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The mistake that almost got me fired but transformed my career

It’s important to stick up for yourself and make your voice heard. But it’s just as crucial to know when there are other, better options.

The mistake that almost got me fired but transformed my career
[Photo: DragonImages/iStock]

In my early career I thought I was pretty smart. One time my boss made a decision I didn’t agree with, and I picked it apart, thinking I knew better than they did. I even went so far as to resist the change he’d proposed–by finding others to complain to and by challenging my boss himself in group meetings. Rather than help, I dug in my heels and became an obstacle for others to navigate around.

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Luckily, someone else on my team noticed my behavior and pulled me aside to let me know that while I was valued, the change was going forward–with or without me. The choice was mine.

I got on board quickly after that.

Without that reality check, I’m not sure I’d have been able to, and it could well have cost me my job. The truth was that I didn’t see my resistance as a problem; I thought I was sticking up for myself instead of getting dragged along against my will. But being informed that I did have a choice–it was just over how to react to the change rather than whether it would occur–was oddly empowering, and it’s helped me to productively reframe countless career experiences since.

Mistaking pushback for “managing up”

Initially, I was focused on what the change meant for me, rather than what it meant for the organization as a whole. After that conversation, though, it was easier to shift my vantage point to include a ton of other context about the full situation my team was facing. The change I was so afraid of? It actually turned out to provide me with more opportunities to learn and challenge myself in my work, which I simply hadn’t anticipated.

It was a turning point in my career. I learned that while I thought I was managing up by communicating my opinion, I was actually complaining without offering solutions. Worse, I was focused solely on myself rather than what was best for everyone. From that point on, I shifted my mind-set toward seeing the hidden benefits a change might offer, even those that weren’t apparent at first. It pushed me to seek out the potential upsides and see silver linings that wouldn’t otherwise catch my eye.

The more I got into this habit, the more I learned that I don’t have to be a quietly compliant doormat; that there’s a difference between managing up and putting up a resistance. Checking assumptions and asking questions while preserving respect for everyone is smart–but can be hard to do. Like anything worthwhile, it takes practice. Even better, I learned to share solutions right up front, rather than just voice complaints. Over time, this helped reduce my stress amid unpredictable work experiences and helped me develop better relationships with future bosses.

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Lesson learned: Become a solution to the problem, rather than becoming a part of it.

When (not) to resist, and when to leave

Resistance and hostility rarely work. If you resist too long or too hard, you’ll find yourself being left behind. Resisting change is like a standoff that halts forward movement. Your boss likely made the change in order to make progress or because something wasn’t working. And chances are your boss has different information on hand than you do, so try to give your manager the benefit of the doubt–at least a little. Assume your boss is doing their best to make the right decision for the organization, even if you don’t personally like it.

In fact, trying to understand the context for the change might help you come up with creative solutions; even if your ideas aren’t used, you’ll demonstrate that you want to solve the problem. Being known as a creative problem solver is always a career multiplier.

Sometimes we resist changes because they challenge us personally, for instance to work in new ways or to take on unfamiliar projects. Be wary of opposing a change that’s good for the company because it’s uncomfortable for you. It’s normal to worry about what the the uncertainty brought about by a change in direction might mean for you, but try not to let those fears linger. Address them head on by asking your boss for a meeting to discuss how the new directive might impact your work. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve typically found my managers to be incredibly open to talking things through. That’s helped me focus on how to adjust to changes and help my boss succeed in the process, which is always appreciated.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying bosses always make good decisions–they definitely don’t. If you find that your manager is consistently making decisions that seem shady or that you disagree with, it might be time to look for a new role. Other times, though, it’s a sign your organization just isn’t a good fit for you. In this case, something needs to change–on your side. Being constantly at odds with your boss simply isn’t sustainable, so consider changing jobs, ideally before you’ve become the lone, loud obstacle to progress.

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