should I report to someone with less education than me? — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I work for a major content creation company and the story of my professional life is that I have had to take jobs I was underqualified for to help out family and take care of some personal issues in the past. I have an MFA in digital media and an MBA in digital marketing, over five professional certifications, and I’ve had to take some hits in my career and in my field (living in areas where my job or field wasn’t needed for family and personal issues), taking remote or contract work to stay abreast of what’s changing in my field. I’ve been in my field now for over five years.

Previously, I always reported to someone with less education than me, which almost always ended with the company taking advantage of my skills and not paying me for it. I was excited to work for my current company because I would be reporting to someone with my same education level, who respects what my education brings to the team. I want to acknowledge that education isn’t everything, but I literally reported to high school drop-outs in the past, people who would laugh at me for my education (including HR reps) and then call me at 4 a.m. when the poop hit the propeller and I’d fix the problem, saving their butts and their company, only to be told education isn’t everything. It was really demoralizing.

Because my boss is being promoted, I just got notified that I’ll be reporting to someone with a bachelor’s degree, less time in the field, and less time with this company than I have. My employee reviews have been stellar for the last five years, but “Mary” already has me earmarked for an improvement plan. Mary is young, and I think she feels like she has to come in guns blazing. She has a history of being an error junkie and a tattle — any time she finds an error or thinks she may have found one, she runs to the boss. She confuses people by giving feedback on work she’s not included in — like emailing an entire project team with feedback about broken links that actually work, making suggestions that aren’t what the client wants, and saying “you should include a hyperlink to X” when one scroll down would show her that yes, X is linked at the bottom of the page. Some people call her a pistol and a go-getter but to a lot of us she’s a pain. She’s made snarky comments to me and some of the other team members that “grad school isn’t everything” and “people waste their time on education when X is an easy job to get.” I fought like hell to put myself through school and I’m not willing to have those sacrifices ignored or derided at work, especially when those people are benefiting from my expertise, energy, ideas, and talent.

Now that I’m not in a small town situation where I have to take what I can get, is it typical for larger companies to have graduate level employees report to managers with less education? For reference, Mary’s degree isn’t in management, business, or HR or anything you’d think of when it comes to management — it’s actually not relevant to our field. Is this normal and typical?

It is very, very normal to report to someone with less education than you have. In most fields — not all, but most — work achievements matter more than school.

That’s not to denigrate school in any way. School has value. Your degrees have value. But in most fields, degrees don’t indicate as much about expertise as work accomplishments do. Educational background isn’t usually a factor in deciding who should be managing who. (Again, there are exceptions to this norm.)

It’s also very, very normal for managers not to have degrees in management, business, or anything HR-related. (HR degrees aren’t really about management at all; they’re about HR, which is a different thing.) In fact, the vast majority of managers don’t have degrees in those fields; they don’t need them. People tend to end up in management positions because they were good at the type of work they’ll be overseeing, or good at something adjacent to it, or show an aptitude for the big-picture issues the leader of that team will need to manage. (Or, in dysfunctional companies, because they schmooze well or are the owner’s nephew’s friend. But I’m talking about reasonably functional companies.)

It sounds like you’ve had awful experiences in the past — having colleagues laugh at your education isn’t normal — and maybe that’s put you on the defensive or made you dig in on this issue in a way you otherwise wouldn’t. Although … any chance that people keep telling you education isn’t everything because, well, you’re coming across like you think it is everything? Some of the assumptions in your letter are pretty off-base and if those were coming out at work before people started responding to you that way, it’s possible that’s the cause. If I’m wrong, and their hostility came first, then you just worked with jerks and I’m sorry.

But the thing is, many, many fields — and content creation is one of them — don’t really lean on degrees that much. What you learn in getting the degree can be useful when you’re early in your career and particularly in helping you get your first post-school job, but as you progress through your field, you’re really using what you learn on the job most of all. That doesn’t mean your degrees didn’t give you a good foundation — I’m sure they did — but employers and colleagues will rightly put a ton more emphasis on the work you produce.

Of course, all that aside, it’s still possible to have a boss who just sucks. It sounds like that might be the case with your new boss, Mary. But I highly doubt that’s because Mary doesn’t have a graduate degree; it sounds like she’s just a bad manager and, believe me, there are bad managers at every educational level. It’s also possible that Mary has some annoying traits but is genuinely good at something else that your company’s leadership sees as important for your team, who knows.

It’s possible the improvement plan Mary put you on is crap and reveals her incompetence, but it’s also possible there’s substance in there that’s worth paying attention to. (For example, if the company has charged her with taking the team in X direction and you are much more comfortable with Y and have resisted X … well, this is where it could end up.) I’d really try to set aside your resentment and consider the feedback with an open mind. Maybe it’s really BS, I don’t know. But maybe it’s not, and if nothing else, it’ll help to know what Mary prioritizes.

I also want to talk about this sentence from your letter: “I fought like hell to put myself through school and I’m not willing to have those sacrifices ignored or derided at work.” The reality is, people at work aren’t going to care about the sacrifices you made to put yourself through school. They’re just not. That doesn’t mean those sacrifices weren’t important or valuable — it’s just not the kind of thing people think much about or put much weight on once you’re in the work world. They care about your work achievements now. They care about how good you are at your job, what you’re like as a colleague, and how easy and pleasant you are to work with. That’s about it.

You’re feeling a lot of defensiveness — understandably so from some of your experiences — but it’s not leading you anywhere good. It’s making you conclude things that are outright wrong (“managers should have more education than those they manage”) and not aligned with how work actually works. And that’s making you feel pretty self-righteous and resentful, and getting in the way of you seeing things as they actually are. (For example, is Mary really a bad manager? If so, that’s important to know! But right now, it’s clouded because of these other issues that you’re giving inappropriate weight to.) It’s also likely to come out in the way you deal with people at work, and that could keep you mired in the cycle you’ve been in.

So I strongly, strongly urge you to drop your investment in assessing what degrees people have. Look at their work achievements and look at how they approach work now. Look at what they’re contributing that might be valued. Maybe you’ll still conclude they’re not great, as might happen with Mary, but you’ll be assessing based on the right things.

You’ve also got to drop your investment in having other people value your degrees the way you do. You absolutely can and should value your education and the sacrifices you made to get it. Those are important things. But once you’re past the start of your career, they’ll mostly be valuable to you (again, some fields are exceptions). If you can make your peace with that, I think everything will get easier.



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