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I am not saying that hating your boss doesn’t matter, but this matters more: The danger of early-career professionals working for a manager that doesn’t see your potential | Undergrad Success
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I am not saying that hating your boss doesn’t matter, but this matters more: The danger of early-career professionals working for a manager that doesn’t see your potential

I am not saying that hating your boss doesn’t matter, but this matters more: The danger of early-career professionals working for a manager that doesn’t see your potential

If you think back to all of your jobs, you can probably identify at least one lousy manager; and you are not alone. A survey conducted by Gallup found that 1 in 5 people dislike their manager.

Notably, there is a difference between working for someone that you don’t like and working for someone that will harm your professional development.

If you don’t like your manager – the question remains, can you learn from them? Is there an experience or opportunity that they can give you from which your career will benefit?

However, if you work for someone that doesn’t see your potential (even if you genuinely like the manager), you are taking a significant risk. One of the most significant impacts of working for someone that doesn’t see your talent is they will not advocate for you at work.

Nicholas Pearce writes:

“Non-advocating bosses can refuse to bring up your name favorably in the promotion conversation. They can withhold critical developmental feedback and stunt your growth. And they can even overtly undermine you and attempt to sabotage your long-term career prospects.”

The consequences of working for a manager that refuses to see your potential have more career-damaging effects than working for a manager you dislike. That is, you can temporarily learn to cope with a manager that you dislike. In comparison, if you work for a manager that refuses to see your potential, you will be left out of career-building opportunities such as missing out on stretch assignments and promotions.

Let’s dig a little deeper… what causes your manager not to see your full potential?

The manager doesn’t see themselves in you. Believe it or not, this is a real thing that happens at work. Managers, especially those that have exceeded their own goals and expectations, believe they know what it takes to be successful. Call it the “magic formula,” and it is defined by a set of behaviors and approaches toward work.

For example, a manager believes the following contributes to their success at work

  • Strong Work Ethic – They have a strong work ethic that is defined by working late and over the weekend.
  • Relationship Management – They are good at building relationships, as determined by the number of people they know among senior leaders.
  • Strong Organizational & Time Management Skills – They are well organized because they know the status of each project managed by their employees.

Other behaviors that make up their “magic formula” includes taking risks and thinking big picture. The manager will seek out employees that demonstrate the same “magic formula,” and help them get experiences that will prepare them for more complex jobs.

As a result, if the manager doesn’t see themselves in you, they are less likely to give you a chance to grow and develop.

The manager doesn’t know what you want to do. Sometimes managers don’t know your potential because they haven’t spent time gathering details about your career goals and desires.

That is, they may have a good idea of what you do day-day, but they are clueless about your future plans. While managers are advised to have conversations focusing on both tasks and development, the managers that concentrate on results-only do not see the value of talking about development regularly.

If you express a desire to talk about development or your career plans, they may encourage you to find a mentor. It’s complicated to work for a manager that doesn’t spend time developing you, especially if you have identified specific career experiences that you want to seek out.

The manager has unconscious bias. Recently, several articles have been written about unconscious bias, and it’s a real thing in the workplace. When you work for a manager that has unconscious bias they refuse to see your potential due to a number of reasons including your race/ethnicity, age, gender.

For example, Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard write,

“When women received specific developmental feedback, it tended to be overly focused on their communication style. In contrast, men were more likely to receive insightful developmental feedback about their technical skills.”

As a result, your chances to grow under this manager are significantly limited by their impression of what you can and can’t do. The manager will not proactively look for opportunities to build your skills. Further, they are less likely to identify the kinds of career experiences you need to prepare for future roles.

Moreover, if they have development conversations with you, they are listening but not genuinely hearing your career plans. Why? In their minds, they’ve already decided on your career trajectory.

They are focused on their career. Sometimes managers don’t see your full potential because they aren’t looking for it. Instead, they are hyper-focused on developing their career path; Forbes describes it as working for a narcissist boss.

For example, imagine working for a manager that is on the (career) fast-track. To get along with these kinds of managers, make them look good, and you will not have any problems. That said, your potential is the last thing on their mind.

What should you do if your manager doesn’t see your full potential?

I recommend looking for a new position. It doesn’t mean you have to leave the organization. However, you owe it to yourself to work for someone that supports your development.

Your manager counts because gaining new (career) experiences doesn’t always translate into a new role. Instead, you could join a project team, or you could lead an initiative. Developmental opportunities are endless, but your manager should identify the right ones.

Before leaving the role, Adunola Adeshola recommends trying the following tactics:

  • Exude excellence consistently – Consistently set goals and standards for the kind of work you do. Avoid making mistakes and contribute to the team and organization, regularly
  • Find a new support system – Until you can get a new role, find someone at work that can provide guidance. Early in your career, you are focused on continuous growth and development; if you can’t rely on your manager for feedback, look for other leaders

What’s the best way to tell if your new manager is committed to your development?

Ask them – before you accept a role. During the job interview phase ask the hiring manager at least two of the following three questions:

  • Do you mind sharing some examples of how you’ve developed a former or current employee?
  • If you had to share three best practices on developing employees, what would you recommend?
  • Tell me about a time in your career that you benefitted from a development opportunity?

In closing, early-career employees often focus on gaining work experience, sometimes at the expense of working for a manager that doesn’t see your potential. However, it’s important to be selective about your manager. If you are preparing for more complex jobs, you have to work for managers that will help you reach your full potential.

Kyra Leigh Sutton, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, N.J., where she teaches courses in training and development, as well as in staffing and managing the 21st century workforce. She also has served in lead HR roles at Pitney Bowes and Assurant.


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