As an executive coach, my clients often seek assistance deciphering the many different messages they receive in the office. Should they take communications at face value? Is there an underlying meaning that begs translation? More frequently than their employers might imagine, my clients ask me, “Am I going to be fired?”
Warnings come in all shapes and sizes. The obvious ones include reduced responsibilities, failure to receive a promotion, poor evaluations, or receiving an unscheduled performance review. These bad news situations are self-evident.
Some cues are more subtle. I have worked with executives who told me variations of the following: “I talked to Liz about doing a project for me, but she never followed up.” When I ask, “why didn’t you follow up with her?” the response is typically: “That’s her job. I’m not going to manage her time or priorities.” Meanwhile, Liz may relay to me that she is waiting for confirmation from the boss to proceed. Eventually, employees such as Liz get fewer assignments, are not invited to meetings, or are left off task forces because the boss no longer counts on them. Ultimately, the boss pegs Liz as a performance problem; feeling as if she’s being edged out, Liz seeks more challenging opportunities elsewhere.
A further sign that something is amiss occurs any time decisions are being made about your work—or your people—without you. If you feel in the dark about important matters that concern you or your staff, you might want to make some inquiries. Sometimes the decision-making process will eventually get around to including you, but it is not always clear. I have coached people who feared they were going to lose their jobs when, in fact, they were being considered for promotion. Management isn’t always transparent with its plans, so it is important not to go off the deep end until you have solid information.
Ideally, important communications should happen before the writing reaches the proverbial wall. If it hasn’t happened yet, start now. Employees need to “manage up.” Find out what the boss considers successful results for you, your team, the organization, and for the boss. This means initiating open conversations about expectations and following up from time to time to be sure that you are on the right track.
Employees should have some expectations of bosses, too. What do you need to do to be successful? What resources can bosses contribute? What barriers can they remove? Make the dialogue respectful, but make it two-way to get the support you need, and demonstrate that you understand the scope of the project and what it will take to get it done.
Can employees appear too needy? Absolutely. You don’t have to ask all your questions in one single session. Read the boss. Some don’t want to have these conversations. They may believe you should figure things out on your own. Others, however, will welcome the candor. One sign of emotional intelligence is being able to tell when your boss is suffering from process-communication fatigue. When this happens, save the rest for later, and start to achieve real results, based on what you know.
If work life is sliding downhill, you need to have frank conversations quickly. The key is to avoid defensiveness, and assume that you do not have enough information to make a judgment. I frequently work with executives who are certain their job is at risk, only to learn that their bosses are surprised by that revelation when we all sit down to talk about the future.
My advice is to approach the situation as though it is a problem to be solved and not a potentially life-altering event. Ask your boss questions to fill in missing information; if it seems appropriate, share your concerns over recent events. The answers you receive will make easier a decision to stay or look for a job elsewhere.
If you can salvage your working relationship, by all means, do so. That doesn’t preclude your eventually leaving the organization. But by regaining your footing, you would do it on your own terms. When the air is cleared, information is exchanged, and perspective is gained, whatever happens next will feel more like a deliberate decision than an unavoidable tragedy.