Career Path

Know—And Accept—When You’re a Peon

There are times when it’s smart to stay quiet. How to decipher your best move. 

Do you ever feel like your opinions at work fall into an echo chamber? You aren’t alone. Only 30% of employees strongly agree their opinions are heard, according to a Gallup report, leaving the rest of us to wonder when or how we’ll ever get noticed every once in a while.

Indeed, in today’s workplaces, where collaboration and egalitarianism trump hierarchy—we’ve all been on those conference calls with 30 people—it can often feel difficult to get a word in, or get acknowledgment of your good idea. By the end of the week you could be asking, why even try?

Queries come off as approaching the situation with curiosity instead of frustration.

Part of the issue is that it’s actually quite hard for people to differentiate between good workers and talent. “Most managers do a reasonably good job at assessing performance and a poor job at assessing potential because it’s hard to see,” says Katie Lemaire, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Boston office.

But with a little reflection and strategic thinking, it’s possible to find your place in the shuffle—and work your way into a position of authority. Here’s how to strategically move up from peon status.

Understand who’s at the table.

Before you even begin to figure out how to maneuver, you must understand where you are in the pecking order. If you’re a new hire, you’re better off listening for a while so you can get a handle on the culture and the way of speaking, and then figure out what you don’t know. If you’ve been on deck for longer and understand who makes decisions and which departments or colleagues are allies, you can read the room better and know when to make your move. If you’re privy to some knowledge and expertise that others don’t have, you should interject your idea, says Sherri Blix, a Chicago-based executive coach at Blix Consulting and Coaching.

Figure out your desired outcome.

Too often, we speak before we even think about what it is we’re trying to get across, career pros say. Are you looking for just an acknowledgment of your idea or a full-on implementation? Are you just trying to remind people that you’re around and work here? “Acknowledgment takes many forms, so you have to know what being heard means to you,” says Casey Field, managing director of Sacramento-based Trident Coaching Group.

One way to understand your desire is to recognize your own tendencies. “If you’re a person who’s more inclined to hold back and that’s why you can’t make your voice heard, decide to get out of your comfort zone and interject your thoughts more often,” Blix says. If you’re someone who’s constantly interrupting, take an extra second to think before you interject yet again.

Do a cost-benefit analysis.

One of the most strategic moves you can make as a professional is to assess the risk of speaking up versus the risk of staying quiet and playing a long game. After all, you must choose your battles, because you’ll otherwise drain your energy fighting every single one—and get a reputation for being a complainer. If you have a great idea to raise in a room that doesn’t seem receptive, one move is to ask questions. Queries come off as approaching the situation with curiosity instead of frustration. A mindset shift can also help in this regard. “What if you came to the table not thinking it’s a battle?” Blix says. “You can contribute by clarifying or making people realize they’re not thinking holistically.”

Identify when it’s time to move on.

If you’ve felt your peon status outnumbers the times you’re being heard, or if you’ve simply decided not to fight that battle yet again, it may be time to move on—either from that war or from the company entirely. After all, “people leave organizations because they’re not being heard,” Field says. Before you decide to take your talents elsewhere, ensure you’ve talked with your boss and your allies to understand the reason for not gaining a seat at the table. “I’ve had several clients who have heard from their leaders that they’re viewed as ‘not strategic.’ In that case, find out what strategic means to them or the company,” says Shawna Clark Fronk, founder and certified executive coach at Clark Executive Coaching. Doing so could be eye-opening—if you go about it correctly.

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