Do you ever feel like people at work don’t really “get” who you are and what you’re capable of? That’s what I call being misunderstood and undervalued, and it’s happened to me more than once.

Not only does it feel frustrating, it can have some serious knock on effects to your career. Like getting passed over when they’re handing out cool assignments, or being excluded from key conversations where new ideas are hatched and strategies decided.

You hold the key

Each time I felt misunderstood and undervalued, I remember thinking, “If only they knew the kind of person I am. Then, I’d get a fair shake”. And I saw only two options: wait for senior management to notice me, or change jobs and try again.

Waiting left me feeling more frustrated and helpless, and leaving my job seemed extreme since I liked the company I worked for.

So I started to read self-help books, watching what others did, and taking a hard look at myself. I also consulted my family “brain trust” (aka, Mom, Dad, my sister and my husband). Back then, I didn’t have a mastermind group, but if I did, I would have discussed the problem with them too.

What I concluded was this: My own behavior held the key to my being understood.

And since I liked the organization, it would be silly to leave unless I had done my part to make things work but discovered there was still a problem.

So if you’re like me back in the day, thinking that my boss, colleagues or senior managers should be the ones to reach out and figure out just how marvelous a contributor I could be, then the sooner you understand and take action on this, the better off you will be:

Why it’s up to you

First of all, it matters more to you than anyone else – you have the biggest upside, and also the biggest downside. No one has nearly the incentive you have. They’re preoccupied with their own situation, and if you don’t make it a priority, it’s not going to happen.

Secondly, if you haven’t done your part to learn and grow, then your problems are likely to follow you to the next place you work. You can leave your company, but you can’t leave yourself behind.

Finally, as with all aspects of succeeding in your career, you have to do the work of putting yourself in a position to succeed. It’s not like getting a massage, where you relax while someone else does the work. As scientist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

5 questions to ask

So when you find yourself being misunderstood and undervalued, here are five questions to ask yourself. Your answers will guide you toward the best action steps to take. Once you start taking actions, you’ll feel much better about yourself and your situation.

1. What’s causing you to be misunderstood?

There are many reasons why you might be misunderstood. Getting to the core of that will help you figure out whether it’s something worth working on. And, if so, it will give you clues as to how to address it most effectively.

The solution usually starts with understanding why you’re not getting the opportunities or recognition you want.

For example:

  • They see you as an expert in whatever you currently do, and can’t envision you doing anything else

Tom was a lawyer heading up our documentation group, and doing such a great job that the rest of us not only didn’t want him to move to another role, we couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. But Tom’s ambition was to move into the advisory side of our business. He needed to find situations to show his client advisory potential.

  • They misread the extent to which you are ambitious

Having turned down an opportunity to relocate a few years ago, Paul’s managers assumed that he wasn’t interested in relocating even if it came with a promotion and greater visibility.

When someone else got the job, Paul realized he needed to tell his managers that his situation had changed and that he wanted to be considered for all opportunities.

  • They see you as less capable than you really are

People only see a slice of who we are and what we can do. So if you only work with someone on a specific type of project or in a narrow part of what you can do, they won’t have the full picture of what you bring to the party.

Or worse yet, maybe the one time they saw you in action was when you were having a bad day. As a friend of mine likes to say, “senior managers only get one or two snapshots of your performance”. So you need to manage those situations well and create more of them if you can.

Either way, it’s up to you to find ways to show others the full and accurate picture.

  • They think you want a different degree of work/life balance than you actually do

My friend Valerie’s bosses assumed she would go part-time once she had children. After all, that’s what the other two women in the department had chosen to do. But in Valerie’s case, that wasn’t true. She had to make it clear that she was the primary earner in her family and wanted to be considered for top opportunities.

  • They still see you as the same person you were when they worked with you 5 years ago

When you’ve been with one organization and in the same role for a long time, people may have an outdated view of you. Just like parents have a hard time seeing their adult children as anything but their kids.

You need to update their impressions proactively through your demeanor and the capabilities you showcase.

2. Who doesn’t understand you, but needs to?

This is important to figure out because it’s not equally important for everyone in the organization to know what you’re all about.

You want to start with the people who have the biggest impact on your career – the ones who determine what you work on, the degree of autonomy you have, the resources available to you, the visibility you have and so forth.

  • Your seniors: If it’s your boss and the more senior people in your reporting line who don’t understand your true capabilities, then you’ll struggle to get the stretch opportunities to prove yourself promotion-worthy, much less get promoted. Unless they see you for who you are now and your future potential, then it’s going to be tough to get ahead.

How do your seniors see you?

  • Your colleagues: If it’s the people you need to work closely with, then you’ll have a hard time getting your work done efficiently and effectively. Again, a career-limiting situation.

How do your colleagues see you and your role, and to what extent is there an opportunity to build a collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship?

  • Your support team: It’s not always about seniority. For example, if you’re a basketball coach, then you need to know and be known by the person who keeps the keys to the gym. That’s saved my husband and his players from standing out in the cold when the building was unexpectedly locked.

Who holds the key to your ability to excel at your work, and do you “get” each other?

3. What do you want them to know about you?

If you could start out with a clean slate, then what would you want your managers, colleagues and support team to know about you?

It’s easiest and most effective if you have just a few key things to get across. In my experience, it’s best to choose no more than three. Otherwise, your impact gets diluted and you’re likely to be just as misunderstood as before.

So, what would be the three words or phrases you want them to use to describe you?

At different points in your career, your answer will likely be different. Early on in my career, I needed people to understand that I was excellent at the content of my job, resourceful in getting things done, and exceptionally hardworking.

Once I nailed that perception, I needed to move on to making it obvious that I was ambitious, able to bring in business, and excellent with clients.

Still later in my career, I needed others to understand that I was a leader, had presence and impact, and could be a strategic thinker.

Given where you are now, what would be the three things that would correct any misunderstandings about who you are and what you’re capable of?

By the way, think of these as the new things that you want people to understand about you. They aren’t the only ways that people will see you, but will build on all the other great things they’re thinking already.

Or if they’re not yet thinking great things about you, then these new items will be replacements that improve upon their perceptions.

4. How and when could you show that?

Next, it’s about figuring how you could demonstrate your true self to the relevant audience.

The best way to do that is to look for moments in the day when you can demonstrate your capabilities. I call these “Pivotal Moments” – moments when what you do or don’t do, and what you say or don’t say can create a fundamental shift in the way people see you.

For example, when you bump into a key person in the hallway or in the Starbucks line. Or when you’re with your boss and colleagues in the weekly team meeting. And definitely at the big presentation you’re giving to senior management.

These are all potential Pivotal Moments. How are you making use of them?

And when you use those Pivotal Moments, remember that it’s an opportunity for those key people to see you in action. So any moment when you’re with those people is a potential Pivotal Moment.

If you’re not around those key people very often, it can be just as good to have people who influence those people see you demonstrating your capabilities, because word gets around.

5. Who could help you with this?

While it’s up to you to be proactive and take charge of helping others “get” who you are and what you’re capable of, you won’t succeed by doing it alone.

Just like in the Beatles song, we all need a little help from our friends. So think about who you know (or could get to know) to help you in the following ways.

  • Provide feedback: It’s helpful to have friends, mentors and trusted colleagues who can give you an accurate picture of how you’re currently seen, and give you feedback along the way on how you’re progressing on making changes.

Who do you trust to give you an honest read on the situation?

  • Help implement: When it comes to putting your new message out there, it helps to have people advocate for you and amplify the message.

Who already understands who you are at your best, and how can they help get the message to the people you’re seeking to influence? Who do you know that’s an opinion leader who has influence with the people you’re trying to reach?

  • Keep your spirits up: In my experience, this can feel like lonely work. So it helps to surround yourself with a few people who can cheer you on and support you when the going gets tough.

Who do you know that keeps your spirits up and can help you stay motivated?

What will you do?

Being misunderstood and undervalued is a real drag on your career. Not only does it feel frustrating, it also holds you back from getting new opportunities and gaining recognition.

It’s up to you to help people understand who you are and what you’re capable of.

So start by asking yourself the five questions:

  1. What’s causing you to feel misunderstood?
  2. Who doesn’t understand you, but needs to?
  3. What do you want them to know about you?
  4. How and when could you show that?
  5. Who could help you with this?

You’ll be taking an important step toward putting yourself in a position to advance in a bigger, more powerful way.

So here’s your challenge:

What one step will you take to help people understand who you are and what you’re capable of? And if you’re already in great shape, what can you do to help someone else?

Leave a comment and let me know.