How to Navigate Being on Thin Ice at Work

One of the biggest issues a young person in the workplace will experience is developing a strong sense of judgement when running on thin ice. Even the best and most competent young worker can mess up and will be forced to prove to supervisors and mentors that they can step up to the plate and meet the potential others see in them.

After years in school where probationary periods are seen as something you just sit through (think of detention or in-school suspension), a lot of young people have a hard time adapting to the workforce and understanding how to navigate thin ice in the workplace. Process can be confused for substance and not making the progress necessary through that process can lead a competent young person to sit back and rest on laurels that aren’t actually there.

You can learn the hard way that walking on thin ice requires major improvements on your part or you can learn vicariously — through the experience of others. These are some of the important elements to understanding how to navigate your work when you’ve been told that you can do better.

Know When You’re on Thin Ice

Knowing when you’re on thin ice might be the hardest part for a young person coming right out of school. In school, it is very clear when you are in trouble. You get demerits, you get detention, you go to the office, your parents are called, etc. In the workplace, things aren’t so clear.

If your supervisor decides to sit you down and talk retroactively about your work (i.e., what you did or have done), then they are likely broadcasting to you that you are on thin ice. They are busy and for them to take time out of their day to review your performance requires them to not be working on new things or assigning additional work to you. This is especially true if they make it clear that you broke some kind of rule or violated the expectations for your work. Whatever you do, do not walk away from this conversation thinking everything is okay. Even if you are sure that it seems everything has resolved itself and you on good terms, it is better to play it safe and to work as if you were on thin ice than to assume otherwise.

Understand Your Supervisor is On Your Team

If you are put on some kind of probationary period or simply sat down at work and told you violated some kind of expectation — whether that’s by not meeting the standards of quality in your work or through actually breaking rules — understand that the supervisor who sat you down is ultimately on your team. Taking the time, energy, and resources to train you up to standards is expensive — if they didn’t want to see you succeed, they would simply fire you.

They put you on alert or tell you that you need to improve your work because they see potential in you. Don’t be resentful of them taking time out of their day to sit down with you, be grateful.

Deliver Results, Not Promises

When I say that young people sometimes confuse process with substance, I mean that they are more likely to just follow the rules and not do anything bad instead of coming up with great results and actually impressing people once they are on thin ice.

You can’t take any chances on thin ice, you have to constantly impress with everything you do. If your employer has talked to you about coming in late multiple times, make sure you show up early for the next 10 weeks. If your employer is concerned about the quality of your emails, make sure every email not only meets expectations but exceeds them.

Know that you are working from a defensive position — you have to work twice as hard on things that normally don’t require twice the effort. This is okay — your job is to show that you not only heard your employer’s concerns but that you also internalized them. This is only shown through generating results. Words are empty. Results speak louder.

Expect Nothing, Especially Trust

If you’re on notice, you burnt somebody. You violated your employer’s expectations for you. Don’t expect them to go out on a limb for you and guarantee you anything until you give them sufficient reason not just to not distrust you but also to actually trust you. These are not the same thing. Distrusting somebody means that you don’t view them as worthy of being vested with trust.

Trusting somebody means giving them more leeway and independence than you otherwise would.

You need to prove to them that they should trust you and that they shouldn’t distrust you.

Understand Social Capital

Also do not expect them to go out on a limb for you with others. You burnt them — why would they put themselves in a position for you to burn others and reflect negatively on them?
When you violate anybody’s expectations — whether your friend, employer, spouse, or teacher — you cash in some social capital with them. If you have a lot of social capital, you can get away with this more easily. If you are working from a position of negative social capital, know that they have no reason to put their skin on the line for you when you have already shown them that it isn’t wise to do that just with your work.

More than anything else, if you’re a young person in the workplace, know that being on thin ice isn’t necessarily permanent. Getting off of the ice and getting back on solid ground is entirely in your control — but you need to go above and beyond in everything you do. Something that would normally be an excusable slip-up in a vacuum becomes part of a pattern. Kill that pattern through being impressive.