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The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 2

Yana Kane-Esrig

This is part two in a series of articles in which Yana shares her thoughts and practical experience relevant to starting a new job or, more generally, navigating a big change in day-to-day life.

In the first article, I discussed the reason for my renewed interest in the topic of dealing with a change, such as starting a new job, and presented the questions I find useful to ask ahead of the transition to the new phase. In this article I will address the initial period of adaptation to the new environment. I will propose some questions relevant to interacting with people: dealing with an authority figure, getting help from colleagues, and supplementing the golden rule.

I want to state an important disclaimer: my discussion is applicable only to the situation where the people involved are acting within the bounds of what is ethically and legally acceptable. I do not address dealing with abuse, such as harassment, discrimination, pressure to do something unethical or illegal, or a work culture that is inhumane and exploitative. This is not because I take such issues lightly. Quite the opposite! I do not attempt to cover these situations because my experience and my training do not qualify me in my own eyes to give advice on dealing with problems of this magnitude.

Relationship with an authority figure

The workplace structure is changing rapidly. Nonetheless, as things stand right now, it is still likely that in a new job you will have to deal with a specific individual who plays the role of an authority figure. I will use the word “boss” and use the pronoun “they” to refer to this person.

Needless to say, the boss and your relationship with them can have a major impact on whether your first job works out well or poorly.

The Owl of Many Questions has to use her eyes and ears, and swivel her head to take information from many directions. It is necessary to listen to and watch the boss carefully. It is useful to observe how others react to that person. But I would suggest starting with addressing some questions to yourself.

The concept of “boss” can be a highly charged one. So, it is a good idea to compare your own assumptions and expectations to the actual situation on the ground.

This was certainly true in my own case. I grew up in the Soviet Union in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. It was a totalitarian society (though in that period it was not as blood-thirsty as it had been under Stalin). The state exerted near-total control over all aspects of its citizen's lives and enforced submission to a single ideology (communism). By the 1970’s, no one, least of all people in positions of authority, seriously believed the official propaganda. The state ideology had discredited itself both by the atrocities it inspired, and by failing to deliver on its promises of building a glorious future. Yet, no opposition to or even lack of support for communism was tolerated. Those in power (such as bosses in any workplace) were required to not only fulfill the responsibilities directly related to their line of work, but also to enforce among the workers the pretense of enthusiasm for the communist ideology. This does not imply that all individuals who were vested with authority were evil human beings. But it does mean that all of them had to negotiate their role within the system of suppression of dissent.

I left the Soviet Union as a teenager. So, I did not have any paid work experience in that country. Nonetheless, I was well aware of the ideological component of all authority based on my school experiences, and on what I observed and heard all around me. This led me to all kinds of negative stereotypes attached to the very idea of a boss.

When I started my career in the US, I quickly realized that the structure of authority governing the workplace and the behavior of the people in the workplace differed from the expectations that I had. In particular, there was far more emphasis on getting the work done well and on time, and on maintaining individual and organizational reputations for integrity, and far less involvement with the national politics. (This is not to say that everyone and everything in the US is wonderful, or that the only driver of people’s behavior in the workplace is getting the job done. I am talking here about the contrast between what I saw in the Soviet Union and in the US. I am not trying to compare what I encountered in the US to some ideal.) Even so, it took me some time to observe that the expectations based on my past were distorting my own perceptions of and reactions to the present.

Having served as a mentor later in my career, I observed that even if a person grew up in the same society where they enter the workplace, they may still stumble over their own pre-conceived notions and pre-defined reactions (positive or negative) to the structures of authority.

I found it useful to ask myself the following questions:

  • What are my views about how the system of authority should be structured in an “ideal society”, “ideal workplace”? About how authority is structured “in the real world”?
  • What are my views about the specific roles and responsibilities of a boss and of a person reporting to that boss?
  • How would I describe a good boss? A bad boss?
  • Do I want to become a boss? Why or why not? What kind of a boss would I want to be?
  • What are my experiences with authority figures? How do I react emotionally to the idea of interacting with a boss?
  • How do my answers to these questions color my interactions with the living and breathing person who is currently my boss?

Having explored the lens through which I viewed the world (and the distortions it might introduce), I was in a better position to learn about the actual situation. Here are some questions I found useful at this stage:

  • What is my boss responsible for and to whom? In other words, how is the success of their own work measured? Who are their authority figures, i. e., their boss, their customer, etc.?
  • Can I trust my boss? Will they mentor me? Will they stand by me and not “throw me under the bus” if I make a mistake or something goes badly? Will they share credit for a job well done?
    • I sincerely hope that you get to work for and with people you can trust. But, unfortunately, things are not always as they should be. If a boss falls short, then it is important to observe and label their specific limitations and failings, as well as their more neutral and even positive qualities, rather than view that person as “bad in every way". (As I mentioned at the start, I am talking here about people who may be flawed and difficult, but still stay within the limits of the law and basic ethics.)
    • In dealing with people (including bosses), I found it worthwhile to be trusting and forgiving in matters that are “small stuff” (where the stakes are low from my point of view). Yet I adopt a more cautious attitude in matters that are of key importance to myself. Even a decent and responsible person may sometimes make a mistake, or be driven by circumstances (external or internal) to act in a way that, in my view, is wrong and harmful.
  • What is important to my boss? What keeps them up at night?
  • How will the work I do and the way I conduct myself reflect on my boss in the eyes of their own authority figures, peers, and the people who report to them? What can I do to help my boss come across (in substance and in appearance) as prepared and competent?
  • How will my words and actions make my boss feel?
    • When I was young, I did not fully grasp that people whom I perceived as more powerful than myself are not armored by their status, not insulated by their relative power from feelings of hurt, stress and anxiety.
    • o My first boss took me to lunch right before I started working for him and said: “Please do not ever surprise me. I do not even want good surprises. If something is going not according to the plan, please let me know right away”. As he was saying this, I was surprised by how anxious he sounded. I took his request to heart and tried to keep him, as well as my subsequent bosses and project leaders, informed about key developments in the projects I was working on. I observed that people appreciated it. Later in my career, I felt the weight of responsibility for the quality of work and for the work experience of junior colleagues, be it members of the team in a project I led, or people I mentored. Just like my first boss, I did not wish to be surprised and blindsided.
    • o Being aware of the humanity and vulnerability of people at all levels of the workplace hierarchy, including those “above me” does not imply that I should be a toady or a doormat. But it does mean that I need to treat people at all levels, including those above me, with consideration and kindness.
  • So far, I have discussed just one authority figure: the boss. However, in many situations there are multiple authority figures with different kinds of power and responsibility. For example, in addition to a boss, I often have a customer who may be internal or external to my organization. The customer is the one who is going to use the output of my work in their own work. While it is possible for my boss and my customer to be the same person, in most cases, they are two different people with different interests and expectations. I will touch on the subject of the customer later, when I talk about the work assignment. But for the moment, I just want to note that when I have to deal with multiple authority figures, I need to understand in what ways their roles, concerns and preferences are aligned, and in what ways (and why) they are different — possibly even conflicting with each other.

Getting the help you need

We need help and cooperation from our colleagues throughout our career. But, of course, this is especially obvious when we enter a new situation. I will focus specifically on the most salient need at that moment: obtaining knowledge and guidance.

I was fortunate to have had in my life several helpful and kind formal and informal mentors. Some guided me when I first arrived in the United States. Others advised me later, in academic and work contexts. Even now, after decades of experience in my career, I benefit from having someone to turn to when I enter a new situation, learn new skills. I react with gratitude and interest when someone teaches me something (directly or by example). In turn, I consider it an obligation and a privilege to “pay it forward” by serving as a mentor and sharing my knowledge in other ways.

Here are some observations that are based on my experience both as the one who receives and the one who gives this kind of help.

When I approach someone with a request to share their knowledge, I need to be mindful that my colleague has many demands on their time and attention. I ask myself: “what can I do to make it easy, convenient and satisfying for this person to help me out?”

Here are some practices that I find useful.

As soon as I realize that I need assistance, I try to formulate in writing what I need and why. I aim to be as thorough as possible:

  • Give a brief summary of the goals of the project and any context relevant to the questions I have
  • List what I already know and have done / tried
  • Describe the gaps that I have or problems I am stuck on
  • Be clear about how soon and how urgently I need the help
  • Identify whom I am going to approach with my request, and why I am choosing that particular person.
  • Give some thought to what would be the most helpful format for the information I am seeking. Would it be a conversation where I can ask questions? Would it be some data in the form of a spreadsheet? Would it be an authorization to access some documentation, data etc. and a tutorial on how to use the system where this information is stored? And so on.
  • Now that I have the detailed list, I try to make it as succinct as possible, without losing the key points.

Sometimes simply doing this preparation leads me to an “Aha!” moment when I suddenly see a solution for my difficulty

Once I am ready with a specification of what I am seeking, I need to figure out how to use it. With some people in some contexts, I request a formal appointment and send ahead of the time my notes about what I am looking for and why. This can convey to my colleague that I respect their time and have put in my own effort before I turned to them for assistance. (If someone needs my help, I appreciate it if they approach me in this manner.) But someone with a different temperament and/or cultural background may find this directness off-putting. Therefore, I keep the preparatory notes in the background, unless I feel reasonably confident that they would be well received. In either case, I find that the work I put into drafting them provides a good foundation for my interaction with the coworker I am asking for help. At the same time, I am aware that I tend to cling to my preparation too tightly. Having gotten ready, I need to let go of my imagined script for the interaction and be open to how it actually goes.

In my experience, most people are willing, even glad to help simply because we, humans, have an instinct for generosity, a desire to connect, and an interest in sharing what we know. But I have to accept that some colleagues will be stingy with their time and effort, or completely unwilling to do what I am asking for. This may happen for a variety of reasons. It is possible that someone may be uncooperative because they have some prejudice or grudge against me. But it serves me best not to take things too personally, not to assume without strong evidence that if someone’s actions upset or frustrate me, it is because they intend to hurt me. A likely alternative explanation for an unhelpful response is that my colleague feels anxious. They may fear endangering their own success by spending their time and energy on assisting another person, or they may worry about diminishing their own value by teaching someone else a valuable skill. I find this fear understandable and deserving of some sympathy. I also try keep in mind that I can never know for sure what is happening inside the head and heart of another human being. So, while I try to fathom the intentions of the people around me, I remind myself to use my guesses only as a working hypothesis (rather than a permanent assumption) in making my decisions. Just like an owl in the woods, I have to actively observe the situation around me, rather than rely on my preconceived notions.

That said, I don’t claim that I always succeed in maintaining a dispassionate attitude toward people whom I find difficult, or that I am never blinded by my own assumptions.

When I am fortunate to deal with a helpful and generous person, I strive to be worthy of their kindness. When I was young, feeling grateful to someone drove me to put them on a pedestal above me in my own mind. With time, I learned that a better approach is to express my appreciation through practical action.

I already mentioned that doing the preparatory work before asking someone for help shows respect for their time and effort. A related aspect is making the most out of a colleague’s assistance. When I was a summer intern in a technical company, one of the staff members was generous with his time and expertise, as he taught me how to use their computer system. At some point, while thanking him, I also apologized for asking so many questions. He replied: “I do not mind helping you because I see that you carefully record what I show you, and you do not ask the same question twice.” I was, indeed, taking notes and using them. But until then I was not aware that this conveyed to my mentor the value I placed on his teaching.

I strive to cultivate what I call “active gratitude”. Here are the rules that I made for myself:

  • When people invest time and attention into helping me, I do not take their kindness for granted. It does not matter whether doing so is part of their job responsibilities, or if they do it out of sheer good will. If they make an effort to be helpful, then I want to appreciate and acknowledge it.
  • When I express my gratitude, I want to make it specific, rather than generic. I provide the details of the context, the circumstances and the value of how I made use of the help I received. If my colleague taught me how to do something, I describe the problem I needed to solve and how I applied the knowledge they gave me. If my colleague was not only informative, but also supportive, I recount to them their own kind words and let them know how encouraging I found them.
  • In addition to thanking the person in private, I look for appropriate ways to acknowledge them publicly. For instance, I let the person’s boss and other authority figures know about that individual’s positive impact. Early in my career I wondered whether crediting someone else for their part in my or my team’s accomplishment diminishes the value of my own or my team’s work. I concluded that this worry is baseless. Acknowledging others’ contributions evokes respect. And even if I might occasionally give up some glory, in the long run I and the people I mentor or lead are better off if we are worthy of help and collaboration, rather than if we hoard every shred of credit for a job well done.
  • I consider it especially important to show respect and appreciation for the effort, expertise and kindness of those people who are in a less powerful or less advantageous position than I am.
  • While I strive to repay kindness with kindness, sometimes there is no practical way for me to do as much for my mentors and other people who helped me, as they did for me. I believe that one of the expressions of my lasting gratitude to them is to “pay it forward” — to be generous to someone else who needs my own help.

Supplementing the golden rule

The foundation of my interactions with people in any context, including work, is a simple question: “How would I feel if someone else did this or that to me?”. This is a good guardrail against doing obviously wrong things, such as gossiping (even if there is some social pressure to engage in such behavior). It is simply my approach to applying the “golden rule”: do not do to others what you don’t want to be done to you.

But when I started my first job in a corporate environment, I discovered that this question is not sufficient. I had a few awkward interactions that taught me to ask an additional question: “In what way are the social codes in this environment different from what I am used to?”. This was a surprise for me. When I had emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US as a teenager, I had gone through a major change in expectations and habits in all areas of life. Therefore, I assumed myself to be an ace in this kind of social adaptation. But in my transition from the academic to the work environment, I was lulled into following my old habits precisely because the differences between these two settings were less dramatic and obvious.

There were two related areas in which I had to make adjustments: the style of humor, and the use of questions and critique.

Among my family and friends, and in the academic environment in the US, there is a commonality in the style of humor that is widely used and appreciated. Conversations are laced with dry irony and clever wordplay (with allusions to literature). During my first few years in the US, I was hampered by my lack of English language fluency. But by the time I was starting my first job, I had gained enough language skills to enjoy and actively participate in such banter.

However, I discovered that the style of interaction in a corporate environment is different in this regard. What I intended as benign and friendly jesting sometimes came across as sarcasm. Allusions to Shakespeare or Dante were out of place (and, perhaps, were perceived as snobbish).

The styles of asking questions and of giving critique also turned out to be different between what I had been used to and the corporate culture. At home and in the academic setting direct questions and constructive (but sometimes jocular and even ironic) criticism regarding one’s work were expected and valued. In the corporate environment I had to be more circumspect. A person who is asked publicly a question that they were not prepared to answer, or who has a mistake pointed out too plainly, might feel that they have “lost face”. This did not mean that in that environment people did not ask questions, check and critique each other work, or disagree about work-related matters. I just had to adjust to a different style of doing these things. For instance, I had to avoid springing an unexpected tough question on someone in a public meeting. It was better to approach them in private, ahead of the time. Instead of saying things like “I think you made a mistake in this calculation”, I formulated my questions and critiques in a manner that was less blunt, for instance: “This result looks surprising, I suggest we check it”.

To this day, I “code switch” between the style of interactions I use with my friends and family, and the style that is appropriate in the corporate environment. I still appreciate the art of ironic banter. I benefit from questions about and constructive criticism of my work ( or things I do outside of work, such as creative writing projects). I find it useful to have such inputs stated clearly, rather than obfuscated with too much politesse. However, I also appreciate the need to avoid causing unnecessary discomfort to my colleagues. Furthermore, in retrospect, I think that a softer style would have been a good idea in some of the personal or academic situations where I was either a recipient or a giver of critique. In short, I see not only a necessity for this kind of “code switching”, but also its value.

The examples of the adjustments I personally had to make are not applicable to every work environment or every individual. But I hope that they illustrate why and how, in addition to asking myself the question: “How would I feel if someone did this or that to me?”, I also ask: “What is the difference between the spoken and unspoked social codes of my current environment, and what I am accustomed to?”.

The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 1

The Owl of Many Questions: The first 90 days in a new job - Part 3