Feeling undervalued at work? Advocate for yourself like these “Game of Thrones” stars

Have faith in yourself even when your bosses don’t.
Have faith in yourself even when your bosses don’t.
Image: Invision/AP/Joel C Ryan
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When HBO submitted a roster of actors for Emmy nominations this year, Gwendoline Christie didn’t make the cut. So the Game of Thrones star, who plays the warrior Ser Brienne of Tarth, went ahead and nominated herself, paying the $225 entry fee out of her own pocket.

It was money well spent. When the Emmy nominations were announced this Tuesday, she was on the list for best supporting actress in a drama series, alongside her co-stars Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, and Sophie Turner. CBS reports that two of Christie’s fellow Game of Thrones stars, Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) and Carice Van Houten (Melisandre), also submitted themselves for the awards after being snubbed by the network—and they, too, secured Emmy nods. “While it’s not uncommon for actors to submit themselves, it’s rare for a self-submitted performers to get nominations,” CBS notes.

Christie’s vindication is a useful parable for anyone who’s ever felt undervalued in the workplace. That’s a particularly common scenario for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities, who, thanks to institutional biases, are often underestimated.

When you’re around people who frequently minimize your talent and professional achievements, it’s easy to feel discouraged. There’s even a name for this psychological phenomenon: Stereotype threat. As NPR’s Shankar Vedantam explains, “When there’s a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.”

For example, one well-known 1999 study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, conducted a series of three experiments in which small groups of men and women (usually around 30 of each gender per experiment, give or take) took a math test. When the women were told that men tended to perform better on that test, they underperformed compared to their male peers. But when the experimenters told the women that there were no gender differences in the test results, they did just as well as men. Over the course of two decades, a number of studies have come to the same conclusion—that stereotype threat can affect performance—and that it holds true for people reminded of expectations regarding age and race as well.

While people from marginalized groups are particularly likely to face stereotype threat, everyone comes up against it in one form or another, as Steele, one of the scientists behind the the math test study, observes in a 1999 article for The Atlantic. “We are all members of some group about which negative stereotypes exist, from white males and Methodists to women and the elderly,” he writes. And since nobody likes to feel unfairly judged, it’s common to emotionally check out of situations that make you feel that way, a process psychologists call “disidentification.” But as Steele writes, “not caring can mean not being motivated. And this can have real costs”—particularly in school and at work.

Even when people aren’t dealing with stereotype threat directly, the experience of being overlooked or dismissed at work can still be hurtful. When your boss declines to champion you for a promotion despite your stellar performance, for example, it’s easy to fall prey to self-doubt. Christie and her Game of Thrones co-stars might have thought: HBO thinks our performances aren’t Emmy-worthy, so who are we to say otherwise?  Feeling the brunt of disidentification, they might have decided that awards were dumb anyway.

Such reactions, while understandable, can keep people feeling sad and stuck. There is, however, one option that’s guaranteed to make you feel better no matter what the outcome: Advocating for yourself.

This can be a tricky proposition for women and others from marginalized groups, who often face a “confidence gap.” When women are socialized in a world that consistently suggests that they’re worth less than men, it’s no surprise that they sometimes hesitate to put themselves forward for awards, promotions, and other honors. Indeed, research shows that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they think they’re 100% qualified (a nearly impossible bar, given that many job listings are more like wish lists than a realistic compendium of qualities for a single human being, as work advice columnist Alison Green has noted). Some research also suggests that women are less likely to ask for a raise, though other studies have found that women do, in fact, attempt to negotiate—they’re just more likely to get turned down.

That grim finding underscores the fact that best way to get what you want at work isn’t necessarily as simple as asking for what you deserve. But assertiveness is valuable in its own right, no matter what the outcome. One small study of 24 psychiatric outpatients suggested that assertiveness training increased people’s feelings of self-acceptance and reduced their anxiety; another study of 69 nursing and medical students found that assertiveness training had a positive effect on participants’ self-esteem.

Simply put, standing up for ourselves makes us feel good. And when our self-esteem is high, it’s easier to keep pushing for what we want at work without internalizing other people’s belittling opinions.

And so while Christie sounds both joyful and surprised in the Instagram post celebrating her Emmy nomination, the truth is that she landed a victory the moment she decided to nominate herself.