We’ve all heard this phrase before. Maybe you’ve cringed when someone said it in a conference call, or when you’ve seen it written on a multi-departmental email, and there’s even a chance that you’ve uttered these words yourself: “That’s above my pay grade.” This revealing phrase seems harmless at first, but people with a high-growth career mentality steer clear of it. Here are a few reasons this subtly disempowering statement can be a telling symptom of stunted future growth. 

In a recent study titled Cultures of Genius at Work, “employees who perceived their organization to endorse a fixed (vs. growth) mindset reported that their company’s culture was characterized by less collaboration, innovation, and integrity, and they reported less organizational trust and commitment. These findings suggest that organizational mindset shapes organizational culture.” 

The ability to approach work with a belief that we all have room to learn and grow is a central theme to the study and is not only important in work-life, but in overall mindset outside of work too. 

Why people might say it 

For those building a career, the phrase can often reveal feelings of having not yet proven oneself, or worse, convey a mindset that there is no ability whatsoever to influence the situation. What people new to their role don’t realize is that the person they report to often lacks the perspective their position can provide. 

There are actually times when we lack the decision authority to move forward. For example, someone in IT doesn’t have the final say in deciding the ad spend for the upcoming year, or Product Development can’t make the final choice on which LMS system to go with. In these instances, this phrase might be true, but saying “That’s above my pay grade” is more often a signal that there is a perceived lack of voice and contribution to the company’s vision and overall purpose. Trying to use your voice and being shot down is another conversation entirely. For this, we turn to those leading a team. 

For leaders, hearing someone say “That’s above my pay grade” could mean that someone higher in the org structure has bulldozed the team, or more specifically, that staff member. Regardless of the reporting structure, don’t dismiss the opportunity to begin the culture rebuild at that moment. Encourage the employee to share their thoughts and execution strategy, or suggest they partner with someone who can mentor them. If you haven’t considered mentoring someone before, this could be your opportunity to help grow young talent. 

Another reason you might hear someone state their lack of authority goes back to mindset. Perhaps they don’t feel aligned with the company’s central mission or departmental goals. Allowing their behavior to continue can signal to others that it’s ok not to take responsibility for their role and contribute. Letting the employee know, in front of their peers, that although the final decision-making power doesn’t lay in their hands, their involvement provides value. Your encouragement will bolster everyone’s meaningful contributions. As a leader, the culture you helps to cultivate can permeate throughout the organization. 

What does it mean for the workforce? 

However the phrase became a company norm, the perceived lack of authority or real lack of knowledge determines whether or not teams speak up. The disempowerment vernacular can discourage otherwise promising team members from trying new things or truly applying themselves, regardless of their role.

For junior members, it can be interpreted as all work is done at the top and for those higher in the org structure, this can lead to a backlog of communication and decisions. Regardless of your role, due dates can get pushed, and ultimately teams are likely to experience a loss of momentum- which is the ultimate sacrifice. 

3 Empowering alternatives 

One of the easiest ways to kick a bad habit is by replacing it with a new one. It won’t be an easy task but never underestimate the power of one person’s ability to begin to shift the culture be replacing this phrase with a more empowering alternative. 

● Involve the key decision-maker. Including the key decision-maker allows you to learn from them while illustrating that you are a solid partner. Looping them in signals that you respect the opinion of leadership while keeping momentum and morale high.

 Table it. Not everything can be solved in one meeting or email chain. If there is more to be discussed, write the roadblock down and keep the meeting moving. Then gain the knowledge you need for your follow up. 

 Propose a solution or brainstorm one. Resisting the temptation to complain to peers and instead use the time to come up with a plan you can implement to help advance the company. Offering up your opinion fearlessly, then executing them will help you grow and learn.

In the end, it all comes down to a lack of either knowledge or permission. Knowledge can be gained and permission is earned. Knowing what to say and how to say it is a skill that can be learned just as much as the learned helplessness that once was “That’s above my pay grade”.

Candice L. Sylvia is a former Fortune 500 Sales & Training expert who founded Results Training Group to offer companies of all sizes outsourced training resources. Stay connected with her for more weekly professional tips and resources.