Finding a workplace environment in which you can thrive is no easy feat. And even when you do land in a place that seems like a perfect fit, dynamics can always change—particularly if your company comes under new management. The new bosses could turn out to be incompetent, unethical, or a disastrous combination of the two. With every new change in management comes the risk that they are going to turn the workplace into a toxic environment.
“What these situations do is create massive uncertainty for people at work, which is really psychologically damaging,” said Tessa West, a psychology researcher at NYU and author of the book Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them. “It’s not just that you have new management, which is bad; it’s that you have new management, and you don’t know all of the ways in which they are going to be bad, and you don’t know if and when it’s going to trickle down to affect you.”
Surviving a change in management is a matter of being able to see the situation for what it is, and come up with a strategy for your next best course of action. “The reality is that sometimes when there is a change in leadership, the jobs that we have been doing do not adapt,” said Alaina G. Levine, a professional speaker and author of the book Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere. “You will survive, but your job may not, so get comfortable with that idea.”
Given that this can happen anywhere, at any company, for any number of reasons, these are some strategies West and Levine recommend for surviving a new change in management.
Three major red flags to watch out for
Other than a few dramatic examples, the effects of major changes in management often take a while to be felt at work. “Most of the time, it’s much more like a slow burn,” West said. “It happens slowly, it’s incremental, and no one thing feels bad enough to leave.” West recommends three major red flags to watch out for when deciding if you should stay or leave: whether there is silence from higher ups, if there is a huge element of uncertainty for you or your boss, or if there are a lot of people leaving the company.
“The first question people have to ask themselves is: Is this creating psychological uncertainty for me, and is it creating it for your manager?” West said. “If your manager is constantly shifting directions, or not knowing what to do, then you are in trouble.” This psychological uncertainty can be incredibly stressful, which has its own impact on your physical, mental and emotional health.
A second red flag to look out for is whether or not higher-ups are communicating with the people they oversee. “It isn’t that you are getting a whole bunch of mixed messages, or you are seeing a firestorm, it’s that you are hearing nothing at all, and that’s terrifying, because that means they are fighting so much with each other, that they don’t even know what to communicate to other people,” West said. “If you’re hearing nothing at all, that means they are locked in a room screaming at each other.”
The third red flag is if other people are starting to leave at higher numbers than before. “One of the biggest predictors of creativity and innovation and purpose at work isn’t the work we do, it’s the people we work with,” West said. “Losing other people at work is a huge predictor. Start to look for that bleed.” As West puts it, if your friends are all leaving, then you need to leave, too.
How to salvage the immediate situation
As Levine suggests, any time there is a new change in management, you need to put together a very specific accounting of what you have done in your position, and what effect that has had. “You always want to record and track your contributions,” Levine said. “If there are changes happening, you’ll have the ability to tell your new manager what it is you have done to improve the conditions in the company. This can help you keep your job or have an even better job.”
Levine also recommends tapping into your network, whether it’s the people you know at your current company, or people you know outside the company. Within the company, if you have a broad network, this can help weather any impending changes, as there will be more people who are familiar with your work and can potentially advocate for you, should your particular department or role be on the chopping block.
Reaching out to other people in your network can help you make sense of what is going on at your company. “What you need is that independent perspective, to say, ‘is this normal?’” Levine said. This is when having a very diverse network made up of people at different levels, and in different companies, can be especially valuable, as they can help you make sense of what is going on.
How to make a long-term plan
One of the hardest parts about finding yourself in a company that has become toxic or dysfunctional is the feeling of being stuck. “When dealing with management changes, we often internalize what is happening,” Levine said. “We also have a distorted sense of time, meaning we think this uncertain period is going to last forever.”
Ultimately, if all of the signs point towards needing to leave, you will need to start searching for your next job. However, as West cautions, when you are in this position, you need to be especially careful not to let your need to escape overrule the need to do due diligence on any potential new job. “A huge mistake people make is that they are not critical because they’re desperate,” West said. Asking questions about a potential new job, and negotiating your worth, while intimidating given everything going on, is an essential part of being able to survive and thrive.
You also don’t want to wait until things get too bad to leave. “When people are in those situations, where it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts, you have to get out early,” West said. “When there is a mass exodus, you don’t want to be in that bottom thirtieth percentile to leave, because that comes with some stigma, that you weren’t able to get out and get a job while you could. That may or may not be true, but that is a stigma.”
Instead, leave sooner rather than later, and do your best to make sure that you are leaving for a better situation, rather than simply escaping in whatever way possible.
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