Signs of an Unhealthy Probation

Years ago, I mistakenly worked for someone I shouldn’t have. Since then, I have wondered: could I have foreseen what transpired? Were there early warning signs I overlooked?

Abundant research shows that employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers. We need look no further than the outgoing White House, with its record high turnover, to find an outstanding example. Many high-profile staffers depart (and have left) amidst a storm of tweeted insults.

I had a manager who did the same: publicly bad-mouthing me to others long after we had parted ways. Since then, I have scoured my memory to determine what the predictors of an unhealthy relationship with a boss might be. After all, if I could see them happening in real-time, I could confront them, knowing that they never go away by themselves.

Anyone who is considering a new position can do the same. For most jobs, companies offer a probationary period to test an employee’s suitability. In their eagerness to please, few new hires consciously realize it’s also a unique opportunity to ask: “Are there early warning signs of an incompetent manager who will eventually make my life miserable?” While these aren’t easy to pick up, here are three red flags you should look out for on your next assignment.

1. Being Liked

Arguably, it’s a natural desire to want to be liked, but becoming a competent manager involves outgrowing this everyday tendency. Over time, good managers learn to place the welfare of others and the mission of the company above their own need to be accepted.

In this context, a probationary period is a chance to see what your manager does under stressful situations. Will they stick to principles, or give in to the weakness to say and do things which are popular, or avoid getting themselves into trouble…all in order to be liked?

If you witness your manager “throwing people under the bus” i.e. blaming others in order to be liked or accepted, watch out. It’s safe to assume that the worst treatment meted out to others will one day be directed at you.

But this doesn’t mean that your manager is a “bad” person. They may be very well-intentioned…and completely clueless. Your task in this phase is to uncover the raw truth about their competence and act accordingly, setting aside any wishful thinking so you can take decisive action.

2. Looking Good

Another faulty behaviour to watch out for are those intended to make a manager look good…at all costs. There are many variants of the theme: some focus on physical objects such as their clothing, cars and houses. Others try to show off using their kids or spouse. A few lord their intellectual or artistic achievements.

It all amounts to a relentless campaign to compete with, defeat, and dominate those around them. As a new employee, if your manager uses you as a tool to further his/her ego-based objective, it’s corrosive.

Why? The moment will eventually come when you make a mistake. If your manager’s reaction under pressure seems bombastic (i.e. out of proportion), he/she may be putting the welfare of others in the back seat. Instead, their efforts to avoid looking bad include a tendency to become abusive.

3. Not Stepping Up as the Owner

As a new employee, perhaps the most difficult (but important) trait to detect in your manager surrounds taking responsibility. It’s a skill many managers struggle with, finding it to be unnatural. After all, it flies in the face of self-protective human behaviour which is so essential to our basic survival.

In fact, holding oneself publicly accountable equates to putting oneself in harm’s way…at risk. The act of doing so on a continuous basis is the very definition of a capable manager.

Yet, it remains a tricky behavior for employees to flag, especially early in their careers. Here’s a useful shortcut: observe if your manager apologizes sufficiently when he/she makes a mistake. You’ll be able to know by measuring the degree to which the apology restores the trust and goodwill that existed before the error was made.

In fact, if you work for a manager who publicly apologizes for a mistake you (not him/her) made, pay attention. Their resistance to the temptation to hang you out to dry, may indicate that you have a true winner.

This positive “warning” sign may mean that you shouldn’t leave. However, if all you can sense are the other incompetencies listed above, consider your probation a success: you have detected a manager you should probably quit.

Are you falling behind on LinkedIn?

To many, LinkedIn is just another social network like Facebook and Twitter, with a bit more business emphasis. This view understates its importance. COVID-19 has helped make the very opposite true today: as a professional you cannot afford to either be outdated on, or missing from, the platform.

To whit: around this time last year, I viewed LinkedIn as an annoying requirement of modern professional life. I didn’t like using it, but reasoned that I needed to do so in order to keep up. Now, by contrast, I engage in regular weekly practices I simply couldn’t imagine doing a few months ago.

But these aren’t routine tasks I could do elsewhere. In fact, they can only be done on LinkedIn at scale…nowhere else. This exclusivity means that you must consider the app to be part of your professional arsenal. Here are a few examples why.

1. Online Advertising as a Novice

In 2020, I discovered that, contrary to my US experience, advertising to Caribbean audiences on LinkedIn was quite inexpensive and effective. For example, if you want a way to promote your services to “female technology VP’s in St Kitts”, paid outreach on LinkedIn is by far the best way to reach this narrow segment.

I also learned that the platform’s ads do more than “sell” – they build relationships, an all-important ingredient in the

Caribbean. In other words, these promotions allow you to create bridges to people who don’t know you personally, and construct the “weak ties” research shows are critical in business.

During COVID-19, this method has become a requirement.

However, there’s catch. Online advertising on social networks is no easy task. While I had done some testing in the past, this year I finally invested the time needed to move beyond the novice stage.

I experienced a painful learning curve. For example, I had to figure out how to focus on the handful of features which are required vs. those which are nice to have. This is a big challenge given the barrage of options you face as a beginner.

2. Events and the Changing Limits

In 2019, I couldn’t say if LinkedIn offered event management. Fast forward…and by the new year, I will have sent 10,000+ individual invitations to webinars and conferences.

What happened?

By a stroke of luck, I stumbled across the platform’s revamped event feature, which at one point allowed me to invite as many connections as I wanted. Now, the company has caught on and imposed a limit of 1,000 people per occasion. While this has cost me dearly, they have added a new element – bulk invitations – which makes the task easier.

This free function is perfect for these pandemic times in which all of us need to up-level our skills, via online methods of learning. Today, we just don’t have a choice if we hope to remain relevant.

As such, through its events feature, LinkedIn offers a unique, scalable business service.

3. Networking

Old-style networking involved meeting people in person and handing out business cards in the hope of being remembered. COVID-19 halted this approach.

Today, there’s no easier way than LinkedIn to build a trusted network. Furthermore, exchanging useful information for mutual benefit becomes a fruitful game to be played over decades, leveraging the platform’s ability to create relationships at scale.

Unfortunately, if your account is out of date or you don’t even have one, you risk sending a silent message: “I don’t care about building relationships.”

While you may think that the way you use LinkedIn is a matter of style, the effect of your actions has now moved out of your hands. Whereas a preference not to employ that platform could have been a personal quirk a few years ago, today it’s fast becoming the digital equivalent of “never carrying my business cards” or “not believing in resumes.”

In other words, it’s weird.

The fact is, all the practices I have mentioned above are new norms over which you have little influence. Everything you do online (or fail to do) sends a message. Consequently, I have personally declined to refer colleagues for opportunities with serious people due to a missing or mismanaged profile. I just pick someone else and keep moving.

My fear is that if you have decided LinkedIn isn’t important, you may not be paying attention to the latest developments. If so, stop falling behind and get into the game, setting aside any tired pre-conceptions. Instead, adapt to an emerging reality you can’t afford to ignore and take the necessary actions to bring yourself up to date.