Self-Importance Can Lead to Unintentional Insults
Power and status do strange things to leaders.
These elements sometimes fill them with self-importance and a feeling of superiority over others. When a powerful and status-conscious leader feels particularly comfortable with themselves, they often say things to others they really shouldn’t.
“You are so professional.”
“When you have more experience, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
“No one in the room could tell how junior you are.”
“You’re really ambitious for someone with your background.”
“Look at you engage like a subject matter expert. Way to go.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised at how you contributed to our team decision.”
“You did a great job considering the time you spent preparing.”
Such putdowns and insults are exceedingly subtle, often only recognizable when called out, which rarely happens. How simple statements are interpreted differently than they are intended is a case study of the negative effects of leadership power.
When leaders feel their status, the praise they offer is usually intended to compliment or comfort others. But, because they project their own status in the statement, what they say can be highly insulting and interpreted as a put-down. Worse yet, leaders often walk away from many exchanges, after they delivered one or more insults, thinking they created a better connection with those that are now hurt or incensed.
We used to call such insults “backhanded compliments,” but now label them “microaggressions,” although the name is only half right in most cases. They are micro for sure, but aggression requires intention, and such insults are rarely mindfully delivered. In fact, most status insults result when leaders think they are being complimentary, comforting, or sensitive to others’ feelings.
For instance, comments like, “You’re not like most millennials,” “You surprised me with your excellent performance,” or “I’ve always liked people from Canada,” are meant to be heartfelt compliments but come off as anything but. Unfortunately, because leaders can sometimes feel overly powerful and prideful of their status, what can seem to them as harmless is often interpreted as a putdown. We can do better.
The best way for leaders to guard against making such insults is to drop their status and treat everyone as a peer, especially those who are inexperienced, junior, or new. Engaging others as peers requires a powerful and important presumption that ideas and actions should be judged objectively on their merit, not on who offers them.
By definition, peer communication sheds status and replaces it with mutual respect. Ideally, peer-like praise and compliments recognize value without reference to the status of either party.
The ultimate lesson here is that good intentions alone do not guarantee leaders won’t inadvertently insult people when they are trying to praise or comfort them. The more leaders can cast off their status-based feelings of self-importance, the more likely they will avoid the dreaded “microaggression.” Such insults are subtle, but nonetheless hurtful and have no place in the interaction between leaders and their team members.