Confrontations at work: a rite of passage for gifted new employees?

Talking with my mom last night, it hit me that I’m starting to observe a pattern of what happens when gifted people, particularly younger, gifted entry-level employees, enter a work environment where there are other dominant or gifted people.

It’s happened to me and several other people I know. Here are the stages:

1) First, the gifted new employee shows up and starts solving problems and doing great work. Everyone is elated. Let’s call this person Jason.

2) After he feels more secure a few months into the job, some of Jason’s other traits start to surface. He starts pointing out problems in the system. He starts vying for dominance with people whom he feels are keeping him from doing his best work. He might work intensely at some times and slack off at other times, or show great motivation in doing new things and then not as much commitment to the implementation and details. He might be picky about work environments, hours, sounds, or sensory issues. Perhaps he will have unusual habits or not connect with other employees in the usual way. Jason starts trying to carve out a sustainable, enjoyable work environment for himself, but in the process can come across as arrogant, entitled, or aloof.

3) Now, say that there is another dominant person at the office. Perhaps this other dominant person is also gifted and slightly lacking in social skills and prone to feeling threatened or wanting to control environments. Let’s call this person Tom.

Let’s say that Jason’s skills and new ideas are threatening Tom’s status, and Jason wants to take some of the responsibility that until now has been Tom’s.

4) Tom starts to put down Jason in any way possible. Tom tries to keep Jason in a subordinate role, which he reacts to negatively. Tom might go to other managers and say that Jason is not a good employee. Tom might notice anything Jason does poorly and magnify the mistake. Tom looks for reasons that Jason should not have responsibility, or perhaps should not even be at the company. Other people might not notice the conflict, but Tom and Jason are individually aware that they aren’t happy that the other person keeps them from enjoying the dominance and freedom they would like.

5) If Jason does not have practice with healthy confrontation, he might do nothing and simply give up on the job, since Tom seems to be making it miserable for him and keeps him from doing as much as he could for the company.

6) Or he might go to other managers or employees and complain about Tom. Yet since Tom is already such a dominant employee and has been at the company longer and is more senior, they might side with Tom and tell Jason to just get used to paying his dues as a new employee. The ideal situation would be for them to carve out some autonomy for Jason, as gifted employees tend to work better with autonomy and the ability to perform at a high level, but for political reasons they might not be able to do this. It is rare for managers who don’t understand giftedness to tell more senior people to back off and give new employees some space to have a role, particularly since the other traits of gifted people can be interpreted as being an up-start, not knowing one’s place, or causing tension.

5) If Jason has practice with healthy confrontation, Jason goes directly to Tom and confronts him about the tension in a way that stresses the importance of their relationship.

For example, “I don’t want to cause problems and I understand I’m new here, but I’m having trouble with the following things you’ve done, or I’m aware you’ve been saying the following things about me, and I just want to see what you need from me for us to be able to work well together, because I respect your skills and am thrilled to be working with someone else like you.”

Jason makes it clear about what he needs to perform at the company and that Tom needs to come to him if he has problems with him, but he does it in a way that shows Tom that he is safe and he will continue to get what he needs while Jason is there, because Jason will defer to him and support him in the ways that are easy for him while still advocating for what he needs.

6) At this point, Tom is stunned by Jason’s ability to confront the issue and the situation changes. Jason has to keep on top of his game and not show weakness and keep showing that he’s there to stay, but also show a lot of support for Tom.

At this point, their relationship may change. They might have been undercutting one another up until this point, with Tom trying to show why Jason shouldn’t have responsibility, and Jason trying to show why Tom shouldn’t have as much responsibility.

But once they go through this talk together, creating a solution together bonds them and they become allies. Also, they recognize themselves in each other – that they are both dominant and talented, and they are able to embrace the respect that they felt for one another all along (which is why they had been working to discredit one another, ironically – because they were so subdued and threatened by the other person’s ability and power).

7) Also, since Jason has been at the company for a while by this point, people are used to him being there and have adjusted to him.

8) Hopefully, Tom and Jason go on to have a great working relationship and might work on projects together.

So I guess in future jobs, that’s what I’ll do:

-Make a great showing in the beginning to get a reputation as very smart and capable.

-Lay low for a while until people can get used to me being there and try to be blameless, to keep the inevitable problem-finding to a minimum.

-Study the other dominant people at the company whom I will need to become allies with, or whom my full growth at the company might threaten, and learn what they value and how they work.

-Approach these people and establish a desire to work well with them and create something good together, based on what they value and our common interests and values.

-Find myself hopefully allied with dominant people. (Which is so much better than being allied with the weaker people.)

I will try to follow the reverse of this if new dominant people enter workplaces I’m in and threaten my position. Perhaps it’s about quickly clarifying whose roles are whose when a new dominance struggle comes into play, so that each person can continue enjoying dominance in the areas that they own.

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