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Bad role or bad circumstances

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Bad role or bad circumstances

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We have all probably found ourselves at some point in a position that seemed a whole lot better on paper than it actually is in real life. Where we were once excited, we now dread the very thought of walking into the office each day. We have talked to our friends about it, and they all ask why we are still in the position. But still, is it that the role itself is bad? Or is it just these specific circumstances?

Imagine that you have been working as an individual contributor for years. You observe managers, and you are fairly convinced that you can do the job. You might even have some ideas that would help make things more efficient or more productive or more fun or whatever. So you toss your name into the ring, and you are soon promoted to a management position.

When you take the manager job, you find out almost immediately that the position is a lot different than what you had thought. Orchestrating tasks, fetching status, and managing the administrivia is challenging enough, but maybe you find that there is a political backdrop that you never knew existed.

This senior leader seems to have it out for your boss, and you appear to be in the crosshairs. You seem unduly criticized and scrutinized. Or perhaps priorities are in contention as teams vie for budget and recognition. Whatever the cause, the politics make job awfully stressful.

What do you do?

In the extreme, there are two possible scenarios here. Either the role itself is just inherently different than you imagined, in which case you ought to consider whether this is the role for you. Or the circumstances are particularly troublesome, in which case the role might be more palatable with a few changes, in a different organization, or at another company entirely. But which is it?

How you answer the question depends a lot on your state of mind, which is why this situation is misread by so many. If you are new to a position, it is easy to let the politics convince you that either the position is not what you should pursue, or that your skills are not sufficient to tackle the new role.

If you have been in a similar role before, you might chalk up the experience to circumstance. You have enough confidence to think that your skills are adequate, and it is just the specific environment that makes things tough to manage.

But how do you know?

First, get a neutral assessment of the situation. This can be hard to do because the very act of asking someone a question will bias their answer towards the way you present it. But you should be able to look around at your peers and determine if your situation is unique. In looking at peers, it is worth looking outside your immediate sphere of visibility, because validating against people in the same organization is essentially creating an echo chamber.

As you start to get information about the situation, consider whether you are logically grouping that intelligence by task or by situation. If you find yourself gravitating towards tasks, it is likely that the activities themselves are the stumbling block. If, for instance, you don’t like the act of managing personalities and careers, then you are likely landing on the side of the role being the issue. Similarly, if you don’t like the increase in meetings or the shift away from hands-on work, then management might be the issue. If, however, you find yourself identifying with certain interpersonal dynamics, then the situation might be the problem.

The key here is to get an outside perspective so you have a control group against which you can measure your own sentiments. For most people who are young in their careers, there is not an easy person to check this against. This is because most people do not actively seek mentoring. If you find yourself in a difficult position, this should spur you to find a mentor in whom you can confide and from whom you can solicit advice. The presence of a mentor can help you diagnose the situation much more effectively.

What do you do next?

If you determine that the role is the problem, the answer is relatively straightforward: get into another role. You need to be clear in this moment that the issue is not performance so much as it is fit. There should be no shame in trying a role and then opting for something different. This does not indicate value so much as skill set matching.

If the issue is circumstance, then you have to determine whether the circumstances are permanent or temporary. This is really situation-specific, so it is hard to provide good advice here, but there are a couple of things you can do.

First, it is difficult to do anything in an information vacuum. You need to talk to people to find out what is really behind the behavior. Do not attribute to malice that which can be attributed to just about anything else. By talking to people about the underlying drivers of behavior, you might find common ground, mismatched assumptions, or some history that is feeding the dynamic. As a matter of principle, I tend to talk to the individuals I am butting heads with, though not everyone feels comfortable being direct.

Second, it is typically worth noting whether the behavior is consistent or erratic. If you know that someone is always a poor planner, then you should be able to prepare for it. While it does not excuse the poor planning, it does prevent you from being unprepared for things when they hit. When behavior is inconsistent, though maddening, it can be planned around. If you choose not to plan around it, then the severity of your experience is actually as much on you as it is on the other person. Put another way, if you are not doing everything you can, then you are at least partially to blame.

Finally, you should never allow a good situational battle to go unused. Even if you can describe the pattern as one-off behavior, you should use every instance like this in your career to examine yourself and determine how you react to these situations. While you might be beyond saving in this spot, the experience will typically strengthen you for future situations, which helps to ensure that if you do change circumstances, you don’t find yourself lamenting the decision again.

More often than not, you will find that circumstances are not immutable. Things can change. But even when they cannot, you are better off for having walked through a measured exercise. The most important thing to remember in these tough situations is that acting rashly and without a plan is the best way to find yourself in another bad situation. Be thoughtful. Collect information. And then make an informed decision, ideally outside of the emotion.

The bottom line

The ultimate objective is not to arrive at an unequivocally correct conclusion. The real goal is to put enough rigor into your thought process that you are left having no doubts. If you can resolve the situation, you will be happier. But even if you don’t, how you exit will determine how you enter your next position.

And that can make all the difference in the world when it comes to your future success.


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