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Since being laid off from a senior position, I’ve been freelancing as a consultant–at a lower level. I’m having a tough time making the adjustment. I find I want to weigh in on top-level decisions that aren’t mine to make. And I’m worried that my self-esteem–along with my sense of who I am–is being eroded. – Anonymous, New York

Your experience sounds like a variation on “phantom limb syndrome,” in which a person receives signals from a limb that’s no longer there. Clinging to the phantom executive inside you, I suspect, is your way of dealing with the loss of your job–and your authority. The best cure, of course, is a new and better position, but that may take a while.

How to cope in the interim? The strong emotions you’re feeling now will fade in time, but only if you don’t make matters worse by punishing yourself. You’ve suffered a blow, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose your self-respect or your sense of who you are. In my experience advising CEOs who have lost their jobs, such feelings (including a sense of humiliation) are frequently self-imposed.

Who is most vulnerable to that self-inflicted pain? Those who derive too much of their identity from their job and its trappings. Now is a good time to do some soul-searching about what work means to you. This might be painful, but it will pay off, and not just in your private life: You’ll be a more effective manager. Which brings me to the silver lining I see in your situation: the chance to recall what it feels like to hold a midlevel job and the opportunity to view top managers from below. Both will yield insights you can take with you when you’re back on your feet.

Meanwhile, until you get a new job or decide that consulting is for you, keep resisting the urge to direct projects that aren’t your responsibility. Doing so, as you seem to intuit, will alienate your current colleagues (and lay open your wounds). Instead, try casting yourself as a person who happens to have special expertise–one who’s honest about why he’s now in a temp job. Finally, forget the “career ladder” metaphor. Satisfying work, like a satisfying life, is rarely achieved through a straight, upward climb.

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The nonprofit on whose board I serve wants to hire people who thrive on complexity and newness, as you’ve recommended. But how do we uncover such qualities during job interviews? – Randy Scheel, Vancouver, Wash.

There’s no single question that will reveal the presence or absence of the strengths you’re looking for. The secret is in knowing how to listen–to observe a candidate’s psychological “tells,” to use a poker metaphor. This, in turn, means noticing your own responses. Does the back-and-forth between you feel emotionally flat? Are you having trouble seeing a three-dimensional person?

In my experience, those feelings arise when the individual you’re talking to isn’t comfortable in his or her own skin–or in imagining what it’s like to be in yours (or anybody else’s). Such a candidate is unlikely to have the emotional ease and flexibility to experiment with untried methods or welcome complex ideas. Warning signs at the interview: Someone who talks in the wooden tongue of business jargon–”I interfaced with my direct reports at weekly meetings”–rather than speaking in vibrant, descriptive language. And anyone who can’t respond to a request to “tell us something about yourself” after credentials and work history have been established. A person who rehashes his or her résumé, making it sound as if life begins with one’s first job, won’t have the qualities you want. I also look for evidence of a sense of humor (noncaustic), appropriate modesty, and curiosity–an interest in the interviewer and the surroundings.

Add to that self-awareness and the ability to take in another person’s view. One way I try to gauge this is by asking candidates to talk about an issue they’re passionate about. After they’ve made their case, I ask them to argue the other side.

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A thought for this performance-review season: What if the usual evaluation “metrics” were replaced by categories measuring psychological health? Here’s my semi-serious attempt. Of course, scoring low (meaning best) on this hypothetical scale wouldn’t necessarily bring a bonus. No one ever said emotional maturity and corporate success go hand in hand.

NARCISSISM
Low. Shares credit for successes; easily admits errors; gets pleasure from work; good listener.

Medium. Transparently uninterested in others (“bad with names”); wounded by constructive criticism.

High. Incapable of empathy, can’t tolerate being on a team; views self as unusually gifted (“should be CEO”); no one “gets” him.

MASOCHISM
Low. Sees feedback as a chance to learn; passionate about work but has other pursuits; would rather succeed on a project than prove a point.

Medium. Turns feedback into self-flagellation; reflexively blames self when things go wrong; takes pride in sacrifice; refuses all help; has months of unused vacation time; gets sick a lot.

High. Consistently underdelivers, self-destructively missing deadlines; puts worst foot forward with authority figures; prone to burnout, deep funks.

COMPULSIVE/RETENTIVE BEHAVIOR
Low. Views figures and facts as necessary but not sufficient to deep understanding of business; thrives on complexity, ambiguity, and newness; shakes hands without envisioning communicable diseases.

Medium. Upset if desk and keyboard are not surgically clean; cheap when chipping in for birthday gifts; expounds on subjects in maddening detail; overaggressive labeling of “her” food in office refrigerator (jumbo marker pen, exclamation marks).

High. Hoards information meant to be shared; stews in anger, then explodes; anxious and nasty when dealing with uncertainty; stores telephone in locked desk drawer overnight.

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Bonuses. Toasts at the holiday office party. It’s recognition season at the workplace–time to think about the importance of showing appreciation all year.

There’s plenty of advice out there about giving criticism (although you might not know it, given how many managers bungle the affair). Tips on giving praise? Not so much. Yet in my conversations with senior managers around the country, I often hear complaints about leaders who need lessons in the art. Here, a few pointers:

Keep the praise proportional. If you slather it on when just a “nice job” will do, employees and co-workers will doubt your sincerity–or think you’re surprised by their competence. A corollary: Be specific. People respect a boss who knows which tasks are the toughest to pull off.

Pat the right back. Nothing makes employees more cynical than the boss’s public praise of someone whose work on a project was minimal or nonexistent.

Don’t mix the message. “Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, and, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer.” That’s Alexander Pope’s 18th century advice on how to give a “compliment” that transmits your negative feelings. (“I must say, Henderson, you never waste paper at the copy machine.”) Resist the urge. And speaking of mixing: It’s best not to deliver an important message, even a positive one, at an end-of-year bonus talk. Most employees are just listening for the number.

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Inveighing against gossip in a recent press release, Sam Chapman, CEO of Empower Public Relations in Chicago, says he has made his 15-person firm a “gossip-free zone.” (His employees have pledged not to gripe or dish in whispers.) Just how harmful is workplace gossip? And can it really be banished?

It’s tough to eradicate a ubiquitous human activity, and I’m not convinced that it’s entirely desirable. Most gossip is fueled by our curiosity about how others live, along with the need to share those observations. (O.K., add a touch of envy, competitiveness, or schadenfreude at times.)

Granted, in its worst form office gossip can be malicious, even career-ending. The unhappy, self-destructive person specializing in this kind of malice tends to spread such rumors to curry favor with others–or to inflict pain. Such a gossiper must be reported to the boss and stopped or fired–before too much damage is inflicted on individuals or the organization’s culture. 

At the other end of the spectrum, though, is relatively benign gossip, which tends to be about co-workers who stand out in some way or authority figures whose lives seem mysterious to the staff. Such gossip (generally true, in my experience), serves to spread news speedily, test our perceptions about people with whom we have scant contact, and even deepen informal bonds at work. 

It may seem paradoxical, but for managers, listening to gossip and openly addressing any misperceptions can go a long way toward improving communication and morale. When it’s humming, the grapevine can yield valuable insights into what employees are concerned about.

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I recently helped a young employee lead a phase of one of my projects–a job she did beautifully. Afterward, though, she wanted to take over the project. When I protested, she got angry. I don’t know how this happened. – Anonymous, New York

For some insight, you might want to rent a copy of All About Eve, the 1950 film classic about an ingenue’s plot to overthrow a leading lady who’s the object of her envy. Your underling’s grand ambition made her turn a mentoring opportunity into opportunism, and (just like Bette Davis) you didn’t see it.

Fortunately, this isn’t the norm in mentoring, so I hope you won’t sour on the idea. As for what happened, could you have missed some early warning signs? An inability on her part to connect emotionally? A feeling that you were being used? You should also ask yourself if you were clear at the outset about your ownership of the project. It’s not too late to do that now–if you’re still communicating. Meanwhile, you’ll need to tolerate her anger: Don’t let it pressure you into giving away what’s rightfully yours. And if your efforts to put junior in her place get heated, let your superiors know that trouble may be brewing. As you reassert your authority, you’re teaching your erstwhile mentee a valuable lesson: If she had tamed her ambition, she’d eventually have had plenty of time in the limelight.

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I recently quit my job–six weeks after landing it. The place just wasn’t for me, and I was miserable. I’m pretty new to working, and now I’m worried about how this will look on my resume. Was it rash to leave? Should I have stuck it out for a year, as some of my friends recommended? – Anonymous, New York

Sometimes the conventional wisdom–in this case, the idea that you should keep a job for at least 12 months–is wrong. While quitting so soon can be a sign of neurosis, it can also be a rational acknowledgment of a misguided choice, a poor fit, or a bad corporate culture.

How to evaluate your decision? One hallmark of emotional maturity is the ability to tolerate short-term discomfort, especially if it leads to a better future. So ask yourself if your quick exit stemmed from a less-than-mature impulse–panic about proving yourself, for instance, or an overreaction to an authority figure. If you have a pattern of bailing out, that’s something to look at, too. Of course, self-awareness is just part of the equation. There are other reasons that people can be unhappy in a new job. For instance, there’s only so much you can learn from the interview process, when managers tend to be on their best behavior. And if the work bears no resemblance to your expectations (or the interviewer’s promises) or you see widespread unhappiness around you, it makes sense to head for the exit.

In fact, it might be the courageous choice. “I would never recommend that someone stay in a job situation in which they are miserable,” Jeffrey Sisson, senior vice-president of global human resources at information provider IHS, told me. He adds a cautionary note, though: “This is recoverable–once.”

WHICH BRINGS US to the risks. The key to damage control is to handle the situation tactfully but honestly. I hope you told your manager the truth, apologized for the trouble you caused (especially if you were trained), and showed gratitude if he or she showed some understanding. As you look for another position, don’t give in to the temptation to leave this blip off your resume. If a future employer finds out you had a job you hid, your integrity could be questioned. And as you interview, be aware that employers might worry that you resigned so quickly because you can’t get along with others or complete projects. Make it clear that this isn’t the case. (But don’t insult your former employer in the process.) You could even try to turn the conversation into an opportunity to demonstrate your decisiveness and your ability to learn from a tough experience. After all, everybody is entitled to a bit of bad luck.

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I dread off-site company get-togethers. This summer I was really self-conscious at a beach day, where we were expected to wear bathing suits. I don’t want to bare myself (or my imperfections) in front of colleagues–or get the worst score at the bowling party. But I’d be noticed (in a bad way) if I opted out of these “fun” events. – Anonymous, New York

There’s a lot of talk these days about the current trend of blurring work and personal life–the continuous BlackBerry connection to the office, the piling up of unused vacation time.

A stress on socializing, too, comes with this new merged world, according to Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute, which researches workplace trends. “Companies see it as a community-building thing,” she says, “not the old patriarchal Christmas party.”

Some employees are happy to reveal their “selves” at work. But for others, the permission to open up leads to anxiety and elicits the opposite response: withdrawal.

That’s understandable when you’re literally exposed in a bathing suit. Our non-physical imperfections are always on display at the office, but there’s a special vulnerability in displaying one’s body. While you may feel it more than others because of self-consciousness about your looks (or even a worry about being seductive), chances are that many at the beach felt a little odd about being skimpily dressed at a work function. Companies need to be sensitive to the awkwardness they can create in the name of having a good time or providing bonding opportunities. 

I’M NOT SAYING THAT such events can’t be fun, or a good way to deepen trust, enhance teamwork, and improve morale. But one reason you’re tempted to opt out may be that you can’t escape the feeling that these social events are really in the realm of work and career advancement–which they are (hence the pressure to opt in).

Nothing wrong with being aware of all that. At the same time, if you’re paralyzed by the thought that your every move or utterance at a swim or bowling party is being observed under a microscope–well, that is a problem. Eventually, you might want to grapple with this sort of inhibition, which makes you more rigid under stress. Meanwhile, don’t wear anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, period. (I’m at a loss for bowling advice.) In my view, the trend toward merging life and work is neither good nor bad. But for employers and employees alike, it demands a new level of self-awareness.

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More than 70% of managers admit they have trouble giving a tough performance review to an underachieving employee, according to a survey by Sibson Consulting and WorldatWork. How do you learn the art of delivering constructive criticism?

Let’s consider why courage is necessary to overcome our reluctance to conduct such a fundamental business interaction. There’s the fear of hurting the employee’s feelings or being perceived as mean. There’s the awareness of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a poorly delivered performance review. And since the toughest feedback usually touches on deeply ingrained behaviors and personality traits, there’s a fear of the intimacy required when offering observations that hit so close to home.

Giving feedback is indeed more art than science. The trick is to deliver the message fully, candidly, and in a timely way while making it palatable and readily usable by the employee. Remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. The former involves offering support and alternative behaviors along with the feedback. To deprive employees of this shirks responsibility. The latter is a form of punitive aggression and has no place in the workplace.

Don’t wait until the last possible moment to deliver feedback; make it a regular part of your one-on-one interactions with employees rather than an obligatory exchange prior to discussing next year’s compensation. Shaming someone–by giving feedback in front of colleagues or by attacking their character–will make them dislike you rather than incorporate the feedback you gave. Confrontations should be a method of last resort. Some leaders have a knack for giving the hardest news in a way that leaves employees feeling understood and good about the interaction. One way to do that is by sharing a personal experience with the same sort of developmental challenge, rather than making the employee feel they’re the only person in the world with this problem.

The last thing you want is a performance discussion in which the form, rather than substance, of the message increases the employee’s resistance to it. While some executives say “bring it on” to the unvarnished truth, in my experience they’re in the minority. Alas, those most welcoming of constructive feedback are the ones who probably need it the least.

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What feelings can surface when you find yourself reporting to someone younger? For some managers, I find, it’s a shock. So how can you take it in stride when you’re older than the boss?

For those who were brought up with the idea of respecting their elders, modern corporate life can get complicated. I’ve known executives who feel it violates the natural order of things to report to a younger person. In some cases they’re ashamed, assuming that it’s a comment on their skills. In other instances, they harbor–and act out on– resentments about a “kid” surpassing them.

If you’re in such a position, first banish all the soul searching about what it “means” professionally. Young bosses abound these days. Some of my CEO clients, by dint of being entrepreneurs or having advanced degrees, skipped rungs on the corporate ladder. And a Capital IQ (MHP) study found that nearly 140 publicly held companies worldwide are led by CEOs 40 or under, about 100 of them–including those at tech outfits–in the U.S.

Another pitfall to avoid is showing off your years of acquired knowledge at every opportunity or delivering condescension along with your advice. Share your experience collegially: You’ll be considered a major resource rather than a threat. And be careful not to misinterpret a younger boss’s working methods (say, a preference for e-mail over talking in day-to-day matters) as a sign of disrespect.

Be aware, too, that the unease is likely to cut both ways. Younger bosses sometimes feel inadequate or guilty when they have power over someone of their parents’ generation.

My “Nobody loves a tattletale” column (Aug. 6) prompted comments from readers outraged by my response to a question about whether to tell the boss about a co-worker’s perceived abuse of days-off policies.

In reflecting on my answer, I realize I’d been swayed by the writer’s casting his conflict in terms of how he’d be viewed (as petty and vindictive) if he complained about the colleague. I didn’t see it–as some of you did–as an issue of ethics and individual responsibility. Not all cases of taking liberties are crimes, and I think it’s important to recognize the difference. So in instances where taking extra time isn’t stealing–at jobs where the idea is to get all one’s work done rather than to be at the office to share the load–I’d stick to my advice about minding one’s own business and letting the boss enforce policies. But I thank my readers for emphasizing the ethical dimension. Fear of confronting a negligent boss or being labeled a snitch can be a rationalization for avoiding responsibility.