Problems with presence and condescension
December 21, 2015 10:19 PM   Subscribe

I recently got my annual review, and some of the helpful negative feedback I received was that I can be condescending at times. I won't dispute this. I think it's true, and I think it's something I can and should work on. However, I also know the origins of this, and I would like suggestions on how to address it.

I am a classic nerd-type. I'm small, but well-educated. The condescension is natural given how I've had to move through life.

Being small, I found the best way to provide value to any organization, to society, was with my brain more than my body. So I studied hard, and gained a lot of expertise.

However, in the corporate world, this doesn't work quite as well, when you want a promotion and to show that you have leadership material. Expertise is a minor contributor to leadership.

You can't convince people to work for you because you know better than them -- and that was what I was trying to do, and where the accusation of condescension comes from.

On the other hand, without it, I feel like I have no value and I'm liable to get stepped on. I've had the experience where someone makes a grand mistake, I save them and say nothing, and they overlook me, or turn it around, and give me a "thanks, little buddy!" patronizing sort of response.

I know there's a way around this because small-statured people have certainly been able to be leaders. Sometimes, it's just by virtue of the volume of work they tackle, but I'd like to think there are more options than overwork.

I've already targeted wardrobe as a way to game this situation better. I suppose fine-tuning my interpersonal skills, such as humor, might help - but I think that might be something you have or you don't. I had a mentor who spoke highly of Dale Carnegie classes, I've thought about them.

Anyone else have any suggestions or routes to pursue … or even changes in perspective and mindset? How do I give the impression of leadership without this crutch of knowing better or overworking myself?

Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (48 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wait, someone called you condescending and you're targetting your wardrobe as being the problem?!

The way you talk to people makes them feel like you think you're better than them. Your post - the language you use, the sort of passive phrasing of the problem, your proposed solutions - confirms that you actually do think you're better.

That is the problem to focus on: learning how to have empathy and rate yourself less highly than others. It's not about being short, or about what you wear, or about how many jokes you tell. It's about being nice to people and not fostering your own sense of being superiour.

I don't think this problem will get better until you reach the point where you don't believe you're better than your colleagues. If you're serious about trying to fix this issue, your self-image needs to change. Therapy is a rote askme suggestion, but it would help you identify the patterns of thought that got you to this point, and also help you change them.

Good luck.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:31 PM on December 21, 2015 [53 favorites]


I think the biggest tweak to make here is to realize that while you may be better *at* a particular thing than someone else is, that doesn't make you yourself categorically better. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when you think you're observing a weakness in someone where you feel you have only strength, it would serve you to remind yourself of what you are awful at, and of what the other person is good at. You might not know your coworkers well enough to know what they're best at. But be assured there are areas where each of them could run circles around you.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 10:56 PM on December 21, 2015 [15 favorites]


I did a class a while back through work called Crucial Conversations. I had a reaction to it that I see mirrored in what you're saying here. There was a section in the material that said, basically, you won't start getting good results from your conversations with people (as a contributor, as a peer, as a team member - as a leader too but not just that) until the goal of your conversation is to see it from their perspective and try to work together to solve your mutual problem. You have to find the way to see yourselves as being on the same team with the same goal. And you have to give up the desire to show that you're smarter, to show that you were right all along, to 'win'. I like winning! I like being acknowledged as really smart! I wish it actually worked to get the results I want, because it sure feels nice. But the other method works a LOT better.

And there's a special kind of 'winning' that comes from going to the person who was stonewalling your project, sympathizing about how much work they have and how stressful it must be and how hard of a time you're having too and how these crucial projects never seem to be convenient, and then seeing your project go to top of their priority list. In the long run, being the person who can go to other people and get things done will be worth a lot more to you than being the person who can immediately look at a problem and see the answer - though 'both' is the ideal. And people will be much happier to do things for someone who they feel warmth to and who they want to succeed, will work much harder for that person, than for someone who they know is probably 'right' but who they don't really feel a connection to.
posted by Lady Li at 11:03 PM on December 21, 2015 [49 favorites]


If height (in a height-valueing culture, in which it's also connected with dominance) is a privilege you don't have, I can see that feeling like a roadblock. But the answer isn't to compensate with what I guess you're taking to be a visual parallel (clothing & style). (I agree with guster4lovers that that's not a little condescending, but I can see why you'd think of it, like it sort of makes a kind of sense. But it's not as important as you think it is.)

The social strategy of dominance, on its own, isn't a way to mimic it, either, unless you have enough power to back it up, or have people like you at the same time. And unless you work with engineers, expertise ranks somewhere near the bottom of the list of things that inspire people to want to work with or for you (or keep you, when decisions about that have to be made). And using expertise and knowledge as a way to dominate others is, frankly, pretty grating to most people. (I guess you figured that out.)

I suppose fine-tuning my interpersonal skills, such as humor, might help - but I think that might be something you have or you don't. I had a mentor who spoke highly of Dale Carnegie classes, I've thought about them.

Yup, I would go with those, especially the second. You can learn them, too. (For humour - I see what you mean. It's true that people who've spent their whole lives honing one-liners to get validation are good at it (when they're good at it). But you don't have to crack jokes. People don't even like that. Or they'll like the joke, but they won't necessarily like you for it, or trust you for it, unless there's a generosity that goes along with the joke. The generosity would be the thing to focus on, imo.

Basically, people want to feel liked, valued, and trusted for their competence. The same things you want. You can learn to be better at helping them feel those ways, by listening to them, valuing them as individuals, and trusting their competence and contributions.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:05 PM on December 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


First, change this perspective: don't try to "give the impression of leadership". Either be a leader or find a job/role where you don't need to be one to advance.

Second, your clothing has literally nothing to do with people thinking you're condescending. It's how you talk to people that earns you that label.

Drop the idea that you know anything better than anyone. You might be right sometimes, but you're bound to be wrong more often than you think you are. Since you seem unable to think you know better without showing that to the person you're talking to in your language and tone, it doesn't do you any good.

As for practical things you can do if you're serious: talk to some trusted co-workers. Tell them you're trying to work on being less condescending. Ask them if they're willing to tell you when they think you're behaving that way. Then, when they tell you, do not argue with them. Don't try to explain or justify. Just take a moment to consider that valuable feedback, thank them (and apologize), and adjust your tone/attitude.
posted by toomuchpete at 11:13 PM on December 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


(The phrasing of your question slightly reminded me of this popular New Yorker cartoon).

However, I also know the origins of this, and I would like suggestions on how to address it.
Right from the top your question is framed in terms of "I think I already know the answer - but let's hear from you".
That is a good illustration of condescension right there: when you ask people a question then be open and don't tell them you know the answer. Instead put any theories you have about an answer entirely to the side and just listen carefully. This is most especially the case for anybody who aspires to be a leader.

I am a classic nerd-type. I'm small, but well-educated. The condescension is natural given how I've had to move through life.
No, its not. Condescension is a result of insecurity: the habit of looking down on other people. The idea that you might intellectually cast yourself as superior to others because you can't do so physically is, I guess, at the root of this insecurity. It is more healthy to see your contribution (your nerdiness, your good education) as being just a skill that you bring to the table. Others bring different skills of broadly equal worth. At any moment one person's particular skills may be of greatest value - and the moments when that person is the office nerd, are only fleeting. Once again, good leaders are people who not only take this notion to heart - but also become super good at knowing who to involve at a particular moment. Practice this!
posted by rongorongo at 11:14 PM on December 21, 2015 [46 favorites]


Oh yeah, for context: i DO work in engineering. Our leaders have to be very sharp, have to be able to follow what the technical experts are saying and ask smart questions and tell when someone's talking around a weak spot. But even in that context, the interpersonal element and knowing how to get things done in a team, how to work with people so they want you to succeed, etc. is so so so important. If you aren't in engineering or in another strongly knowledge-oriented field like that, then expertise generally becomes even less valuable compared to your ability to get things done and your helpfulness when people ask you for things.
posted by Lady Li at 11:17 PM on December 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


IMO people want to follow someone who makes them feel good, valued, and that they know they can trust to always be on their side, and to know what affects them and keep and eye out for them (thus when their leader offers a criticism or decides something that negatively impacts them, they know it is done fairly and in good faith and will therefore accept it and work with it, and so they choose to follow that leader).

In terms of expertise and smartness, once a leader has achieved the mere standard of "not incompetent", beyond that you'll start to see diminishing returns next to those other things like trustworthiness. I think by focusing on your strength (smarts), you've ended up chasing those diminishing returns, and the low-hanging fruit is (deceptively) actually the interpersonal stuff.
posted by anonymisc at 11:32 PM on December 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


It sounds like you're using knowing more or being better as a stand-in for real assertiveness. Maybe try doing some training, counseling, or reading that focuses on being more assertive. Being assertive in a way that's authentic and appropriate is a valuable skill and it's one that can be learned.

As an added benefit, you don't have to be the expert in the situation to use this skill; this will be important because you'll want to get comfortable in situations where the person working for you is the expert. I know bosses who only hire people who know less, and I know bosses who actively try to hire people who are smarter than they are. The second type of boss always has the better group.
posted by balacat at 11:39 PM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


LadyLi is spot on. The other thing I wanted to add is that the best leaders - the ones we remember through business, history, etc. --- were the ones who listened and delegated and respected the superiority of others expertise.

Remember you may know a lot about a particular field, but others will know more than you in others.

Stand on the shoulders of giants, so it goes. Focus on empathy and recognizing others skills and strenghts. That will make you closer to a leader than any wardbrobe change.
posted by pando11 at 11:58 PM on December 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


Feeling like you need to Prove Things because you're short will hurt your social relationships a hell of a lot more than simply being short will.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:33 AM on December 22, 2015 [27 favorites]


For me, condescension was rooted in insecurity, and it faded on its own as I became more comfortable with myself and had less to prove. Leadership ability grew naturally too. This came about because I went to see a therapist and unravelled the root of thr insecurity and learned to connect with myself and my emotions. I highly recommend this option.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:52 AM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Find a person from your past to advise you. Look for someone who:
Is interpersonally skilled; ie, people like them, trust them, get on board with them.
Knows you well and has seen you interact in group settings.
Has made suggestions about your behaviour in the past.
Explains things well and with specific examples.
Likes you and would want to help you.
Ideal people: ex-romantic partner, college roommate, friend from former job, older cousin, highschool or college teacher or coach. Not someone who influences your professional success at this time in your life.

Say: "I'd like to improve my interpersonal skills. People say I am condescending. Are there any specific behaviours or patterns you've seen me demonstrate that I could replace with a new behaviour or pattern?"

You are looking for feedback like this: "I have seen you do X; it made me/people feel Y; instead you could try doing Z."

In this thread: "I have seen you ask people for advice but then pre-empt their advice by saying you already knew what the problem and solutions were. It made them feel frustrated and talked-down-to, and not-listened-to, because you actually did not correctly identify the issue that they think is the problem, and you tried to control their responses by seeding the question with too many of your own certainties. Instead, you could try just outlining the problem and trust THEM to offer the solutions, instead of offering the solutions yourself".

Have the guts to ask your friend this hard question, then LISTEN while they talk. It will feel bad, you'll want to argue, explain, defend.... Don't. Take notes. Be gracious. Suck it up. Thank them. Think about what they said. Try what they suggest. Call them and thank them again. Rinse and repeat.

I was a know-it-all teen (still am, sometimes) but I have much better social skills now because I asked a very insightful friend to tell me what I was doing wrong. It hurt. It helped. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:04 AM on December 22, 2015 [8 favorites]


To be blunt, your rationale here for why you got tagged with the "condescending" label neglects the whole how-other-people-might-feel angle in favor of defending your behavior, and I would guess this tendency, rather than anything to do with your height or wardrobe, is responsible for the feedback. Here's the change in perspective I would suggest: stop worrying about improving yourself and start focusing on actively listening to others, even if they happen to disagree with you or have less expertise. "Leadership" and corporate hierarchies are just bullshit anyway (albeit bullshit many of us have to put up with); what ISN'T bullshit is that most people in any situation want to feel understood and respected, and the ability to consistently provide that is more valuable than anything else. Listen more; build relationships with your coworkers as equals; I don't know if it will get you promoted any faster, but it will help you feel like your work has meaning.
posted by thetortoise at 1:22 AM on December 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


What my condescending coworkers have in common is that they butt in with "advice" or "guidance" without waiting to be asked for it. They're domineering (and usually in ways that are not justified by their role on the team or in the organization).

I think you should look for ways that you can support your colleagues in their work while still letting them take the lead on the project or the task. Help *them* shine; let the person you're helping be the star of the show.

If you're going to do some of a colleague's work, make sure it's the scunt work that she'll be relieved to be rid of. Never take over or micromanage the tasks that a colleague enjoys most or that are most central to her job, because she'll resent you for it.

If you become good at supporting your colleagues/team, ime people will notice that when they work with (or for) you, their work is better and goes easier -- and they'll respect you for it. You'll be an asset to the team. That's when people will start looking to you as a leader -- when they see you as a helpful resource/asset.

Imo, the time to work on your appearance and demeanor are when you're criticized on your "professionalism." That doesn't seem to me to be the issue here, so I wouldn't worry about it right now, if I were you.
posted by rue72 at 1:27 AM on December 22, 2015 [6 favorites]


you mention height, but if you're concerned about physical presence try going to the gym (also haircut) (i think i understand what you're talking about with the height thing, and i don't think you're wrong, but i think the more general advice about assertiveness may also help).
posted by andrewcooke at 1:34 AM on December 22, 2015


As a former smartypants, I have a few thoughts on this. You want to be promoted as a leader.
What a leader does is not to provide the solutions himself. A leader enables subordinates and equals to do their best work, and to find the best solutions themselves. This is what you should start doing, now.
Just as you should dress for the job you want, you should also act like it and suggest and take on tasks that you want. Don't wait for the promotion.

So what that means is, start listening, really noticing your coworkers. When tasks come up, don't provide the answers. (I'm sure you've built up enough of a reputation for being a know it all that you can afford to slack off for a week.) Instead, pretend that your new task for the week is to assist your coworkers in finding good solutions themselves. (It's hard to give concrete advice without knowing the details, but hopefully it'll translate.)

People who are adept at managing people know not only what information to communicate but also how to do it to make people feel part of a team. So for this week, talk less often, and when you do, think first about how to phrase it to make people feel you are on their team and they are on yours. For instance: "Great idea. And I also think we should..." instead of "Actually, we should..."

Really think about your coworkers. Make a list of what each of them is particularly good at. Use it to draw people in. "Ann, I've seen you wrangle X. How would you do Y?"
Even when you disagree, make others feel heard. "So, what you're saying is... I can see what you mean, but I still think..."

So basically, there's two things you need to work on.
One is your appreciation of your coworkers' unique skills and where they surpass yours, and how you could do great things by joining forces.
The other is communication skills. There are phrases you can use to mirror, validate and connect that will help you gain, not lose status. Books, seminars or even job coaching would help with that.
But the start to both these things is to stop talking and start listening.

Important note: I have written all this thinking you are male and not particularly attuned to emotional labor (because I suspect a woman would have mentioned gender as a stumbling block). If you are a woman, then this will not apply, or only judiciously. As a woman, you are accused of being condescending anytime you open your mouth without coddling your male coworkers' feelings. I do not believe that "stop talking, start listening" is good advice for women.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:35 AM on December 22, 2015 [37 favorites]


Omnomnom makes a great point: in reading this question, I automatically assumed you were male, but if you're female it's easy to get called "condescending" just because you don't pack your opinions in several layers of bubble wrap. (You're getting great feedback so far but if it seems like it's not taking gender or another factor into account, I would send the mods an update.)
posted by thetortoise at 1:46 AM on December 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think you should work on your social skills, which you totally can work on and improve. Your suits aren't making people think you're condescending; it's your attitude. Also, being condescending, or a know-it-all, are pretty horrible leadership traits. So you're actually shooting yourself in the foot by being condescending to people. That won't give you a reputation as a good team player or a good candidate for a leadership position; it will give you the reputation as a socially awkward dude with a chip on his shoulder.

The people I know who are condescending do several things: they explain really basic concepts to you when you already know those things (and could reasonably be assumed to know those things) and then they keep explaining it to you even after you've said, "Yes, I understand that." They look at you like you're stupid if you've never heard of their obscure pet scientist or theory, or if you ask for an explanation about anything. They get really nasty if you prove them wrong about something. Any time you disagree with them about something, they assume that you're just too stupid to understand their proposal, instead of having actual valid disagreements with it, so they explain their proposal again instead of listening to you. They assume that their areas of education and expertise are the only worthwhile ones, and so they are disdainful of anyone who doesn't work in those sectors; they are also quite threatened by anyone who knows anything about anything they don't, and they will often try and one-up those people, even if they have no idea what they're really talking about.

As other people have mentioned, I think condescension and insecurity are often quite firmly linked. I think in order to solve this problem, you should work on dealing with your own insecurities about being short, and work on curtailing any of the above behaviors that sound familiar.
posted by colfax at 2:36 AM on December 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, wow, it's not your height, it's that your disdain for your coworkers and your sense of frustrated self-importance come through loud and clear even in this short post.

I honestly think talking with a therapist about your feelings about being short would help. You have got a LOT of false ideas about yourself, human interactions, and the world tied up in your sense of inadequacy about your height and I'm really not sure how you can start addressing those false beliefs without addressing the root cause.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:47 AM on December 22, 2015 [13 favorites]


"I am a classic nerd-type. I'm small, but well-educated. The condescension is natural given how I've had to move through life."

Your suggestion that it's natural for you to be condescending is a red flag. Lots of people work had to overcome adversity without thinking they're better than others. Our society does value large stature in males. I've seen two basic ways of dealing with this in my life. Some men end up taking their experience of being bullied and made fun of in grade school, and become very empathetic towards the struggles of others. They are the nicest guys in the world. These men are respected. Others start acting as if they're better than anyone else. These men are condescending and are generally disliked. In your letter, you come off as the second type.

"Being small, I found the best way to provide value to any organization, to society, was with my brain more than my body. So I studied hard, and gained a lot of expertise."

Your organization is probably full of people who studied hard and gained expertise. You need to learn to respect them for that rather than thinking that you're special because you did. Also, everyone sometimes feels invisible at work. The feelings you express are not unique to you. They are universal.

You are really lucky that someone called you on this behavior. A lot of places would just let you go or never promote you, maybe with vague reasons about not fitting in with corporate culture. I'm guessing you got picked on in grade school. You're in the grown-up world now. Depending on how short you are, people may notice your height the first time they meet you. After that, most adults aren't going to even think about it. I once knew a man who was convinced that people disliked him because of his nose. Nobody cared about his nose. He had an obnoxious personality. I would bet anything this whole problem has nothing to do with your height.
posted by FencingGal at 2:57 AM on December 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


The very best people I have worked with were the ones secure enough in their abilities that they left the stage and glory wide open for others to shine, admitted error freely, and were genuinely curious about other solutions or ways of accomplishing goals.

A habit of condescension is not the same as being smart or right. It's an outdated coping mechanism.

In conversation, try to slow down. Set the goal of being neither first nor last to speak. Ask questions rather than give answers. Try to seek understanding rather than dominance.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:09 AM on December 22, 2015 [11 favorites]


I suppose fine-tuning my interpersonal skills, such as humor, might help

Leadership is mostly interpersonal skills. Like, almost entirely interpersonal skills. Knowing how to talk to and motivate your employees are more important than knowing what to do in any situation, because very often one of the people you're leading will have the best idea. The fact that you mention this as an aside, despite specifically being told that other people find you condescending, suggests that you're not quite aware of the extent of the issue. I suspect it's not "fine-tuning" them "might" help, but rather really working on them will help.

Take those classes. Seek mentorship from leaders you trust and admire. This is something that can only be learned in person, and it can't be rushed through. Be humble, ask a lot of questions, work on developing relationships with your mentors, and absolutely don't rush to correct them.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:22 AM on December 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just want to add one last thing: one of my best friends is small, soft-spoken, doesn't have a big physical presence and looks younger than he is, and isn't aggressive or take-charge at all. But he is respected as hell and steps into leadership positions easily in work, hobbies, etc., because he is, like you, very smart and knowledgeable, but he also speaks carefully and thoughtfully and is, as warriorqueen says, seldom the first nor last to speak. I've known him for going on 20 years now, and we've never had a conversation where he didn't make me feel valued and like the most interesting person in the room. It works because it isn't just social strategy; he's genuinely kind, deep down. So, food for thought.
posted by thetortoise at 4:49 AM on December 22, 2015 [10 favorites]


Leaders/Managers are teachers and problem-solvers. Teachers in that they don't just give answers, but show others how to find those same answers. Leaders move obstacles so that others can press on with their work.

Assholes bark orders, snidely point out what they know and you don't, generally make you feel small so that you feel big.

Leaders want you to succeed, to move forward to know what they know. Assholes guard their knowledge jealously because they believe that it's the only thing that makes them superior and if they gave it to others that it would diminish them.

You see what I'm driving at here?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:55 AM on December 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Eponysterical, I know, but I'm going to recommend an intro improv class. And that you don't go into it thinking you're going to improve your humor. You'd be taking the class to learn interpersonal skills. Here's how: Improv teaches you that you, alone, are not as good or as funny or as smart or effective as you working together with the input of others.

The "Yes, and..." tenet of improv means that you agree ("yes") with what's been handed to you. And then--and this is just as important as agreeing--you have to add something to it. This is the "and." This skill is especially important in leadership roles. Agreement in the business world means acceptance of the stipulation, not that you actually agree with the meaning of the words that have been said. Adding to the stipulation is how you transform a stipulation you don't like into something you can live with, or actually get behind.

Improv also teaches you that it's ok to fail. That you're not always right.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:11 AM on December 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's been a slow change in what companies and people consider good leadership. Being in management isn't just about delivering results: good employees don't leave bad companies, they leave bad managers. Forbes has done a good write up on something along these lines, Alan Mulally vs Jack Welch. Mulally is widely credited with the Boeing turnaround against Airbus in the mid 2000s - and was then hired into Ford for a total signing bonus of well over $20 mil. If anyone had a reason to be arrogant it would be him. Instead he rejected the executive dining room on the top floor and spent lunch times in the workers canteen sitting with different groups of employees, asking them for their opinion of the business and what they thought could be done better. (and he followed through on it) When media asked when he was going to bring in his crack team from Boeing and kick out the old, under-performing guard at Ford, he appeared surprised and said that no, Ford already had the talent to save itself. New leadership is about working together and respecting everyone: contrast this to the old paradigm where the weak were executed and only the strong survived. A lot of us are still stuck with the old mentality: many people seem to still expect this to happen.

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses: everyone will travel a different paths. Sometimes not because of certain traits, but in spite of them. Arrogance and condescension can be fatal to one's upward career progress, because it indicates to others you think you have reached the limits of your learning. Even the CEO who was earning $50 mil a year was humble enough to genuinely think he could learn something from the lowest ranked employees.

I think what distinguishes a leader is their ability to affect transformational change. Excelling at your job is a transactional exchange: you were given a task and you completed it. There are people I have observed who entered a role, and transformed the business around them for the better. By definition you can't boss people around to do this - it's outside your job scope and authority. It's achieved by being genuinely concerned for the business, and leveraging your relationships and other levers in the organization to get people to "do the right thing". Interpersonal skills are critical: every person you meet has their own personal agenda. For example, a person who works in accounting who notices pricing anomalies (domain of marketing group) and then leverages their connections in various other teams to put together an initiative to realign pricing on certain products. You don't step on marketing's toes by telling them what to do. You have to figure out which parties to approach and who will support you: you help bring together the right people with the right skills to resolve the problem. And you make sure the people who matter know you're the one who started and finished this initiative by making sure you start the process with them, and not have them find out halfway through via someone else who may get credit for it instead.
posted by xdvesper at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2015 [16 favorites]


I'm short too.

There's a reason sometimes short people are accused of having a Napoleonic complex. I get what you are saying about height getting in your way but overcompensating for it is counterproductive.

In my work, being short, female, and having to deal a lot with contractors, etc. including check up behind them and "persuade" them to get stuff done in a timely fashion-I agree with the above poster who said it is vital to approach them as being on the same team. And you definitely catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Remember, everyone has insecurities, and if you make other people feel good about themselves, it's win-win!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:37 AM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think, first of all, that negative feedback on performance reviews can be tough to take. I tend to blow it up into a huge overwhelming personality problem, and that tendency stands in my way. Take some time to consider the positive feedback as well!

I agree that Dale Carnegie would be a great place to start, along with resources on principled negotiation like the book Getting to Yes. Become a nerd on how to provoke a positive response in people. Yes, this is a skill that can be learned and honed. These two approaches will teach you how to do it while also pursuing your own goals.

For a perspective shift, consider that the greatest nerds are insatiably curious. If you can't get people to share their knowledge with you, you're missing out on a lot of information. Condescension shuts that flow of information off very effectively. Curiosity opens it up.
posted by sadmadglad at 5:42 AM on December 22, 2015


I'm surrounded by men of shorter stature in prominent leadership positions (my dad is barely 5'6" and about 130lbs soaking wet, my boss is about the same) and the defining factor is that they're really interested in human interaction and human relations.

People live up to your expectations of them. This is a major axiom of teaching but also applies to all areas of leadership. If you expect people to be dumb-asses and go into all your interactions with that attitude, other people will generally oblige. It's not that they're actually dumb, it's that they can tell that you don't expect them to be anything special so why should they put the effort forth? Leaders who openly and vocally trust and expect their team to be intelligent, hard-working, and honest will often find those expectations lived up to. (There's always exceptions. There's always That Guy. But if you don't expect everyone to be That Guy, you'll find there are a lot fewer out there than you think.) Having a leader who has high expectations (my own current boss is the best manager I've ever had, small though he may be) inspires people. You think, "If this person has such trust and faith in my ability to do this work, they must see something in me that maybe I didn't even know I had. I should dig deep and find that, so I don't let this person down."

There's one member of my team who is a touch condescending. (We're all nerds in this department, so the fact that there's only one is pretty impressive.) I'm the only woman here, so I'm a target of the condescension every now and then and let me tell you, it's enraging to be on the receiving end of that. And I'd urge you to consider that your height is not nearly the barrier you think it is. And that there are people out there (like, say women, people of color and the disabled) who are suffering under serious systems of discrimination in the workplace. Yet, they manage to not be assholes (especially because a woman or person of color being an asshole has much more serious repercussions than a white guy being an asshole.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:51 AM on December 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I feel like in your description, you're equating being smart/nerdy and competent with being condescending. These things do not need to go together. I'm smart and competent, and I don't recall ever being called condescending, although I won't claim it's never happened before -- but it's certainly not my main mode of interacting with people. My advice to you:

Be humble.
Assume competence in others.
Approach your interactions with others with an attitude of respect and generosity.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:03 AM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've had great leaders in companies before, but they were generally passed over for the choice promotions. The ones who succeeded were the ones who knew how to play corporate and business politics well -- they were condescending and autocratic, but knew how to cover it up well with superficial charm and symbolic gestures like eating in the company cafeteria.

So if your career is your aim and you want to move up in the world, it's not really about being empathetic, but knowing how to act like you're empathetic. Don't worry about changing your attitude, but changing how you appear to others, which is a lot easier than what other people are suggesting here.

If you want to be a better all-around person, the advice here is pretty solid.
posted by gehenna_lion at 7:09 AM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would not put any stock at all in a personality critique from a corporate performance review. If you really were doing something wrong, and your superiors cared about you at all, they'd tell you outside a formal performance review process. Do whatever it takes to make your bosses happy but this sounds like the kind of generic criticism that sounds smart but isn't measurable or actionable.

If they really don't like you (and it doesn't sound that bad from your question), then you should get another job, you can't make people like you.
posted by miyabo at 7:09 AM on December 22, 2015


Maybe it's because I spend too much time on Ask Metafilter, but I think therapy would be a great way to dig into why you feel this way and develop skills to show more empathy at work while being heard.

I found therapy to be the best leadership training I've ever had. I kind of wish they sent every manager to a good therapist.
posted by advicepig at 7:14 AM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think people are getting a little rough on you here. I read your post as "I'm short and nerdy, and if I don't act tough in some way people will be dismissive and obnoxious to me. I deal with this by being condescending so I can have my voice heard."

Maybe I read your post wrong. But if I read it right, I think what your supervisor is trying to tell you is, 1. We respect your work 2. You don't need to have defenses here 3. Your defenses are pissing people off 4. Chill, even as a short nerd, we respect you.

How do you not be condescending? It's a new year, so why not a new years resolution? Try spending the first month listening to people, repeating back what you think they are saying and agreeing with it. I think it is going to be harder than you think, but really informative.
posted by Toddles at 7:50 AM on December 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


Expertise is a minor contributor to leadership.

Well, expertise in team-management, interpersonal understandings, delegation of the right task to the right person, and various other team- and project- based skills is pretty crucial. Those just don't happen to be the things that you're already an expert in.

It sounds like you're unwilling to appreciate and respect skills that you don't have, because you're afraid it will detract from skills and expertise that you do have. That can be very difficult to work with. It's okay to tell people that you are an expert in skill A, in fact that's part of making a collaboration successful - but the flip side isn't that they're not an expert at skill A, the flip side is that they are an expert at skill B. And by correlation, you don't have to be an expert at skill B, it's okay not to be, and it's okay - in fact gracious - to admit this. It is much less okay when you feel the need to go on the defensive about how you personally value skill A higher than skill B anyway, or any other subtext which puts you on the high ground.
posted by aimedwander at 7:52 AM on December 22, 2015


Moving out of school can be a difficult transition for smart people.

I have trouble with people assuming I'm not bright because of the way I look or what I can do.

You can't overcompensate, though. People assume you're bright if you make them feel bright. Not stupid. If you make them feel stupid, they assume you're an asshole or that you're stupid.

Try complimenting someone on something they do or have that other people don't like or appreciate. That will make them feel good about themselves, and like you're smart and insightful for seeing what they have to offer. And consider asking people to contribute their expertise to your projects. Then give them credit.

The person who determines who gets the credit? That is the leader in the room. Try to be that person, instead of always trying to be the person who gets the credit.

Alternatively, move jobs and start in a leadership role.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:38 AM on December 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Also, as someone who has to sometimes knock heads together in order to get my intelligence respected--it's a real thing, and it's frustrating. But I'll give you a tip: you should be relaxed, conversational, pleasant, and respectful about 95% of the time, at least. When someone gets shitty or condescending with you--and you should have a relatively high bar for this--then you get assertive. You demonstrate that you are smarter than them. You show them that your ideas do, in fact, have merit. You do this only to the extent that you need to in order to be treated fairly and well. And then you go back to relaxing and treating everyone politely. You don't need to constantly use your intelligence in order to let people know that it's there.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:50 AM on December 22, 2015 [5 favorites]


I agree with a lot of people that the exact thing your coworkers are telling you is coming out very strongly in your question.

I want you to first understand one thing. Technical knowledge is important up to a certain level, but it's not all there is. You're maxed out in one stat. That is not only not-unbeatable, but a weakness if you ever want to move past where you are now. I'll draw you a graph. On the Y axis, organizational level (technician, supervisor, manager, executive). On the X axis, technical knowledge. Heres what that graph looks like: >

The point is at the first-level supervisor level. To get above that, other skills are far more important. Understanding people and what motivates them. Generalized system thinking. Ability to set a vision, attract people who believe in the vision, and set a path to get there.

As a fellow nerdy/theory type, I'm going to suggest you start studying leadership as a science and skill in it's own right and de-emphasize whatever specific thing your organization does technically. It's not that that's not important too, but you already have that.

Here are two of my favorite videos to start with:
Greatness, David Marquet
Why Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek
posted by ctmf at 11:29 AM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Does your company have leadership/development seminars you can sign up for? As a practical matter, asking to be signed up for some of those might help you (usually there is at least one useful nugget of info even in several hours of boring crap) while demonstrating that you take the criticism to heart and commit to improvement.
posted by ctmf at 11:36 AM on December 22, 2015


The condescension thing specifically has a lot to do with how you tell people you disagree with them. It happens, it's necessary, but you don't have to be a dick about it. I usually try to find something in what they said that I DO agree with and mention that first. Then, I mention the part I don't agree with, but without assuming I'm the one who's right. Even in a black and white, the-manual-says case, you can either say "wrong, it says ___" or you can say, "are you sure? That's not how I remember it, let's look."

This gets more important as you move up, because it stops being about black-and-white cases and more and more often about opinions. What would be "best," what would be the "smart" thing to do. Usually in those cases, nobody is wrong at all, they just have different data and sometimes different values and priorities. You can't treat those people like your goals and priorities are somehow the "right" ones and everyone else must be stupid.

Pay very close attention to how you disagree with people, like what exactly you say.
posted by ctmf at 11:52 AM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think you have internalised a lot about how you think others perceive and react to your physical presence, and you are overcompensating behaviourally. It’s possible that people occasionally overlook or dominate you due to your stature, but probably not nearly as much as you have convinced yourself that they do. This sounds like insecurity speaking.

I wonder if you might benefit from learning more about adult cognitive developmental theory and frameworks for assessing this.

It sounds like you could be currently in the “self-authored mind” (or expert/achiever, depending on which developmental model you use), when you are being asked to move into more of a “self-transforming mind” (pluralist/strategist) as a leader. Self-authored is a well-developed form of mind, characterised by being excellent at self-guidance and self-management, but the self-authored also sometimes cannot easily see connections between their ideas of what is right and other people’s ideas of what is right. This makes them an island to themselves in social situations. The self-transforming are better at seeing their own boundaries, and those of others, and feel free to cross between those boundaries to explore subjectivity and weave together constructive new shared meaning.

It’s sort of like the difference between IQ and EQ. In corporate/social settings, EQ is at least as important as IQ, if not moreso. Being able to bridge understandings and cultivate shared ownership of problems and solutions is the hallmark of good leadership. That’s when people begin to look at you as a leader. When you operate solely from expert mode, no matter how right you are, you will seldom bring others along with you. You said that the best way you can contribute value is to bring your brain to the organisation. But it is how you bring your brain that makes all the difference. Letting people participate in your thinking and helping them come to the same conclusions themselves will make you look like a winner. Often it's more about the questions you ask than the answers you provide.
posted by amusebuche at 12:45 PM on December 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think people have gotten at the important points, but I wanted to add one thing to consider. You say you are small, but don't appear to realize that you can do something about that. You can't grow taller, of course, but you can put on some muscle and that may make you seem to have more stature and will almost certainly give you more confidence.

(Disclaimer: the following is not a scientific statement!) Muscular nerds have a completely different impact on other people's subconscious minds than skinny nerds. Actually, the probably don't even read as nerds.
posted by callmejay at 1:28 PM on December 22, 2015


Engage a leadership coach. One who specializes in developing Emotional Intelligence. It's pretty difficult to transform this kind of thing on your own and this is exactly what a leadership coach helps people with every day.

This leadership coach is based in San Francisco, but he also works via Skype. I know him well and from what you describe, I think he'd be a great fit for you.
posted by magnislibris at 1:48 PM on December 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I've had the experience where someone makes a grand mistake, I save them and say nothing, and they overlook me, or turn it around, and give me a "thanks, little buddy!" patronizing sort of response.

I just want to add that that's an annoying experience, for sure. But if your takeaway from that episode is that helping save others from grand mistakes and/or keeping relatively quiet about your contributions is a bad way to go, you are seriously missing out, and very likely handicapping your progress. For ten people you bail out in this way, it may not yield anything meaningful to you (or perhaps even have an annoying outcome) in say, two cases, and those are probably two folks who are prone to stepping on people anyway (and who are probably widely known as condescending...), and they typically get their just desserts in the long run.

Meanwhile, for each of the remaining eight, you've gained an ally, which is almost immeasurably valuable. Just think of all the people you could have available to ask for favors or advice, and/or who are "on your side" when it comes to a meeting about resource allocation... or promotions. Those allies talk, too, and often to their own managers -- and don't forget that there are often witnesses to you demonstrating true leadership in action: that is, keeping your eye on the company's goals and contributing your best skills/effort to support them... not as a doormat, just as someone who is not purely self-serving/self-centered. Those are the kinds of people who become trusted to lead others.
posted by argonauta at 6:07 PM on December 22, 2015


FWIW, I'm short and female. The people who see me as a leader at work aren't the ones who I know more than, or the ones I talk over, or the ones who know my ideas get implemented more than theirs. The people who see me as a leader are those who I listen to and support. I think interpersonal skills are key, and are absolutely something you can change and develop over time. Some skills you could practice over time:

-Paraphrasing: being able to take what someone said, whether you agree or not, and paraphrase it in 1 or 2 sentences (without parroting what they said) shows people you're listening and that you value what they are saying. It also eliminates condescension by taking a learner's stance - you're not assuming they don't know X, you're ensuring you understand their perspective on X. You can practice using sentence stems like "It's really important to you that _______" and "You're wanting our team to focus primarily on __________." Paraphrasing is also a leadership skill when you can summarize and synthesize multiple ideas floating around during a meeting: "So we're going to improve communication with clients by doing X and Y, and Deborah is going to collect additional data. Are there other ideas we should consider?" You don't always have to put new information or ideas out to be a leader.
-Flexibility and humility: You talked about knowing more than others. To me, flexibility means considering other viewpoints and knowing that there isn't one Right and Best way to do things. Humility means knowing that you have expertise, but you still have plenty to learn from everyone around you. You could practice this with phrases like "Could you tell me more about what you're thinking for this project?" and "That's interesting, I hadn't thought of it that way."

I'd also recommend reading up on Servant Leadership.
posted by violetish at 8:44 PM on December 22, 2015


my husband is short, has a lot of expertise in his job, and while he is much respected for the expertise the condescension does impact his social life (not only at work). Over the years I have observed that his condescending attitude becomes more pronounced when he feels defensive. With him condescension is definitely something he developed as a coping strategy from childhood on through school, etc. to preempt comments on his height. He tried clothes etc. but really it was not about that.
I think the most effective coping strategy when he can manage it, is if he manages to supress the initially defensive response, not rise to the bait (which only he sees anyway) and listens first and counts to ten before responding. Perhaps a coach or therapist can help there but mostly I feel it is an inner decision to grow up mentally and put the past experiences that led to the attitude behind.
posted by 15L06 at 1:07 AM on December 23, 2015


It's a very common recommendation here on Metafilter, but Olivia Fox Cabane's book The Charisma Myth is worth a read. It helped me understand why I have not always been perceived as the force of sweetness and life I see myself to be, and gave me some very practical ways to address the situation.
posted by rpfields at 12:17 PM on December 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


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