A reader writes:
I realize this is not the worst problem to have, but here it is:
My bosses — and even some of my at-level peers — talk a lot about how good I am at my job. It is a steady stream of praise that seems like it should be gratifying but is actually grating. I just heard from the people who took over my previous job when I started on a new project that they have been told over and over again how big the shoes they have to fill are which is probably not very motivating to a new team. And it’s embarrassing. And it isn’t particularly true — I ask for help, I make mistakes, I muddle through things I don’t really know how to do just to keep things moving forward.
Being well-respected has its upsides — promotions, training opportunities, interesting work. But it has its downsides, too. Workwise, it means people don’t push back on my ideas, while we work in an environment where pushback is essential to ensuring that our thinking covers all the angles. I also worry that coworkers will — or already do? — resent me for how much focus I get.
Is there a way to change or downplay overbearing praise? I can’t just tell people three rungs above me on the hierarchy that I don’t want their praise. Nor can I just stop doing good work. If I am in the conversation, I aim to sort of laugh it off in and give “it’s all a team effort” type responses, but even that’s not an option if I’m being lauded to other people when I am not even there!
Should I be doing something else?
Can you share the praise? By which I mean, can you cite specific contributions of others? By name? If your boss is talking about how talented you are at X, can you say, “I’ll tell you who’s been crucial to that — Patricia, because she’s amazing at (specific thing that contributes to X)”? Or “I appreciate that, and I should note that Waldemar was a huge part of that too”?
You probably can’t do that in a natural way every single time, but you can do it a lot! You can also look for other opportunities to make sure other people on your team are getting credit for their work. If people see you as someone who’s diligent about recognizing other people’s work, it’ll go a long way toward mitigating any resentment they might otherwise come to feel.
You’re right to worry that this kind of professional status can mean your ideas will get less pushback than otherwise. One way to combat that is to actively solicit pushback on your ideas, while simultaneously working to make it safe for people to offer it. For example:
* “I think this would be stronger if we know where its weaknesses are. Can we try to poke some holes in it to see if it stands up or not?”
* “I’m sure there are downsides to this, though — can we focus on that for a minute? If it’s six months from now and this hasn’t gone well, what do you think would be the most likely reason?”
* “Lucinda, you’re really good at seeing pieces of this kind of thing that I miss. What would worry you about this?”
Make sure you actively appreciate pushback when you get it, too. People who respond with “I’m so glad you spoke up, that’s a really good point” get more candor in the future than people who seem annoyed or dismissive.
Beyond that … look for ways to use all this capital in ways that benefit others, even if it’s behind the scenes — whether it’s advocating for a resource someone needs, or pushing back on an onerous policy, or suggesting an overlooked colleague for a project you know she’d like. People tend to pick up on it when a respected colleague works as a force for good in their office. Having significantly more influence than others isn’t always a 100% comfortable place to dwell, but using influence wisely can be a real reward (both to you and to people who work with you).