Down With the Government Inferiority Complex!

With few exceptions, I have had stellar colleagues aside whom I am proud to work. I’ve worked with teams to achieve tremendous results and quantifiable impacts based on our decisions, projects or action. Without unseemly boasting here, I have always felt that the taxpayer got more than its fair share from my salary. (Most days).

So it was a huge surprise to me that my confidence fell flat when I arrived in Silicon Valley for a domestic assignment. Much has been written about womens’ professional confidence, including the excellent article on the confidence gap from The Atlantic that made the rounds. I am encouraging everyone, men and women alike, to read this article.

While I can relate to many aspects described by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, I found that Silicon Valley’s distinct ecosystem created a confidence gap in my mind. As a diplomat in the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service, I’ve met with Heads of State, Congressional Leaders, Ministers, and more. I’ve held my own with famous and powerful people. Yet why did a swaggering Venture Capitalist or a tech company CEO throw me off when I first got here? This was unsettling to me my first few months. After some reflection I took steps to combat this:

Know your value; hone and own it. Presumably you are being paid because you know or do something. Plan to be the best at what you know and do and people will respect that.
Know what you are talking about. This is what I needed to sharpen when I landed here. Conversations are intensely technology-focused with everyone predicting the next “game changer.” It was a different language for me and I had to speak on their terms.
Figure out what you want/need from the other person. People are busy so make yourself relevant, make a request and make your exit. I found that people were immensely helpful to educate me on all matters technology when I got here, but I had to make such requests judiciously.
Determine what they might want/need from you. You have something to offer almost everyone, even in a 3-4 minute conversation. With your sharpened expertise and newfound confidence, you might be surprised what people see in you.
Don’t let them see you sweat. Even if you’re at a networking event and recognize many people in the room from the news – and they presumably don’t know you – you are there for a reason. There is something to the adage “fake it until you make it.” If you expect to be treated seriously (in a genuine way), people will generally follow suit.
Realize that some people will still think that all government workers are (fill in the blank). Unfortunately, you may not be able to change their minds about the entire government workforce, but hopefully through their interactions with you they will view you as “the exception.”

In sharing a bit of my personal journey, I’m hoping to disabuse fellow government workers of their respective “inferiority complexes” vis-à-vis their non-government counterparts. It’s quite possible that you don’t have one – bravo to you! But your colleagues or even bosses might. And you can work through your issues in a straightforward manner as I did. The private sector and government can’t exist without each other. We remain two sides of the coin each with our distinctive face and features. But on the government employee side, stay sharp! Knowing and owning your expertise will make you in demand, both in the government and out.

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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