Could someone who was your biggest cheerleader be keeping your career growth in check without even knowing it?
I was very lucky early in my career to have a great boss who cared more about my development than his own needs. He supported me tremendously when I told him wanted to leave to get my MBA (it probably helped that my top choice was where he went), and was always there for me as a sounding board and mentor when I reached out after moving on.
He also was consistently supportive about me coming back to the company, and talked about the kinds of roles I should go for.
Until he had a role to fill.
He reached out about a great opportunity that he thought I should apply for. It really was a fantastic job that would definitely support a great long-term career trajectory. The only problem was that it was for someone with less experience than I had at that point, and the compensation was a material step back from where I had gotten.
On his urging, I applied for the role, but ultimately had to decide not to go further after being asked to come back for a second round of interviews because it would clearly be a step back of three or four years in my career. Since I was still early in my career, that was a significant amount of backward progress.
He was surprised by my decision, and, without knowing if I was reading him correctly, he actually seemed upset with me for making a “foolish” decision.
About a year later, a similar position opened up, and he let me know again. I had to pass on it on the spot, and got a similar response from him.
As my career progressed, and I got more senior with broader responsibilities, I reached out to him when I was thinking about leaving my employer at the time, and talked about the kinds of things I was looking at. His response was very dismissive, and he tried to redirect me to lesser roles.
What was going on?
Now, it’s completely possible that he knows something about my performance and skills that I didn’t, and neither the two employers I had been with since working for him.
What I realized, however, was that to him, I was still the same employee who had left his team nearly a decade earlier. I think he had given me some credit for getting my masters, but was not really considering my experience since then.
That is, he was framing me as a much more junior employee than I was.
That’s completely fine and understandable. Since he hadn’t worked with me in so long, his subconscious sense of me was sort of stuck in a past reality. I believe this was an unconscious bias rather than something he was actively choosing to do. As such, he wasn’t able to adjust on the fly and give me credit for what I had achieved.
As a result, he was effectively holding back my career, or at least he would have been if I had followed his lead.
It’s not uncommon, and it’s not just the case in work situations. Growing up, everyone knew me as “the fat kid.” When they see me as an adult, they all look shocked and comment on fit I look now, completely forgetting that I got fit during high school, and look about the same as the last time they saw me (though definitely grayer!).
See, when we know someone or something in particular way for a stretch of time or even for short but intense periods, we build a mental map of what they are like. And try as we might–if we try at all–it can be hard to break free of that framing.
So what can you do?
As the person on the receiving end of this framing, the onus is on you to do something about it. You can choose not to let their framing be your framing, as I’ve done.
More directly, you can try to talk to them about how you’ve changed and grown since that framing was established, and perhaps even acknowledge the existence of their framing of you in the first place.
That may not go well or at least not be productive, so you need to read the person and the situation to see if it’s a path worth taking. One way to evaluate that is to ask whether changing their sense of you will change the potential outcomes for you.
Personally, I’ve found that when someone has this sort of framing of you, they likely don’t full appreciate it, so trying to get them to change their view isn’t likely to be fruitful. And even if they do acknowledge and change, they probably won’t be as bought into the new you as you need them to be in to go back to being a true champion of you. They can still be a friend, mentor or whatever their role has been. You just need to be conscious of their bias, and work around it rather than trying to smash through it to get their full support.
In the end, be your own champion. Then it doesn’t matter whether anyone else understands and supports you. It’s great if they do, but you’ll get on just fine either way.