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.

Thought Leadership in the Age of Technology

Are you someone who leads by sharing your best ideas with a defined audience? As a “thought leader” you may have noticed that technology has made certain tasks easier, but the overall challenge has become formidable.

As mentioned in my column dated October 4th, I have been hosting multi-day virtual conferences. For each one, I have invited thought leaders to be presenters, but recently, a separation has developed between experienced experts (Elders) and tech-savvy communicators (Youngsters).

The former have been thinking about issues in their field for some time: publishing books, articles, or conference presentations. Spending a decade or more in reflection and study, their deep content is provocative. Furthermore, they have probably assisted many other experts over their careers.

In general, they are in no hurry, as they are accustomed to cycles lasting months or even years between major outputs. From their point of view, it takes time to develop sound ideas; the wait between the first draft of a book and its appearance in a bookstore.

At the other extreme lies their young, digital counterparts: Youngsters who also intend to influence others with their thinking and creative products. However, they use the newest technologies to dramatically shorten the cycle between inspiration and public consumption.

Employing the latest virtual channels, they disseminate a high volume of content. As such, they are conscious of their online image, measuring success by the number of likes, followers and subscribers they garner.

Recently, these groups have been drifting further apart, leading to complaints. If you belong to or interact with either group, here is some advice.

Why Elders Must Pivot Their Delivery

I recall a conversation with a colleague who had some fine ideas about marketing products in Jamaica. When I suggested he share them publicly, he refused. “Someone will steal them!” he complained. When he migrated a few years later, all his plans went with him. But his limited thinking lives on in the heads of too many Elders. They grew up in an environment of scarcity, where an original theory or solution was rare and the opportunities to reach an audience were few.

Case in Point: As a young management consultant in the 1980s, I struggled to produce papers and give speeches due to the cost and time involved.

Today, such barriers have been removed, but most Elders have not caught up. They may know how to find and download ideas from other thinkers, but don’t know how to use a blog, vlog, podcast or social media to build an audience.

If you are an Elder, one place to start is to develop an “owned” asset – one that you control completely, rather than “renting” temporary space on a social network. Establish a website which allows you to share your creative outputs via text, audio, video or graphics.

Then, create a catalog of your best products. When you have at least ten or twenty decent units, publish them in sequence and start to build an audience. Use your friends on social media as a foundation and send out links to other thought leaders.

Why Youngsters Must Use Precedents

Thought-leaders who are tech-savvy are often enamored with their increasing ability to create followers. It’s never been easier to do so, and some self-proclaimed youthful “experts” have been able to attract millions. As such, they spend a great deal of time seeking better social media tricks, slicker graphics, more effective hashtags, and nicer filters. They look up to established influencers who are using these tweaks to extend their reach.

However, if you dig a bit deeper, you may find that some Youngsters are “all hat and no cattle.” In other words, while their followership is growing, their content comprises no more than shallow ideas and worn cliches.

As such, their followers tend to be young and impressionable, honestly believing that they are hearing brilliant, breakthrough insights. Before the inevitable loss of interest comes, there is something Youngsters could learn from their Elders: how to solve novel problems using existing research and fresh imagination. Following this approach would allow them to develop a better-quality audience that sticks around for truly original thinking.

By the same token, many Elders are waiting for their wisdom to be tapped. Consequently, they just aren’t learning the aggressive techniques Youngsters have acquired to reach their audience: they need to become active, skillful users of LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

For now, the momentum lies with those who use the latest technology, but it should swing back. Unfortunately, we can’t wait. In these tumultuous times, we require both Elders and Youngsters to develop the skills needed to make their contribution.

If it means embracing an uncomfortable challenge, so be it. The world needs people who combine high-quality thinking and channels of easy access to help solve the pressing problems of the day.

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