What’s Wrong With Saying “That’s Above My Pay Grade”

As someone who strives to think with a growth mindset, there is something about the statement “that’s above my pay grade” that doesn’t sit right with me.

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people echo this sentiment in situations when problems appeared to be non-trivial and solutions seemed to be out of reach. Perhaps I am not yet jaded by the reality of corporate politics and bureaucracy, but surely we can do better than deflect our problems to higher decision making authorities.

Are we lacking empowerment?

Some people may think this way because they have tried taking initiative in the past, but found that their voices were unheard by management, or worse yet, reprimanded for it. Facing a constant lack of empowerment could definitely take a toll on employee morale and locus-of-control. Over time, this could lead to one’s acceptance that there are problems that we simply cannot control and should be handled by “more important people” who can actually make things happen.

This dejection ultimately leads to a mindset of “playing it safe” and going through the motions but not finding any fulfilment in our jobs.

Is it simply not worth our time?

There are other times when instigating change is beyond our scope of responsibilities. We’re hired to do a job and we’re paid for how effectively we get that particular job done. “Going above and beyond” sounds nice, but people don’t usually go out of their way unless they are incentivized to do so. With a compensation system that drives us to prioritize our own problems above others, we lack the ability to focus on problems that may be out of our scope, but are more impactful to the business.

This status quo ultimately leads to an organization in which the people perform their individual jobs well, but are not encouraged to focus on other areas where they would make a bigger impact for the company.

Well… what can we do then?

At the individual level, employees should stay resilient and continue to take initiative in solving business problems. Be creative and find innovative solutions that you can trial on your own. If you find that your efforts are not enough, share your progress with your manager and brainstorm ways to elevate your efforts, create visibility among other business groups, and build momentum. It takes patience and can be challenging in large organizations, but you could establish your own reputation and authority through the process. If you do come across a problem that is out of your wheelhouse, make the effort of finding the person in the role responsible and bring it to their attention so that the situation does not fade away only to be resurfaced sometime again in the future.

At the team level, managers should empower their teams to be open with feedback and minimize the bureaucracy of communication. Create a space for your team members to share their problems and solutions with each other; follow up on their progress and help needed. Become an advocate and elevate the voices of your team to relevant audiences so that their concerns do not go into a black hole. Clarify expectations on how to identify different levels of problems and when to take autonomy over the solutions.

At the organizational level, companies should assess how incentive programs and compensation systems drive employee behaviours, results, and willingness to “go above and beyond” into other out-of-scope initiatives. Evaluate the possibility of maximizing value add to the company without necessarily following a standard job description.

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