I have always been asked questions about the workplace, but was surprised by this recent one: “What do you do when your company throws you in at the deep end?” Meaning: No training. No compass. No direction, or explanation of the who, what, where, when and how.
I’ve heard this question before, but mostly from startups, where everything is new and people are finding their way. However, this time, the concern came from a manager in a large, established corporation who told me it was a common joke in her organization: you had to swim or sink. Note: This is a company where customers spend a lot of money.
First of all, we don’t just “swim or sink.” We thrash about and panic. That’s why all those little how-to manuals, boring and basic, exist. They give us a little life raft —something to hold onto to avoid drowning in the “Sea of I Don’t Know.”
In corporate life, where revenue and reputation are always on the line, that uncertainty can cause a crisis of confidence. So, when instructions, training or encouragement to ask questions are not offered, to avoid drowning in embarrassment, people tend to make it up as they go along.
It’s true. In three decades of corporate life, I’ve seen it often. In our struggle to survive, most of us would rather pretend that everything is going swimmingly. We would rather lie (which includes saying nothing and not putting our hand up) than die.
But when we lie, we create a ripple effect of confusion for others, reaching far and wide to many areas in a company. Even to future employees who inherit our—ahem–knowledge. Eventually, and often without an organization even knowing it, this translates into a loss of time and money, and increased anxiety as things begin to go wrong. Worst of all, a trickle of uncertainty and confusion can become a flood that engulfs your customers and sinks your revenue and reputation.
So—how to avoid panic in the deep end?
If you are an employee, raise your hand. Good—now, keep it up. Reach out for answers. ASK. It’s OK to not know. No one has all the answers. I cannot count how many times I’ve asked questions in a meeting, and have had colleagues express gratitude and relief afterwards because they no longer felt lost. When you get answers, you not only help yourself, you help your team and your organization. You become a problem solver, not a problem generator—a strong “swimmer.”
You also can become a power employee.
According to studies conducted by Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, our body language not only influences what others think of us but, more importantly, what we think of ourselves.
Cuddy explains that power dynamics (body poses) are all about expanding—making yourself big. Powerless means making yourself small, like folding up and not raising your hand, or putting it up only halfway.
So here’s the twist: What you may think of as embarrassing–putting your hand straight up–is actually an expression of power. So, get that hand up! When you act in a powerful way, you become powerful.
If you’re an employer, you want power employees. Therefore, the standards of training and teamwork begin with you. Engage people from day one by creating a culture where it’s OK—even welcome—to ask questions. High performance and productivity depend on the human need to know and grow without feeling vulnerable in the process. So create the optimum environment for this to happen. In fact, consider weaving employee participation into the evaluation process.
Addressing doubt calms the “Sea of I Don’t Know” and creates a much smoother voyage to revenue growth. When people have practical knowledge and feel empowered, the crisis of confidence drifts away.
The panic in the deep end disappears and the strokes to success begin.