Leveling the field

Earning trust and respect in the battle to be heard

Recently, I had a conversation with a junior graphic designer. He was working as an in-house asset for a large regional home-builder. He expressed to me that he was feeling a little hamstrung in his current situation. He, along with his current marketing director (both young, green, and newish with the company), felt as if they weren’t being “heard” by the higher-ups.

Regularly, they would submit new marketing ideas and creative concepts, but just as regularly, they were shut down by their bosses. “That orange isn’t orange enough!” “That marketing plan is exactly what everyone else is doing!” That is the kind of feedback they were getting. You know, the kind you can’t really do anything with.

It was clear to me that there was a split here. These guys had limited time in the company—both less than two years and the marketing director just seven months—but in short-order had already been relegated to simply order-takers. Even though they had been reportedly asked to take the reins, they had crafted a relationship in which someone further up the chain didn’t trust them.

This problem is widespread among junior designers, but it indeed happens in almost every line of work. With designers (a position I can speak to from experience), we often value our contribution to the company/client more than the folks down the hall. It’s not uncommon actually, for designers to see themselves as the tip of the spear. Considering the work they produce is generally what the audience sees, it makes sense. However, the execs on the top-floor don’t see it that way. They and their cronies have been working on the plan, the strategy, and then they delegate to the design team to do the work. The designers take orders and act on them. They aren’t steering the ship, instead simply hoisting the mainsail because they were told to do so.

That dichotomy is the root of the problem. We’ve got a mismatch in the relationship. Systematically, the design team, in this case, is put into a subservient position, and this is effectively what happened with our junior designer and marketing director. Because they are both green, the higher-ups don’t trust them. Therefore they delegate their directives to the subservient order-takers, and they do what is considered the grunt work. That said, there is no clear path to overcoming all that, but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances without simply moving on and starting clean somewhere else.

1. Don’t be good, be great at what you do.
Especially for a junior employee, you’ve no doubt got a lot of growing to do. But do your part to show up every day and be great. Never stop learning and work continuously to improve not just your craft but all the skills you need to be respected for what you are—a valuable resource.

2. Expertise is huge.
If you want to be seen as a trusted partner, then you have to have a perspective. It’s not enough to know how to push pixels in photoshop, you’ve got to have skills outside of your craft that contribute to a larger view. Companies have problems to solve, and the more you can apply your knowledge and expertise to those problems, the more you can develop a culture of trust and further, equality among your coworkers.

3. Assert yourself.

I’m not saying that you need to run about with your chest pumped up, letting everyone know how right you are, or how big of contribution you make to the team. It’s not about being blow-hardy, but rather raising your hand, offering useful information, getting involved, and being actively engaged with your employer.

4. Take responsibility.
You will make mistakes. You will provide suggestions that are bad, off course, or minimally fall on deaf ears. But if you want to be treated like a professional and earn that trust, then by God, you have to act like one. Professionals will accept that something didn’t work or go to plan but will have a suggestion on the backside to improve the situation or take another run. It’s not a weakness to accept the responsibility of the project gone wrong, but it is a weakness not to own it.

5. Believe in yourself.

Confidence is king, and lack of it smells like a dead fish—people can pick up on it for miles. Lack of confidence comes from fear, and fear comes from lack of preparation. If you are feeling insecure about your abilities at work that is a clear indicator that you’ve either bought into the mode of “fake it until you make it” and are on the verge of getting caught OR that you have room to improve—and the secret is we all have room to improve. So study up, learn about your craft, your industry, your company, and confidence is sure to follow.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T tell me what it means to ye?  

What is your experience like at work? Have you felt something similar where you were seemingly marginalized or not seen for the contributions you make? What did you do to overcome and get your voice heard? Let me know, I’d love to hear your war stories. Share them here in the comments below or find me on the socials. Let's continue this conversation wherever the audience most suited to hear it can get involved - I am @ryanroghaar on Medium, Twitter and Instagram.