There’s a lot of focus on self-help these days, and on personal psychology. And while I think it’s great that there’s a rising awareness of the need for therapy and coaching, I worry. My concern is that in all of that, we’re focusing too much on the individual, and not enough on the contexts and systems in which they operate. My degree in sociology and the decades I spent learning about groups tell me that our experience never happens in a vacuum. Our feelings and our behaviors emerge in contexts.

Here’s an example. In every organization, one of the systems at play is the hierarchy. Hierarchies are very useful structures. They help us divide work among those responsible for big-picture thinking and those who manage the day-to-day details. Being able to organize work in that way is extremely valuable. It creates a division of labor to ensure that both parts are being done.

But what’s challenging about hierarchy is that as human beings, we are wired to attend to where we are in relation to other people, in a pecking order.

Which means that hierarchies are not emotionally neutral. They influence the way we relate to the people who are “higher up” than us and those who are “lower down” than us. (I’m using that language of higher and lower on purpose because that’s how hierarchies are constructed and that’s what they evoke.)

Let’s look at two important moments everyone faces in their careers: the job interview and the performance review. Both of these take place in a hierarchy. Generally, the company doing the hiring has the upper hand, over the person interviewing for a job. Usually, the boss who is giving the performance review holds a higher position than the employee receiving the feedback.

As a result, both of these contexts create an emotional response in us. We have a reaction to the power dynamic, to being one-down. That can lead us to feel less confident and self-assured. We might react to that by becoming overly nervous and shutting down. Or we might become overly talkative and eager to please. Or we might resent feeling one-down and become a bit defiant. Whatever the version, these are all reactions to context – to the relationship in the hierarchy. And those reactions can get in the way of coming across with confidence.

If you only look at the situation from an individual perspective, you might take the nervousness personally. You might think of it as something that’s wrong with you. That it’s a character flaw. “I always get nervous at job interviews. I’m not a confident person. I’m someone who feels anxious when I’m having to present myself.”

This is especially true if you’ve had a history of less-than-perfect outcomes. If you’ve had job interviews that didn’t lead to an offer. Or you’ve had a performance review that wasn’t as stellar as you wanted it to be. Or you were up for a promotion that you didn’t get. These experiences reinforce your story that “I’m not a confident person” or “I’m not good at interviews.” Which makes you even more nervous. Your heart beats faster. Your thoughts race. You choke – and either your mind goes blank, and you go silent or stumble over your words, or you ramble and say things you didn’t mean to say. Either way, the nerves make it less likely that you’ll get the job or the promotion. The nervousness and those stories about yourself get in the way of coming across with the executive presence and the gravitas that show you’re ready for a more senior role.

What to do?

You need three things:

  1. A sense of perspective, so that you can see the dynamics at play in your context – whether that’s a job interview, or a performance review, or some other type of meeting. When you have a theory and framework for understanding what’s happening, you can take your experiences less personally. And when you’re not personally hooked by the situation, you’re much more likely to be effective.
  2. An understanding of how to create partnerships with anyone – no matter where they fit in the hierarchy compared to you. When you can frame a job interview or a performance review in terms of partnership you come across as someone to be taken seriously. For a job interview, that means seeing it as a mutual process, with the shared goal of finding out if you’re a good fit for the role. With a performance review, the shared goal is improving your performance and contribution to the organization. Instead of being at the mercy of the “higher up,” you’re now on even ground.
  3. Specific tools and strategies that will help you direct your thoughts and your attention, so you can shift away from stories that make you more nervous, and into more empowering ones. When you’re fully present in this way, you come across differently – in a way that shows people that you’re ready for the next level.

When you have the perspective, partnership, and presence, you come across as someone who is not only ready for the next role but is absolutely right for it – the obvious choice.

This is exactly what we help our clients do. If you’re in a situation where you’re hoping to move up in your current company, or you’re looking for a new job somewhere else, my team and I would be happy to help.

Reach out to us at and set up a time to talk with us. There is still plenty of time before the end of the year to have that conversation, so you can set yourself up to a great start in 2023.

Here’s a video if you prefer to watch and listen to me talk about this topic:

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