April 28, 2022

Why the Phrase “That’s Above my Pay Grade” Irritates me on So Many Levels.


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We all have some pet peeves when it comes to observing or interacting with others.

Those words, quirks, or behaviors that evoke a feeling of slight irritation.

Heck, I am confident that I harbor just as many as the other guy, and when it comes to some of them, I definitely annoy myself.

These pet peeves may include little things that are synonymous with nails on a chalkboard or an itch we can’t scratch.

Most likely, it’s something minor in nature, like a driver not using his directional or a woman incessantly chewing on her hair. Someone who doesn’t say please or thank you. Someone who snaps her gum or cracks his knuckles.

Ironically, these little quirks become major annoyances. Their habits become our pet peeves and we take note of those behaviors in everyone we see.

If we’re of a certain temperament (lucky us), things roll off of our backs or we smirk to ourselves when it happens, then let it go. If we’re self-proclaimed social scientists, like myself, we may even find it amusing. I must…because here I am writing about it.

Yet there is one pet peeve that pierces my skin like a splinter that won’t come out: “That’s above my pay grade.”

It irritates me on so many levels.

First, it’s an attitude of indifference or haughtiness (depending on the person who utters the words), as if to say I know better, but I’m relinquishing myself of any responsibility by not speaking up or taking action. I just want to piss you off and leave you wondering.

That doesn’t work. They don’t and won’t care, yet admit it—the reality is that you want them to care. Rarely—but mostly not—going to happen.

Second, it’s self-limiting. A pay grade doesn’t necessarily equal intelligence, common sense, or good judgment. It doesn’t mean someone is competent, skilled, or talented. There are many people who rise through the ranks to positions of leadership because they are fueled with bull-feces and overinflated egos that manage to convince others that they are not only capable but invincible. I think we’ve all known a few.

When someone says, “It’s above my pay grade,” I cringe. Every time.

I am fully aware of personal and professional politics, as well as family dynamics. It’s not only prevalent in the workplace, but at home, too, with larger families. Who holds the decision-making power? Who is the oldest? Youngest? Who is bullheaded? Who is meek?

This is life (have I mentioned how wonderful it is to be an only child, in so many ways. Believe me, we have our own crosses to bear).

But any of us has the ability to lead. Each of us has a voice, and, when intelligently stated, has the power to influence others. That doesn’t come with a paycheck—it comes with passion, belief, and desire.

Let’s face it, those who don’t belong at the top do have the power to destroy you—absolutely. That’s within their pay grade and sadly, because most people are easily intimidated and swayed when it comes to the possibility of their paycheck being compromised (or position within a family), very few would stand by your side. It’s not right, but it’s often the way it is.

I interviewed at The Four Seasons decades ago and sadly turned down what seemed to be an excellent opportunity, but the timing was off. Circa 2007, I was told the story of “Issy” Sharp who founded The Four Seasons in 1960 and was still CEO at that time.

The lesson from those interviews was “proximity management.” The CEO, General Manager, or other representative from Executive Management met informally with each employee group—no agenda or pre-prepared talks—just an informal conversation about what was going on within the hotel. Wow, the insight. Those who thought that it was above their pay grade made the most difference within hotels around the world.

This has been adopted, sincerely and insincerely, though I would want to believe that at inception, the intent was sincere—within organizations around the globe. Not just The Four Seasons. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Just saying.

Sadly, too many walk away feeling that their contributions weren’t heard. Change takes time. It’s not overnight. May everyone realize that and understand that one day, your influence may be quite present within a company—or small business, family, or social group.

The moral of the story (I hope you’re still with me?):

May nothing be above—or below—your pay grade. May you honor the value of your ideas and solutions. May you find the courage to speak up and be heard. And may your financial compensation never limit your belief in yourself or those around you who want to hear what you have to say.

Leadership isn’t about your pay grade—it’s about you. Make a difference where you can, when you can, and don’t think for one minute that you can’t.

Your success is measured by more than the paycheck you bring home. You will pay a higher price for silencing your voice and limiting your beliefs.

Nothing is above—or below—your pay grade.


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