How to Survive a 'Sink or Swim' Work Atmosphere

How to Survive a ‘Sink or Swim’ Work Atmosphere


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When I was 21, fresh out of college and navigating California’s broken job market in the pits of the Great Recession, I got a public radio internship and was overjoyed.

The job didn’t go as planned. The station had a culture that prized self-sufficiency above all else—which is to say, a “sink or swim” ethos prevailed. If I asked for help cutting audio, it was typically met with my manager bemoaning the obnoxious level of “hand-holding” I required. After a while, it felt like my mere presence was an impediment to the big, important job of producing a weekly broadcast about local culture. After six months, I was let go, while the other interns stayed on.

Of course, I was very green at the time. But in hindsight, it seems my managers were actually looking for a seasoned radio journalist willing to work for peanuts in a cratered job market, not an intern eager to learn a new trade. Thrown into the deep end, I sunk. But it wasn’t necessarily my inexperience that hampered my chances of a successful internship. It was the notion that new workers had to acclimate immediately, or look like they could, that sealed my fate. That’s a belief that needs to change.

How can you learn if you don’t get help?

It’s a paradoxical approach to taking on a new job or responsibilities. If your boss doesn’t have the time to train them, how can workers be expected to understand the demands of their jobs? Moreover, the belief that training is a one-and-done exercise shows a disconnect with the actual process of learning, which is just that.

As leadership expert Carol Hautot wrote for LinkedIn in 2016, throwing your new employees into the void doesn’t help anyone. She noted that questions arise for managers whenever people aren’t sufficiently trained:

How do you know the people on your team are picking up the right skills?

How do you stop them from picking up bad habits and shortcuts from the employee on the fringe that you want to sack but haven’t got around to yet?

And if an employee is actually able to thrive in this environment of ‘insufficient training,’ what makes you think they will stay?

In the absence of a solid manager, look elsewhere

It might be counterintuitive to look for workplace guidance outside of the actual office, but sometimes it’s necessary. The executive coach and organizational consultant Hilary Pearl tells Lifehacker that friends, former colleagues and even parents can be untapped resources. This is especially true if a young worker isn’t getting the nurturing they need from their superiors.

She wrote in an email:

I suggest [young workers] reach out to former work colleagues who could become mentors, or who they respect for their ability to listen and be empathetic. Simply talking through the issues with others can be very helpful. If your parents have been in the business world, they may have perspectives that can be helpful, if they are not likely to sermonize. Speaking to friends in a similar industry can be useful and reaching outside your company can also serve to build your network.

It’s psychologically damaging

If you’re made to feel as though every question posed to your boss is an admission of weakness or cluelessness, it’s not only going to dent your confidence, but kill your enthusiasm for learning new skills.

For example, if you haven’t been explicitly told not to do something, will you be blamed for doing it? Should you ask your boss, or are you better off just avoiding taking initiative? These blurred lines can usually be cleared up after a few questions, and employees need to feel comfortable asking them.

As Steven Chisholm said in a piece in Vision Advertising last year, asking questions opens up opportunities, not only for growth, but for new ideas to sprout and flourish.

He noted some of the positives of an environment that supports asking questions, which displays:

A Willingness to Learn: Being receptive to new information and ideas is a valuable characteristic in a leader. Office hierarchy shouldn’t get in the way of education.

Desire to Engage: Asking questions and earnestly listening to the response shows that you value your team’s thoughts, which can bring to light some truly valuable insights.

Persistent Inquisitiveness: Curiosity breeds creativity, and understanding how others think, work, and behave opens the door to inventive ideas and solutions.

This doesn’t excuse incompetence or laziness; ultimately, everyone needs to fulfill the duties of their assigned roles. But when the very concept of asking for help is treated like a burden, it’s very easy for younger workers to feel as though their lack of experience disqualifies them from success in their careers.

Managers have a role to play, too

Some managers shy away from any attempts to check in with their direct reports, as if making sure your workers are able to do their jobs with confidence amounts to meddlesome micro-management, which is inherently uncool. The truth is, however, that one of a manager’s chief duties is to nurture the talent working beneath them, whether young or seasoned, because otherwise, it flees.

Pearl says, “the best managers of younger people believe in their ability and their potential to do great things. They are transparent about how they feel about the ‘big boss’ and encourage young people to speak their mind.”

One way younger employees can help their managers, and vice versa, is through co-mentoring, Pearl notes. She says “the young have the ability to coach and help the older boss, while the older generation can provide guidance on how to navigate through an organization’s politics and boundaries.”

A potential silver lining?

There are potential benefits to learning on the fly—so long as you’re getting the appropriate support that comes with plying a new trade. Being thrown into the deep end can help you learn new skills as your mistakes gradually become less frequent. “You learn a lot about yourself as you make mistakes, surprise yourself with your successes, and grow quickly as a person, manager, and leader,” Pearl says. “You grow your self-belief as you grow your skills.”



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