4 Signs You're Being Haunted by Your Old Job

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By Alison Green

Halloween is over, but you might be experiencing a haunting anyway. If you're still carrying around fears and bad habits formed at your last job, you and your career are in dire need of an exorcism!

Bad jobs can hurt you in so many ways, by destroying your quality of life, holding you back professionally and making you dread coming into work each day. But if you think that all ends once you leave, you might be wrong. For many people, spending too much time in dysfunctional workplaces or modifying behaviors to accommodate bad managers can end up instilling "survival" habits that can hurt them once they move on to better companies.

Here are some signs that you're still being haunted by a previous bad job or bad boss:

You get defensive when your manager gives you feedback, because your old boss used feedback to punish or berate you. Good managers give thoughtful feedback, because they want to help you develop professionally. If you react as if it's a game of "gotcha" that you need to defend yourself against, you'll make it harder to get the very feedback that will help you grow in your job – and probably raise concerns in your new boss.

You expect the worst from your manager or co-workers. For instance, you might assume that you need to cover up mistakes, because a former manager would come down excessively hard on you for even minor errors. Or you might assume that your employer will always try to put you at a disadvantage in negotiations, because that's what happened at an old job. Such managers and employers do exist, but they're not the norm. Assuming that stance in a healthier workplace can put you out of sync with the culture and even cause problems in your work.

You don't do your best work, because you learned earlier that it wouldn't be appreciated. If you worked somewhere that didn't recognize great work and tolerated shoddy performance, you might have decided at some point that it didn't make sense to go all-out; after all, no one cared. But if you carry that M.O. to a new job, it can really hurt you and your reputation – and could even get you fired.

You think that "all managers are _____." It doesn't really matter how you fill in that blank; if you find yourself thinking that 100 percent of managers think or act a certain way, it's a sign that you're not thinking realistically. You want to pay attention to how your current manager thinks and acts. Don't tar her by association with previous managers.

If you recognize yourself in these descriptions, take these steps to exorcise those bad habits from your work life:

1. Realize when your habits are rooted in old dysfunction. Take some time to think through the roots of your beliefs about work and managers, and spot places where they're tied to one bad situation. For instance, say you used to work for a manager who would use any sign of personal weakness against you, and it's left you scared to tell your current manager when you need some help or a little bit of slack. Make sure you've processed that you learned this habit from one manager, and she's not representative of all managers.

2. Recalibrate your idea of "normal." Make a point of looking around and gathering evidence about how other managers and workplaces operate. If you find yourself thinking "all managers do _____," try testing that assumption against your current manager and current workplace. What evidence do you have about how this manager operates? Do your assumptions line up with reality? If not, it's time to adjust them.

3. When you find yourself about to engage in a negative workplace behavior, ask yourself, "Has my current manager given me evidence that I need to operate this way?" Behaviors such as hiding information, not speaking up about problems, reacting defensively to feedback and generally expecting the worst from your employer are behaviors that will harm you in a reasonably healthy, functional workplace. If your manager hasn't given you evidence that you need to approach your job that way, you'll make yourself the problem by proceeding like that. Don't treat your current manager as someone she's not.

After all, imagine if you started a new job as the replacement for a past employee who had been untrustworthy, incompetent and unpleasant, and your new colleagues treated you as if you were just like your predecessor. Doesn't sound fun or easy to work with, does it? And it certainly wouldn't be logical or wise. In that spirit, make sure you're not letting yourself be overly influenced by difficult people you've worked with in the past.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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