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Career Advice

5 Signs You're on Thin Ice at Work (& How to Fix It)

Posted by Emily Moore

Last Updated July 24, 2017
|8 min read

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to guess whether or not you’re failing to hit the mark at work. Your boss would meet with you regularly to supply open and honest feedback, and you could nip any emerging problems in the bud as soon as they flag them to you. But human beings are complex characters — whether your colleagues and superiors are afraid of confronting you with negative feedback, too busy to check in with you, or simply aren’t good at communicating, workplace grievances against you may pile up until eventually, they land you in hot water.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes we tend to simply judge ourselves too harshly. Perfectionists out there will often perceive innocuous actions or poorly-phrased comments from co-workers to be slights on their performance, causing them to work themselves up over nothing.

So between managers whose communication skills need improvement and your own self-doubt, how can you really tell if you need to get your act together at work? Read on below to learn five sure-fire signs that you’re faltering at work, as well as advice on how to get back on track.

1. Your Boss Has Changed Their Tune

When your manager’s disappointed in your performance, it’s often hard for them to conceal it — usually, their behavior or tone will shift in a noticeable way. A few indicators might be if “your formerly buddy-buddy boss is getting agitated with you or is being more short or cold with you,” says Jill Santopietro Panall, HR consultant and owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, LLC, or “if they have become more aloof or seem to be avoiding any conversation with you except for essential communication,” says Valerie Streif, Senior Adviser at Mentat. “Sometimes this sign isn't as clear depending on how your initial relationship with your boss was, but if you notice that they seem to avoid you, are sharp and short when answering your questions, and don't engage in conversation with you outside of strictly business, it could be a sign they are getting ready to get rid of you, or that an awkward conversation in a negative performance review is imminent,” Streif continues.

The confrontation averse may be tempted to ignore these signs, but addressing the problem is essential if you want to get back in your manager’s good graces. “I would say, ‘I notice that lately you seem less happy with my work. What can I do to change that?' Then, listen as nondefensively as you can and take notes on what they want you to do,” Santopietro Panall suggests.

“Be upfront and sit down with management to address any issues and see if it can be resolved before you get a negative review,” Streif agrees. “If they have noticed that your performance isn't what it used to be, you could explain yourself. If you've been unhappy or feeling unfulfilled, a simple conversation could lead to a promotion that could give you more responsibility and a sense of purpose again. It can be hard to sit down with management in these situations, but most likely you have nothing to lose and it could be the opportunity for a major positive change.”

2. Your Responsibilities Have Shifted in a Major Way

You might be secretly rejoicing if your boss moves a few things off of your plate, but beware: rather than just giving you a break, this could be a sign that they don’t think you’re capable of managing your tasks. “Employees who perform well are typically rewarded with more responsibility and more complex tasks, leading to career growth and paving the way for future promotions,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista. So “if you suddenly notice your manager consistently passing you up and giving coveted assignments to your coworkers or if your manager assigns you tasks that feel like a step backward, it may be an indication that you've lost their trust.” Similarly, if “your workload gets lighter” or “you are now receiving the grunt work,” that could spell trouble, says resume writer & career transition coach Wendi Weiner.

Before you confront your manager, “think back and identify if you made a recent error. Perhaps you missed a deadline without appropriate notification, didn't take action when a problem occurred, or reacted in a non-constructive way in a tense situation,” Gardner suggests. “Then, do some damage control and own up to the mistake. Let your manager know you recognize what you did wrong, what you learned, and what you will do going forward. Taking ownership and bringing up the issue first helps with rebuilding trust.”

It’s also worth letting your boss know that you do feel that you’re willing and able to take on some extra work. “A great way to turn this around is to tell your boss that you are happy to take on all tasks, which can contribute to more productivity, and you don't mind putting in the extra time or effort to get these tasks done,” Weiner says.

3. You Keep Hearing the Same Negative Feedback

No matter how hard you work, you’re bound to get some negative feedback from time to time — after all, there’s always room for improvement. So if you get the occasional reminder from your manager about something you could be doing better, you don’t need to sweat it. But if you consistently hear them bringing up the same issue over and over, it may be cause for concern.

“Once your boss has talked to you about it a few times, if they don't see the change they want to see, you can expect that a warning is on the way,” says Santopietro Panall. If you find yourself on the receiving end of repeated feedback, “be sure you are VERY clear in your mind on what expected changes they are looking for or what goals/metrics they [want] you to hit before you get further warnings… I can't tell you how many times I have sat in on termination meetings with an employee who has been given multiple warnings or is on what I thought to be a very clear performance improvement plan and they are confused or asking ‘Why is this happening?’ even though they knew they were on thin ice.”

Even if you are taking the right steps to address the issue at hand, make sure that you’re communicating that with your manager so they know that you are taking their feedback seriously and are working on overcoming challenges.

“Clarity is going to help you at all times… be clear on your role and the expectations, be clear on your boss' concerns and pressures, be clear on the timing of events, be clear on what you can lay down to pick up new responsibilities,” Santopietro Panall advises.

4. Your Desk or Office Location Is Downgraded

In the most recent season of HBO's Silicon Valley, all-powerful Hooli CEO Gavin Belson passive aggressively expresses his annoyance with one of his employees by “promoting” him to a new position that requires him to move his desk to the basement, surrounded by nothing but servers and maintenance workers (oh, and a nice view of the men’s restroom). While this is on the more extreme end of the spectrum, it’s still true that a significant change in your workplace settings could be a sign that your standing at work is less than solid.

“I once worked with a colleague whose office was right in the middle of all the action. She was situated next to the executives and she had the chance to interact with leadership every day. Unfortunately, she never seized the opportunity to demonstrate her value. She was soon relocated to an office on a different floor without any windows. She didn't take the hint to step up her game and her manager finally let her know that she wasn't fit for the job,” Gardner shares.

While Gardner acknowledges that “it's difficult to recover from an unfavorable relocation… there are ways you can turn things around,” she says. “First, seek ways to add value specifically with respect to the company's goals. Next, make sure your work is visible in a way that isn't bragging but demonstrates your contribution. Finally, seek feedback from your supervisor. Not all supervisors are generous with both positive and constructive feedback, so you sometimes have to ask for it to get it,” she says.

5. You’re Encountering Challenges Every Step of the Way

Everyone deals with bottlenecks at work — maybe your manager is dragging their heels on reviewing an essential document, or your department head shuts down your budget proposal. It’s perfectly normal for things like these to happen every once in a while, but if they become an every day (or more) occurrence, you may want to examine things a little more closely.

“Is it getting harder to arrange a time to meet with your boss? Are your requests constantly getting denied? Are you being given the most tedious tasks to complete? If so, this may be a sign that your supervisor is encouraging you to quit and avoiding the task of giving you constructive feedback,” Gardner says.

If this sounds familiar, it’s time to get proactive about preventing roadblocks before they pop up. “Set a regular cadence to check in with your boss and establish mutual expectations on how you engage. Ask for feedback and do so often… Focus on adding value, stay aware of the changing environment at work, and adapt to changing circumstances,” Gardner recommends. “While getting assigned more difficult, complex tasks over time is a good sign, feeling blocked at every turn is a definite red flag.”


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