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Nothing stunts growth at work more than saying this one thing

It’s a subtly disempowering statement that can be a telling sign of alienation and a company culture that does not encourage personal and professional development.

Nothing stunts growth at work more than saying this one thing
[Photo: R.Wilairat/iStock]

We’ve all heard this phrase before. Maybe you’ve cringed when someone said it in a conference call, or when you’ve read it in a multi-departmental email. There’s even a chance you’ve said it: “That’s above my pay grade.”

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It may seem harmless at first, even jocular, but, as a leadership consultant, I would urge team members to steer clear of this subtly disempowering statement that can be a telling sign of alienation and a company culture that does not encourage personal and professional growth. And if you hear it, don’t ignore it.

The ability to approach work with a belief that we all have room to advance is a central theme in Cultures of Genius at Work, an organizational behavior study that concludes, “employees who perceived their organization to endorse a fixed (vs. growth) mindset reported that their company’s culture was characterized by less collaboration, innovation, and integrity, and they reported less organizational trust and commitment.”

Why people say it

Sure, there are times when we lack the authority to move forward. For example, someone in IT doesn’t have the final say in deciding the ad spend for the upcoming year, or the product development division can’t make the final choice on which training software to choose. But, more often than not, the phrase reveals a lack of confidence or worse, a mindset that there is no ability whatsoever to influence the situation. A team member saying, “That’s above my pay grade” is signaling a perceived lack of voice and contribution to the company’s vision and overall purpose. 

Team leaders should not ignore the phrase. It could mean that someone higher up (or even the team head themself) previously bulldozed the staff member, shooting down attempts to contribute one too many times.

My advice: Nip it in the bud. Regardless of the reporting structure, don’t dismiss the opportunity to begin the culture rebuild at that moment. Encourage the employee to share their thoughts and execution strategy, or suggest they partner with someone who can mentor them. If you haven’t considered mentoring someone before, this could be your opportunity to help grow young talent. 

Allowing their behavior to continue can signal to others that it’s okay not to take responsibility for their role and contribute. Let the employee know, in front of their peers, that although the final decision-making power doesn’t lay in their hands, their involvement provides value. Your encouragement will bolster everyone’s meaningful contributions. As a leader, the culture you help to cultivate can permeate throughout the organization. 

What does it mean for the workforce? 

However the phrase became a company norm, the perceived lack of authority or real lack of knowledge determines whether or not teams speak up. The disempowerment vernacular can discourage otherwise promising team members from trying new things or truly applying themselves, regardless of their role. 

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Businesses that create an environment of collaboration and helping are more likely to attract and retain talent—while getting the best work from them. 

3 Empowering alternatives 

So, what should you do when you’re tempted to say something is “above my pay grade?” I recommend these solution-driven alternatives:

  •  Involve the key decision-maker. Including the key decision-maker allows you to learn from them while illustrating that you are a solid partner. Looping them in signals that you respect the opinion of leadership while keeping momentum and morale high.
  •  Table it. Not everything can be solved in one meeting or email chain. If there is more to be discussed, write the roadblock down and keep the meeting moving. Then gain the knowledge you need for your follow up. 
  •  Propose a solution or brainstorm one. Resist the temptation to complain to peers, and instead use the time to come up with a plan you can implement to help advance the company. Offering up your opinion fearlessly and executing it will help you grow and learn.

Candice Sylvia is a learning and leadership consultant, and founder of L.A.-based training firm ResultsTrainingGroup.com 

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