Dylan* had been working as a junior solicitor in a new practice for a few months. It was a very different workplace to what he expected – the owner of the practice was quite old and did everything with a pen and paper, he tolerated almost no criticism, and he could be difficult to work for at the best of times. Dylan would complain to his mother most nights at home, until one night he informed her he was going to say something. “Be very careful” said his mother. “This is an incredibly experienced man working on extremely important, high profile cases, and this is wonderful experience for you. He owns the practice, so he can run it as he sees fit. If you want to speak about something small that’s bothering you, do it respectfully. Don’t go in there all guns blazing with all your problems, it won’t work out.” Dylan decided that he had had enough of how things were run, and laid out his list of grievances to his boss the next day.
He was fired.
Before you ask the question, yes, this is a true story, and Dylan is someone that I know. One of his grievances was the fact that the boss did not like to use computers. Dylan just couldn’t get past the fact we are in the 21st century and his boss had to do everything on a pen and paper. He didn’t like the fact that the toilets weren’t clean enough, and a number of other issues. Bottom line, he thought he knew how to run the law firm day to day better than the boss did, despite the fact he is not yet thirty and has been out of law school for only a couple of years.
Apart from doing quality work that is respected, fitting in and knowing your place is THE most important thing in your first 6-12 months at any job. Too many people think after a few months that they know the answers to all the company’s problems, or that this manager doesn’t know what they are doing, or that a product is being marketed completely wrong. Speak up about these things too quickly and you are committing career suicide with your current company. If you are wrong (most likely), you will be written off early as a know it all that actually doesn’t know anything.. If you’re right, odds are high that you’ll be resented by at least a few staff, if not many.
This is why the first 6-12 months in any job (unless you are a specialist brought in specifically to shake things up) should be spent in the apprentice mindset. You should be speaking as little as possible, and instead listening and learning. It isn’t just the company you need to learn the ins and outs of – in any workplace there are politics, friendships and grudges between staff that you need to navigate through. Avoid getting close with people too soon – for the first few months you want to concentrate on work while being friendly and personable with everyone in the office. This will mean you won’t be unduly influenced by any one person or group of people. You’ll gain an appreciation of all the relationships and be able to form your own judgments and opinions.
On the work side, it’s a case of head down bum up. Don’t offer unsolicited opinions on anything in the company, and even if asked, keep your opinions matter of fact. That means don’t blame anyone, and don’t frame things in a negative context. Rather than saying “we’re doing this all wrong”, say “I think we’d get really positive results if we moved in this direction, because of this, this and this”. If the senior person disagrees, don’t argue. Even if you win and prove your point, odds are you won’t win long term (especially if you prove your superiors wrong in front of other people). If you state your opinion and they disagree, and you are later proven right, that is a far better outcome than arguing and proving them wrong on the spot. Career capital in any workplace is something that has to be built, which is why the opinions of those higher up are respected – they have earned it and have expertise. You may be asked your opinion for a fresh perspective, or because you are already somewhat respected. This is not your chance to prove to the world you are the next Sheldon Cooper who knows everything (and acting as obnoxiously as he does will only get you fired).
Always remember that in most workplaces, subtlety is best. Even if you do happen to know better than the other people in the office, throwing out your opinions with the force of a thunder cloud will not win you friends or accolades. You won’t be seen as some hotshot young go-getter, you’ll be seen as a know it all jerk. So play it smart – for the first 6-12 months keep your eyes, ears and mind open, and your mouth shut as often as possible. Play the long game and take it in baby steps, you will advance much faster and piss off far fewer people.