We’ve all been there. You are blindsided by an explosively negative reaction to a random comment you made, a business decision, or what you thought was a harmless email. It’s communication gone wrong. Why does this happen? And, most importantly is there a way to avoid it?
What if you could anticipate hot-button issues and avoid unknowingly ticking someone off, losing the deal, losing credibility, or losing respect? You can monitor for and pick up clues about the interests, values, and motivations of different people at work.
Here’s an example of when this happened to me. We decided to remove a certain type of information from a project I was working on. Our reasons were solid. My immediate supervisors and the key people being impacted reviewed and supported the decision. It was a no-brainer. But, after we made our announcement, we learned that a senior leader at the company was upset about the decision. This negative reaction shocked us and sent us scrambling for additional justifications and to brainstorm possible replacements. We had no idea he would care about this. Also, there was no reason to think we needed to run this choice by him. I should have known though. How?
Thinking back, months earlier he had sent me an “FYI” article focusing on this particular type of information. Since he emails me rarely, this must have been something very important to him. His email was a red flag waving in my face. If I had remembered that, coupled with some other references he made in previous years, I could have saved us a lot of trouble. We would have made the same decision. But, we'd have planned to communicate the decision with senior leadership and proactively addressed concerns.
To prevent unexpected communication blowups, you can create a “Red Flag File”
Turn your observation meter up a bit and start documenting the clues that are being thrown at you each day. Create a file. It could be in a notebook, a spreadsheet, on your phone, whatever. All that matters is that you have a dedicated (and private) space in which you can easily make interesting observations about certain people as you observe them. In my example above, I would have noted that this senior leader cared about this particular type of content.
Jot down things as you notice them. They can be anything you find unusual, interesting, or noteworthy. For example, maybe your boss rolls her eyes at the words "leverage" and "strategize." It's best to avoid those words with her. Maybe you noticed that another person referenced the importance of some new technology on your industry. Even if talking about that technology puts you to sleep, it's a good idea to make note of it and consider how that information might impact future interactions (and projects) with that person.
Then, review your file on a regular basis. Just schedule a 10 minute meeting with yourself once a month or on whatever regular schedule you would find to be helpful. Your handy-dandy Red Flag File is your reminder. It’s your secret weapon to remembering what is on each person’s list so you can sidestep problems and anticipate questions.
Getting fired or laid off feels like a slap to the face. If it hasn’t happened to you, you probably know someone who has been through it.
It usually feels like it happens without any notice. Is there anyway to anticipate it and prepare?
Here are some signs that you may be at risk of losing your job:
Your manager may ask you for a detailed list of everything you do. Certainly, they may want to assess the workload of everyone in the office, plan for a reorganization, figure out what to outsource, or get a better sense of how to improve efficiency for the whole department. But, it is possible that they are planning for how to cover your work after you are fired. Also, the company may be trying to decide how essential your job is and and what can be cut in your absence.
If the reason behind the request isn't clear, or if they're not asking this of your coworkers, you should be on guard.
On the same note, you may be asked to document the steps you take when doing certain processes. This alone isn't a bad thing. I'm a huge advocate of documenting procedures and also how you, as the employee, can look proactive and prepared by documenting your core duties. There are many reasons why it is smart to have this in place anyway. It helps If you are unexpectedly out sick, assists when training, and is crucial for knowledge management so that best practices are not living solely in someone’s head. But, it can also be a sign that the company wants to ensure ongoing operations once you are asked to leave. You should be on alert if you are the only one asked to do this or if there is unexplained urgency for the request.
Are your managers, human resources staff, or the IT department acting unusual? When I was laid off, I felt totally blindsided. But thinking back to that day there were some signs that it was about to happen. I noticed one manager going through a pile of business cards and spreading them out on his desk. This was weird behavior for him. Based on what he said to me after the whole department was laid off, it was clear he was putting together contacts to help us network and find new jobs. (That never materialized, but that's another story.)
Also, before we were summoned into the meeting where they delivered the glum news, the head of the IT department kept hovering around our office. I should have realized that something was up by the smirk on his face as he scanned the room while avoiding eye contact. He was hovering to know when to shut our computers off before being escorted out.
Are you not invited to meetings which you've previously attended ? Maybe someone else is assigned a new project that you would have expected to come to you. Or, when you ask about upcoming work, you are told "Don't worry about it." If you feel like you are being given the cold shoulder, and they haven't explained any shift in your duties or expectations, then you should be wary.
The most obvious sign that your job is in jeopardy is that you've been told. This may be subtle or very direct, but usually involves being put on a performance improvement plan or warned that there will be consequences if your performance or behavior doesn't change. If this happens, it's in your best interest to keep checking in with your manager about your progress and gauge how well they think you've turned it around.
Usually a warning like this will be accompanied by formal documentation. If your manager feels you are not complying to the request, that will be put in writing as well. For example, let's say that you have been warned not miss anymore deadlines. If you do miss another deadline, your boss might send you an email saying, "The report was due yesterday at 5pm. However, you did not turn it in until 11am today." This will be added to the information your boss is putting together to justify action taken against you.
I’m not sharing these points to make you paranoid about your work situation. But, I’m encouraging you to keep your eyes open and pick up on signs that something may be up.
The reality is that no job is guaranteed and you should have a contingency plan ready to go. Contact me if you’re interested in bulletproofing your job or career.