Regardless of your role now and in the future, you will always have to deal with people more senior than you (until you hit the big time and become CEO) so it’s important to understand how you emotionally deal with these people. It’s also important for me to clarify that when I say ‘senior’, I mean in role or position, not in years.
Of course, each senior person is different; it may be easier to deal with people more senior than you than others, but sometimes it can feel intimidating, even for those who don’t consider themselves as introverts. For that reason (and so I can create a typing shortcut), we’ll call this particular group of people more senior than you as ‘the Seniors’ (excluding those who don’t necessarily make you feel intimidated).
One of the first things to assume when you’re dealing with the Seniors is that they too are human beings. This is both incredibly obvious, and yet effortlessly forgotten. For that reason, going back a step before this consideration is to check your thought pattern that is making you feel worked up and intimidated.
Recently, I’ve been reading a lot on emotional intelligence (or E.I., emotional quotient, E.Q.) and part of what makes someone more emotionally intelligent is to keep their thought patterns in check. So much thinking and worrying can occur out of habit and subconsciously. It just runs on autopilot while you control your conscious processes (eg panicking, getting worked up, acting defensively). But although your thoughts run on autopilot, the products of them are certainly present and conscious; feeling intimidated, feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling like you’re going to be ridiculed for knowing less than they do, feeling like the gap between you and them in terms on seniority is proportionate to the gap in knowledge, intelligence or capability. All of those fun things.
This is why it’s so important to listen to the thought patterns being created in the background without your knowing because their effects are the very things holding you back from performing confidently, and therefore keeping them in check is an important way of dealing with Seniors.
So how do you keep your thought patterns in check?
There is no doubt a number of different methods out there that work for different people, but one I have found particularly helpful is the below process:
- Single out one thought pattern
- Articulate why this thought pattern makes you feel intimidated
- Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen
- Ask yourself how you would handle the situation if the worst was to happen
- Ask yourself what you have to offer that counteracts the original pattern.
(I’ve made this in a handy infographic at the end of this post!)
So, by way of example, let’s say I have to contribute my opinion to a meeting that consists mostly of Seniors:
- My thought pattern is that I have nothing to offer that the Seniors don’t already know
- I feel intimidated as I will make a fool of myself if I offer my opinion that’s either invalid or is common knowledge amongst the group of Seniors
- The worst case scenario would be the group ridiculing me for not contributing anything of value and making me, and the group, feel really awkward. I’d feel really stupid
- If this was to happen, thinking about it, I would aim to remind them that I was under the impression the meeting was a space for offering opinions and hearing from different points of views, and what may seem obvious to them and not to me might actually highlight a certain significance eg colleagues less senior than the Seniors are not privy to the information they are when they ought to be.
- I have my opinion to offer, which is neither wrong nor invalid. I have been invited to the meeting for a reason and if I had nothing to offer, I wouldn’t have been invited. After receiving the invite, it would help me to have a quick chat with the organiser to understand their expectations in terms of my involvement and contribution. That way I know why I’m there and I can do some homework on the matter if needs be. Having the opportunity to offer my opinion at a lower position in terms of seniority ensures whatever is being tackled in the meeting is done so with a hierarchal-diverse group.
Steps 1 to 3 are acknowledging the subconscious thinking you didn’t know about. Steps 4 and 5 are where you need to turn the pattern around and establish some non-emotional logic to get a truer view of the situation.
It’s important to remember step 4 in particular, as this provides you your safety net. I’m all for safety nets. They’re a handy mechanism, a banked reaction that has already been thought through, at a time where you were cool and collected, so that should the worst happens you have a quick response at the ready to use. This saves you from having to think of a quick and collected reaction on the spot when all eyes are on you. Step 4 is very unlikely to happen, but knowing you can handle the worst case scenario off-the-cuff with a good response will ease the fear.
Step 5 is the most crucial step. Having gone through your pattern and why it’s happened, the final step turns the pattern on its head by replacing it with positivity and logic, and helps you see it from a pragmatic point of view. This means your energy is spent on how you can make a positive impact in the situation, rather than on how you might mess up or feel awkward.
And by noticing the positive impact, you become more aware of how to up your game, like doing more homework into the nature of the meeting in the above example, rather than crumble under the self-imposed pressure.
Another thing to consider is the possibility that you want to impress the Seniors because you admire them professionally. Do you fear failing in front of them, or not delivering the goods, because you see them as a role model? Although this is a positive thing (I will talk more about the concept of work role models and ‘career crushes’ in another post), the pattern itself is making this into a negative experience. Instead you could try to connect this to step 5 and turn it into a positive experience by thinking what they would do in your situation, or what you would need to do to meet or exceed their expectations of you.
The senior profile
As I mentioned, at the end of the day, the colleagues that intimidate you – and that’s how they should be seen, your colleagues – are people; people you work with and therefore must share professional respect. The Seniors would have been in the same position as you and the ones who are down to earth will be aware of that.
For those who aren’t as down to earth as the others, they are no different to any other colleague you work with that might be a little more difficult to handle. I have found in the past that these particular Seniors exert their seniority to get what they want out of you. While you can’t change who they are or how they act, you can learn how to cope with their behaviour towards you in an attempt to work on a better professional relationship. Of course if it gets to a point of bullying, you need to raise this using your employer’s appropriate procedures.
Coping with difficult Seniors
So if these people exert their power to get what they want out of you, you first need to figure out if this is a reasonable request. If it isn’t, again follow your employer’s appropriate procedures. If is reasonable and forms part of your role, as an avid doer, you should turn your thought pattern to see this as an opportunity to improve yourself in giving them what they want in the best way you can.
This involves: probing them for a clear steer of the nature and extent of the information they need from you; how they want this information delivered to them; when do they need it by; if there is an unreasonable deadline, explain to them why a reschedule is more appropriate; explain to them how you will manage their expectations; is this an ad hoc request or will they be requiring it on a regular basis?
By improving your efficiency, you improve the professional relationship, improve your reliability and in time they should not have to be so difficult to work with. You have then turned the experience into one that develops you, rather than intimidates and drains you.
This might sound really easy in theory, and you might already be doubting the likeliness of this happening in practice. I know it can be hard in these situations but they are always going to be a part of working life. It’s therefore essential you give it a go and start to hear what specifically you are reacting to, how you choose to handle it, and how to make it into a positive development opportunity. Like anything outside of your comfort zone, practising really does make things easier. You will become more resilient and strong in handling these situations. Give it a try; ultimately the alternative is letting negative patterns affect your working life.