Early in my career when I was very young I worked for a manager who, in hindsight, was not that great. At the time, everyone loved her. She was engaging, pleasant to deal with, and did her best to lead her team using a traditional management approach. For example, we documented everything we did, there was an online forum for sharing ideas and feedback, we had a file sharing system where we kept all our working documents, we constantly participated in cutting-edge training, and collaboration was the norm. From a productivity perspective, we all worked very well together. Until we didn’t.
Under the surface, her management style seemed superficial and hid deeper issues with her inability to relate to other people. She was in a department that was a dead end. Team members fought relentlessly and the turnover was pretty high. Anyone who chose to stay would face repeated layoff scares because her group was always on the list for cutbacks. She also played favorites, which most people didn’t seem to mind ironically since she was so likeable. She was rarely around because she made a deal with the company that she could spend half her time working from her other home. In the end she helped a colleague, who was married at the time, create a position in her department for his new girlfriend. That created a host of new problems and they were all caught. She was eventually asked to leave and the department was dissolved.
The problem with this situation is that none of it was apparent until years later. Looking at the dynamic in hindsight, it seems obvious that something was wrong. Working with this person at the time, however, was almost hypnotic and mesmerizing. Whatever hint of a problem or doubt was quickly dismissed.
If you’ve ever experienced that feeling in your gut that something was too good to be true, here are three questions that you can ask yourself to avoid a big headache down the road.
What am I tolerating or willing to tolerate?
You always get what you tolerate. It’s that simple. This is a powerful question that helps to shake you out of a confusing or stagnant situation. If you’re finding that everything around you seems to be working well, and at the same time, you’re not making progress, this is a great question to ask. Sit down and evaluate your situation by writing down some of the events you’ve recently experienced that played out different than you expected. Dig in to find the moment when you said to yourself, “Well, this didn’t go as planned but that’s okay.” It’s that moment that you want to monitor. Sometimes it is okay – we want a promotion or a new client and we’re willing to accept certain things to get there. Other times, especially when you established certain expectations that didn’t deliver, it’s time to step into your power and speak up. If you find that you’ve repeatedly tolerated certain outcomes, then it’s time to reestablish some healthy boundaries.
What’s working in my favor?
On the other side of what you’re tolerating, is what’s actually working for you. If you’ve found yourself in the middle of a dysfunctional team, but you’ve managed to stay out of the conflict zone, then ask yourself how you can leverage that position for bigger things. Again, be prepared to go deeper by writing down what you’ve been doing that’s pulling you out of some bad situations. Keep in mind, however, that this can also be a trap. You may realize that you’re clearly the favorite, which could mean that you’re getting preferential treatment but you don’t really have the skills. If that happens, find ways to work effectively with teammates who may begin to harbor resentment. Ask yourself what you can do to leverage this situation for a better role, more experience, or valuable networking.
What is my relationship to risk?
When you get to the point that you know something is off but you’re not sure, then it helps to set a timeline with some solid goals. This will help you determine how much risk you’re willing to take when it comes to your career development. Ask yourself how long you want to invest in this situation. Should you give it six months? One year? How long will it take you to learn what you need and leverage it for something else? If you’re a high-risk person, you’re going to gamble on sticking it out. If you’re a low-risk person, then as soon as it doesn’t feel right, you’re going to cut your losses and leave. Either way, it’s a reflection of your tolerance for risk. Having a game plan and a strategy will help you step into that risk without losing too much in the end.
On a final note, the answer is no, likeability does not equal competence. In fact, some of the best work I’ve ever done is in relationships where I didn’t particularly like the person I worked with but I had enough respect for them that I was able to show up fully for some impressive wins. Of course, it’s great to really like the person you’re working with and many times that also brings solid results. If, on the other hand, you find that you’re having a great time at work but not much else is happening to take you to the next level, then it’s time to re-evaluate and push yourself forward.
Christina Holloway is a leadership development and business coach. She helps executives and entrepreneurs grow their companies faster, create results-driven teams, and increase profitability. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Addicted2Success and Fast Company. If you’re interested in working with Christina, take a look at her strategy sessions and feel free to contact her to get started.