31 October 2023

How being underestimated can work for you

Start the conversation

Whether you’re a young professional or a seasoned veteran, leveraging the power of being underestimated can pave the way to personal and professional growth. Photo: File.

Michelle Gibbings says if senior management does not believe in your abilities and talents, there are ways to use this misconception to your advantage.

In a working world where impressions often shape perceptions and promotions, being underestimated can feel discouraging and demoralising.

Underestimation often stems from biases, preconceived ideas, limited information, or a need for more awareness about an individual’s talents and capabilities.

The good news is if you’re being underestimated, you can use it to your advantage.

In her book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does.”

Whether you’re a young professional or a seasoned veteran, leveraging the power of being underestimated can pave the way to personal and professional growth.

It can also open doors to unexpected opportunities. I’ve seen that throughout my career. I’ve often been underestimated and, at times, underestimated myself.

So, instead of succumbing to the negative impact of being underestimated, rise above the limitations imposed by someone else’s perceptions and make it work for you.

READ ALSO What to say and do if the boss wants you back in the office

Here are some tactics you can apply.

Release the pressure: When a person has high expectations placed on them, it can hold them back, particularly when the pressure to perform is exceedingly high.

In contrast, when the expectations are lower, it releases the pressure.

You no longer need to worry about letting people down or disappointing their expectations. Instead, you focus on doing your best.

Surprise the expectations: We all hold expectations of others, and there’s nothing better than surprising someone and surpassing their expectations.

Focus on consistently delivering results, whether it’s exceeding targets, taking on additional responsibilities or proposing innovative solutions to work-related problems.

By constantly defying expectations, you reshape how people perceive your capabilities.

First mover advantage: When your boss, colleague or stakeholder underestimates you, they are more likely to come to a conversation with you less prepared.

They won’t expect you to hold your ground, so you can more easily steer the conversation in your desired direction.

Likewise, because they think the discussion will be easy, they will be more relaxed and more likely to say things they perhaps didn’t intend to.

They may not expect you to raise the issue in the first place, and they certainly won’t expect you to initiate the negotiation or put the first offer on the table.

In a negotiation, going first can seem risky. You may worry that you are showing your cards too early or raising an issue that the other person has yet to notice.

Typically, however, when you go first, you have more power. You frame the conversation and set the scene. This works in your favour.

READ ALSO Laissez-faire or lazy-unfair?

Elevate your skills: Be the leader of your career and take charge of the learning that interests you and takes your career in the direction you want it to head.

Don’t wait for someone around you to identify what they think you need. Find what interests you.

Consider attending workshops, pursuing additional certifications, or engaging in continuous education.

These efforts deepen your understanding, expand your skillset and enhance the value you bring to your current role — or future role.

Build your positioning: When we pigeonhole someone, we narrowly define their skills and talents. That can often happen at work.

When you are underestimated, your skills and talents haven’t yet been fully articulated and, consequently, are not yet pigeonholed.

This is your opportunity. Seize it and carve out your speciality at work. Seek opportunities to showcase your unique skills and strengths.

For example, volunteer for assignments requiring expertise, demonstrate initiative and highlight your creativity and ingenuity.

In time, you can become the go-to person in your organisation for specific tasks or projects that align with your capabilities and career aspirations.

READ ALSO Smart ways of working with toxic people

Forge strong connections: Building a network of advocates and allies will help create the foundations to leverage your skills and communicate your value.

Collaborating with influential allies can also increase your visibility and help you access new opportunities at work.

You want to have mentors and sponsors who will advocate for you with decision-makers at work.

In time, the perceived expectations of what you deliver and how you work will align with the reality of who you are and what you do.

Challenge yourself: You hold yourself back from opportunities to grow and advance when you underestimate yourself.

And challenge yourself to ensure that it is not self-underestimation that is holding you back.

If it is, you will want to shift your fixed mindset to a growth mindset to focus on what you can do rather than telling yourself what you can’t do.

As the American author Scott Lynch suggested: “There’s no freedom quite like the freedom of being constantly underestimated.”

*Michelle Gibbings is a Melbourne-based change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. She works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She can be contacted at [email protected].

This article first appeared on Change Meridian.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.