The Power of Being Underestimated

The third job in my communications career started on my 25th birthday. I was hired to work in the two-person communications office at a local community college, near where my husband was attending university. As I said in my last post, I felt intensely grateful to be employed near home and excited to be working in support of education, since I was raised by educators.

My boss was the polar opposite of the others I had experienced in my short career. She was bubbly and positive, a former elementary school art teacher who loved the design aspects of communications as much as I did.

Technically, I was her assistant, but she never told me that in so many words nor treated me like a secretary. We worked together on things and I learned about all that went in to publishing a college  catalog and schedule of classes, helped in producing advertisements, billboards and commercials for our local media run to promote registration. It was fun, and the people were, for the most part, great as well.

The school was the largest organization I had worked for to date, a region of a statewide network of campuses. Our branch of the college encompassed three campuses in three separate communities with a faculty and staff over 200, and our department supported all three campuses. I learned quite a bit about politics in a state institution and watched, mostly protected, as the much maligned chancellor ran roughshod over our dean, whom we all respected and trusted.

It was a sad day when the dean resigned to take a job in another state. She’d had enough of the politics and knew that she would never move up as long as the chancellor was in place. At the same time as the college searched for her replacement, it was going through a statewide strategic planning process.

One day my boss told me that I had been recommended for one of the committees that was helping to guide the plan. I was excited! I had been tapped to sit on a statewide committee and help guide the college’s strategy for the future, and I had LOTS of ideas about how it could improve!!! I attended my first meeting, ready to participate, only to find out I had been assigned to the facilities committee…something I knew nothing about. There must have been a mistake! Heating and air conditioning and building maintenance. Huh?? Oh well. I was determined to contribute as much as I could based on my strengths. Surely they had put me on this committee for a reason.

The chancellor attended this first meeting and opened it by asking me to pass around a sign in sheet so that I would know who was in attendance when I recorded the minutes, looking at me with disdain as she made the request. It then dawned on me that I was there in a purely administrative role, not to participate or help create strategy. To her, and the others in the room, I was there to take minutes, serve as scribe on the whiteboard and make copies if necessary. I was at once angry and hurt. I stewed and stewed during that first meeting and went back to report to my boss about the injustice. She looked at me with pity, as if I should have known better than to think I had been selected to contribute. I was after all, both young and female.

Shortly after that, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the region’s leadership with my boss. I watched, amazed and dismayed, as she turned into a tongue-tied, cowed little girl in the face of anyone she thought believed she was “less than.” Instead of speaking up for her ideas, she let others blow right over her and dismiss her. It was sad to watch.

After that, I decided that if people were going to underestimate me, I would underestimate them right back. They were not going to shut me out simply because I was a young woman.

So, I chose to play up their underestimation of me instead, playing dumb to their assumptions about my role, my youth, my femaleness. At the next planning meeting, I began to participate in the discussions on the sly. When I saw that people were misunderstanding one another or when things were getting too complicated, I would step in and ask a question “innocently” so I could “get it right for the notes” and in so doing would help clarify and improve the ideas being shared. They may have never known that’s what I was doing, but I did and I knew I was having an impact. The final report that we produced was used as a template for other committees, and I was asked to help edit and tighten up the language in the final plan. I knew I had helped to guide the process and I was pleased.

The truth is, we underestimate one another all the time. We also tend to assume either an overly aggressive, overly defensive or overly passive position when we believe we are being underestimated. “How dare they,” we think. Or, “I’ll show them!” Or, worst of all, we give up on ourselves because we believe, and then become, the underestimated self that others perceive us to be.

This job taught me the power of being underestimated, and it helped me learn how I could still do my best work even while others believed I had nothing to contribute.

When have you been underestimated, and how did you deal with it?

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