Saving Your Job

Sometimes I coach leaders who are afraid they are at risk of being fired.  They may have good evidence to support this. For example, they may have just been transferred to a different department or moved to a more junior position; or they may have gotten direct feedback from their boss, HR, or others that there is a problem with their performance.  They may also just “Have a feeling.”  Here are a few tips that can help in this situation:

  1. Find out what your most important stakeholders want you to do differently.  It should be possible to figure out what your boss or other crucial stakeholders really want from you.  One way to get this information is by asking “open” questions.  Open questions encourage others to provide a lot of information, rather than one-word answers.  They often begin with “What…?” “Tell me about…” or “How….”  For example, “What are your thoughts about my job performance lately?”  Or, “Tell me about your expectations for my role?”  Or, “How can I improve?”  After you ask, really listen.  Try not to get defensive.  Paraphrase back what you heard, and ask if you got it right.  If you don’t understand the feedback you receive, ask follow-up questions.  “I’m not sure I fully understand yet.  Can you give me an example?”  Try to get information that’s as granular as possible so  you know what your path to success looks like.
  1. Write down your goals for change. Once you know what’s really wanted, make a simple plan to implement those changes.  I recommend creating a brief plan in writing—even if it’s just for you—that focuses on 1-3 main changes you will make.  When I am creating a coaching goals document with a client, typically there are 1-3 main goals.  Under each goal there are several bullets that act as a recipe for how to achieve the goal.  If the main goal is “Increase level of influence with cross-functional peers,”  the bullets under it might include: “Learn and practice active listening behaviors,” “Invite peers to coffee or lunch and learn more about them at a personal level,”  and “In cross-functional meetings, acknowledge the value in what others have said before sharing own viewpoint.”  This is just one example of a goal.  Whatever the main goal is, break it down into pieces.
  1. Do your very best to work on the areas your stakeholders care about. In other words, take your plan seriously. This may be hard to do if you disagree with the feedback that you’ve gotten, if you think it’s wrong or unfair.  Remember, though, that even if others are actually wrong from your perspective, it is the perception of your key stakeholders that is the issue here.  Taking consistent and vigorous action on your plan is one of the most powerful ways that you can help change stakeholder perceptions. Later, once you gain more trust, you may be able to show your boss or others that they were focused on the wrong things. But if your job is at risk, that’s a difficult time to negotiate around the question of what’s important. What’s important to them is what should be important to you if keeping your job is your goal.
  1. Look for other ways to shift perception. Remember that making changes and improvements is only half the battle. The other half is to change the perception of your stakeholders. (Some people would say that changing perceptions is actually the whole battle; but I think you are on safer footing if you also attend to underlying concerns people have.)  One way to do this is by making sure that they see the improved outcomes that you’re creating, whether by copying them on deliverables or periodically talking about your progress. It’s not enough to make improvements; you also have to make sure people see it.  Just be careful not to overdo this.  Another great way to shift perception is to choose a group of stakeholders, regularly ask them for feedback and suggestions, then act on it.
  1. Stay positive and take care of yourself. It’s tough to maintain a positive attitude if your job is at risk, because you’re under a lot of stress. You may feel that your boss or others have treated you unfairly, that they have not seen your potential, that they don’t understand the context, or that they have failed to appreciate all that you bring.  Ironically, those feelings make it harder for you to be at your best.  So try to keep a positive outlook:  it’s not over until it’s over. Do your best, and also, take care of yourself.  See my earlier  blog: “Strength during Stress” for some tips on executive self-care.