A little over a year ago I was promoted at work and presented with two options, one of which entailed leading a scientific program that I had spent more than two years developing with my supervisor. I declined the other choice because of the opportunity to lead this exciting new program.
Shortly after I declined the other option, my supervisor pulled a 180. She decided to lead the program herself for at least a year. Since the other option had now been filled, I was stuck. I decided to make the best of the situation. Fast forward a year and I am still trapped in a supporting role. I have the experience and knowledge to lead this program, but I can’t seem to get my supervisor to let go. How do I gently broach this conversation with her? I worry that if I broach it poorly, she may unconsciously penalize me on performance ratings that would impact my future career development.
Yuck. I’m sorry about your violated expectation. You made a choice based on assurances and trust. That trust has been violated. Now what? I offer some thoughts on three topics:
- What you should learn from the past
- What to do in the present
- How to manage your future
The past. It sounds as though you failed to address your violated expectation when it happened. You moved quickly from “She decided to lead the program herself” to “I decided to make the best of the situation.” The missing step is “I asked her why she was not keeping her commitment to let me lead.” Some things you should have handled better include both addressing the broken promise and asking for a new commitment—this time a more formal and enforceable one. If someone promises to let you lead and you declined another opportunity in order to do so, you are fully within your rights the day they change the deal to say, “That was not our deal. If you are breaking the deal, I’d like to know how you will make it right with me.” The burden of justification was on your boss, but you failed to address that fact, so the fact was lost. You’ve now talked yourself into being in a petitioner role rather than an aggrieved party role. That’s you undermining you.
Let me elaborate on that for a moment: I worry a bit from the tone of your question that part of what’s going on is that you see yourself as weak. You think you have no bargaining power. Someone who asks how to “gently broach this question” and ruminates about the boss “unconsciously penalizing you” sounds to me like someone who thinks they are beholden to the boss and holds no cards. Is that true? Are you a poor performer? Do you contribute little to your organization? Is all your social and career capital dependent on maintaining the good graces of your supervisor? If not, then…
The present. You need to bolster your psychological power. Before addressing anything with your boss, address it with yourself. Take out three sheets of paper and write out three viable and attractive “Plan Bs” you could pursue if you don’t get satisfaction in your current job. This may take some time, research, networking and courage. But do it. You’ll know you’ve finished this step when you read the plans and say, “This sounds kind of cool!” Don’t stop until you do.
The future. When you’ve finished developing options, you’ll feel differently about a conversation with your supervisor. The conversation should be straightforward. First, lay out the agreement you had when you accepted the position. Remind her of her assurances that you would lead. Don’t do it in an accusatory or punishing way. But don’t be apologetic, either. Simply express your recollection of the agreement with any evidence you have to support it. Continue with the change of plans she unilaterally announced and how that affected you. Then (in whatever way is true for you) establish mutual purpose with something like this: “I want to lead this project. And I want to stay in this organization. However, if you don’t have confidence in me leading, all I ask is that you be honest about that so I can know where I stand. If I have work to do in order to gain your trust, I need to know that so that I can either get to work growing or move to a place where I fit better. Again, my first preference is to work this out. Do you see the way we got here differently? And how do you see me and my options here?”
You have no obligation to “gently broach this conversation,” as you say. You can do it confidently, respectfully and directly. And your anxiety about consequent “unconscious penalties” will disappear if you do the work needed to reassure yourself of your own value and options.
Please let me know how you proceed. I hope you’ll take the steps needed to have the career you deserve. Readers can offer input in the comments.