your eligibility for increased compensation. If you position your argument in such a way that focuses on the good of the team and not just the good of your family’s finances, you’ll get more of your boss’s attention.
You’ll also need to be aware of the bigger picture. They say “ask and ye shall receive.” Many times that’s true, but you can’t expect to get something just because you ask for it. You also can’t let fear of hearing “no” stop you from asking – if you don’t ask, the answer is always going to be no. Depending on the size of the company you work for, it may not be possible for your boss to just wave a wand and give you what you want. They may very well agree with you and see your vision. They may trust in your abilities, and even agree to advocate on your behalf. But if the directives from the very upper echelon aren’t in alignment with your proposal, your boss’s hands may be tied. If your boss is reasonable, he or she will most likely be willing to compromise and offer you some sort of consolation prize, if you will. But don’t think this will come without conditions just because you asked for it – you will have to uphold your end of the deal by proving you’re worth it, can handle it, and will do what it takes to out-perform yourself (whether that means taking on more responsibility or working longer hours). And if your employer is worth their salt, they’ll notice your hard work and look for ways to reward you for it.
When All Else Fails
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what we do, we can’t make the wrong job right for us. If you work for a decent company where you’re treated fairly most of the time and you feel that management works hard to ensure that each level of the organization is incentivized, that’s one thing. If you work for a company that doesn’t evaluate and reward performance and puts undue pressure on its employees because upper management is complacent and not future-focused, growth-oriented, and/or not operating sustainably, then underestimation and being undervalued could be the norm and, unfortunately, it’s probably better to cut your losses and move on than try to be a crusader for company culture and organizational restructuring.
Leadership comes from the top and good leaders have to be willing to look at themselves before any real change can trickle down through the ranks. As much of a leader as you might be, if you’re not at the top, your changes may very well improve certain functions but they won’t change the way the company is run and the way the decision-makers think. Job satisfaction is such a big and important part of life, and it encompasses meaning, purpose, recognition, appreciation, and being seen for who (not what) you are. If you’ve made it clear to leadership that there is a fundamental problem which is impacting your job, your performance, and your satisfaction, then you’ve done your part.
If said leadership does nothing to examine the issue, re-evaluate your role, and expects you to keep chugging along in a position that is beneath you or that doesn’t pay you adequately for what you bring to the table, it may be time to get back out there. Likewise, if you have made someone aware that you feel you’re being mistreated and the behavior continues, it’s time to stay true to yourself and go somewhere that will restore your faith in humanity by making you feel like a valued member of a team, not a cog in a wheel of hierarchy.
In closing, when you feel you’re being underestimated in any way, assess whether you’ve undermined yourself or presented yourself well, and get a grip on what your value statement should be. Communicate it professionally, be willing to adopt it into your work ethic, and give the changes time to take place. If they don’t, then it may be time to go get what you’re worth somewhere else – whether that means more money, fairer treatment, being trusted with important and challenging work, more meaning, or all of the above. Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Go get ’em tiger, you can do it.