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TL;DR: My probation period may be extended, but my manager can't articulate how I can improve and is trusting me with long-term, high profile projects. How can I encourage him to be clear on how I can improve?


In February I started a new job as a senior manager in the UK Civil Service and I have a 6 month probation period. Whereas I'm new to the Civil Service, my manager has worked here for over 25 years.

My problems are

  1. My manager is looking to extend my probation period for performance related issues
  2. My manager is very flaky and finds it hard to give a clear message. Fortunately he has put this fact into my performance review, so there is a paper trail
  3. Moreover, I was not inducted properly. Only now am I finding out that I should have completed certain mandatory training courses, which happen to relate to the areas where my performance is rated under par. Again, this has been documented by my manager

To deal with my probation period (most likely) being extended, I have:

  1. Started job hunting
  2. Asked for a written performance improvement plan for me to work on, where I intend to demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that I'm good at the job
  3. Emailed my private address relevant documents for my own records, in case I need to lawyer up

I'm obviously preparing for the worse case scenario, but my manager is sending mixed messages, namely:

  • Alongside the probation period actions, I've been asked to lead on some of the largest initiatives that my Department will be involved with for the next 3+ years
  • Moreover, the feedback from my manager hasn't been helpful. When I ask for feedback, he says my work is good, needs a bit of tweaking, but he can't articulate how. He just says it needs to be in a more Civil Service style. When I ask for exemplars to mimic, he'll send me half-completed documents which I haven't found very instructive

My question is, how can I encourage my manager to be clearer in what he expects me to achieve to pass the probation period?

  • 1
    He just says it needs to be in a more Civil Service style May I suggest watching Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister? – rath Jun 27 '18 at 13:24
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    @rath: Oddly my boss has Bernard's mannerisms. I just feel more like Jim Hacker, getting confused in the middle... – WorkerWithoutACause Jun 27 '18 at 13:29
  • @WorkerWithoutACause and by the end of (both) series, we see that Jim has become the consummate master of getting the Civil Service to do what he wants... – AakashM Jun 28 '18 at 8:11
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There are so many ways to 'read' what your manager may be trying to do by extending your probation, that I am not sure whether he himself knows what he is doing. And based on everything you said about him, chances are he doesn't.

With that in mind, I think trying to get the manager to articulate expectations given his repeated failures to do so is a lost cause. You are barking up the wrong tree. Whether or not he will clarify his expectations, assume your probation is going to be extended if the manager says it will. It's his decision to make, whether you (or he) are clear about the reasons for it or not.

Given the 'mixed messages' that you listed, I would argue you have more job security than you might think judging from the potential extension of your probation.

Here is my read of what's going on:

  1. Your manager knows you are good, wants to keep you, and wants you to lead or support lots of important work that he needs done.

  2. Your manager does not want you to know just how much he needs you. Hence the mixed messages to keep you on your toes. In other words, it's a bluff. By asking for clearer expectations you are calling his bluff. Hence no progress.

  3. Your best strategy in this situation is to dial down the anxiety and to simply carry on, focusing on your day to day work. Show up, do your best, go home.

To elaborate on this last point: Don't try to call the manager out on this or that (e.g. unclear expectations), don't complain, don't be a troublemaker. Do not try to be an overachiever. Do not swear your allegiance, over-commit, or over-promise. Simply work on your projects, lead, coordinate, step in where needed, network with your colleagues to get on their good side, and try to be a good team player. Do your work as best you can, and try to appear content with everything.

  1. Behind the scenes, continue to document evidence of your satisfactory performance. But if your agency has lacking standards or follow-through on performance management, don't try to change the system and be the trailblazer of reform. Nothing will raise alarms about your fit with the organization's culture in the management's eyes, like being too overzealous about changing it. Realize that things are the way they are for a reason.

I also suggest doing a bit of reflecting and soul searching. The basic question you need to answer is, are you OK with the way the Civil Service operates, compared to the private sector? The private sector has much more robust performance evaluation processes, but that can be a double-edged sword, as management wields significantly more power when they decide what goes on a performance evaluation, and when the performance evaluation decided whether you keep your job. The Civil Service may seem like it's stuck in the 1800's in terms of how it operates, but in some ways that could be an advantage. It's never going to be perfect, it's a matter of what is acceptable to you. Something to think about.

If you feel that Civil Service is not for you, then by all means continue your job search, and leave no matter what, even if your probation ends! If however you think Civil Service is more for you than private sector, then just sit tight and play the waiting game. You can still job search, but I would not try to read too much into the tea leaves at this time. Good luck!

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. I've been a long time accepting it because I wanted to see how the advice played out (I passed probation today) – WorkerWithoutACause Oct 19 '18 at 13:57
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    @WorkerWithoutACause Glad to hear it, that sounds like good news. And thanks for following up! – A.S Oct 26 '18 at 16:27

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