Losing Your Shirt and Other Consequences of Career Naiveté

No one wants to look inept, but sometimes we are. It sticks out like a sore thumb when we: 

  • Lack experience and skills
  • Don’t know how the game is played
  • Align with the wrong people
  • Say the wrong things inadvertently
  • Suggest ideas that can’t work 

Sure, we can try to hide or finesse our naiveté, but in time, word gets around. 

The good guys and the bad 

If we’re lucky, we work with a boss and colleagues who have been in our shoes and want to help us get our bearings. If not, it’s like being a sitting duck. 

The more competitive our workplace, the less time we have to get from naiveté to savvy. The price of being “stupid” can get steep. 

The business world holds fabulous opportunities along with risks of failure. There are terrific people at all levels of organizations where we find priceless mentors, leaders, and friends. 

The business world can also be a mean street. Survival is a daily concern, employees want desperately to hold onto their jobs, everyone wants to get ahead, and competitors are always lurking. 

If you want a long and successful career, you need to be smart about what’s going on around you. 

Start by not falling for these hollow assurances from your boss or anyone else: 

  • Just work hard and the rewards will follow
  • You can trust management to have your best interest at heart
  • The company leadership’s got everything under control 

Remember: The company watches out for itself first. It takes care of its stakeholders in order of priority, starting with investors and ending with employees. 

So we all need to learn how to read between the lines and figure out how best to align our capabilities with what needs to get done and with the right people. 

Hang onto your shirt 

If you’re wondering if you’re being naïve, ask your self these questions: 

  • Do I have a false sense of job security?
  • Am I deluding myself about how valuable my job is to the company?
  • Is my performance really good or could I be easily replaced by someone better?
  • Am I being taken advantage of by my boss and coworkers?
  • Have others been promoted over me? If so, do I know why?
  • Do I confide too much in people I’m not sure I can trust?
  • Am I working for less money than others doing similar or less work?
  • Do I really understand what’s driving business decisions? 

The consequences of naiveté are significant and varied: 

  • Job loss or stagnation
  • Neither promotion nor lateral movement
  • Questionable work assignments and/or work load
  • Business decline or shuttering, if you’re an entrepreneur
  • Personal brand damage by your detractors 

Your career is a precious asset that you invest in everyday. It’s important that you protect it just as you would your hard earned dollars. 

You’re not alone 

Everyone gets burned along the way, some worse than others. When I started out in the race horse breeding business, the veterans could smell my naiveté a mile away. Bloodstock agents, trainers, jockeys, and even buyers found a way to cheat me, but only once. 

As an equine art gallery owner, the artists I represented told me about how they’d been cheated by dealers who stole both their artwork and their commissions. I taught them how to protect themselves by the way I worked with them. 

When I was a corporate manager, I got stung by colleagues who would try to sabotage my projects, scoop an announcement, undercut my influence, and off-load their accountabilities on me. 

Experience turns naiveté into savvy, but only if we figure out how to put it to work in constructive ways. The best thing we can do for ourselves, our careers, and our employers is to work smart on every level. That’s what it means to be business fit, dressed in a well-fitting shirt! 

Photo from h.koppdelaney via Flickr

10 thoughts on “Losing Your Shirt and Other Consequences of Career Naiveté

  1. Dawn,

    You’re so right, ‘everyone gets burned along the way …’ The word, ‘naivete’ squarely defines the reason for our being burned (sometimes, even, scorched!) as we move through life and work.

    Your bulleted points defining what assurances by your boss ‘not to follow’ as well as how to determine if you’re being naive have me nodding my head, vigorously.

    Fresh out of college, I carried my naivete straight into the workplace. Now, a few (many) years later, I am thankful for experience, and for my ability to ‘learn’ from that experience to move forward in my career / business versus languishing.

    As usual, between-the-eyes advice from a savvy business strategist.

    Thank you!


    • Jacqui,

      Great points! Getting burned is like a right of passage. It’s one way we learn vital lessons. Of course, the trick is to gradually learn how to avoid the flames and move from scorching into periodic singeing, and then to nibble feet that avoid the hot spots. For those of us providing advisory services, these experiences help us to show others what to watch for and/or how to turn negative experiences into importance lessons learned. I think it helps add credibility to what advice we might offer.

      Thanks for all these great affirmations, Jacqui. It’s great to know you’re also in this club with me. Your comments always give me a big lift!

      Gratefully, ~Dawn

  2. Hi Dawn,

    A very thoughtful post…AND…a word of caution:
    When your focus on workplace paranoia and political gamesmanship begins outweigh your passion for what you do, then it’s time to move on. You can learn important survival skills while you staty, but also lose the forest for the trees, getting so focused on not making mistakes that you lose sight of what gets you out of bed in the morning each day.

    That said, if you know you are walking into a den of lions, at least figure out how to protect yourself while you are there. A mentor inside the organization or outside (or one of each), can be of tremendous help. And when you have access to that person, focus less on venting and more on inquiring about choices you may not recognize, actions that may ease the situation at hand, and seeing things from a perspective you may not easily be able to imagine on your own.

    Dawn, I love your comment toward the end of the post, “Experience turns naiveté into savvy, but only if we figure out how to put it to work in constructive ways.” What a great insight!


    • Hi! Marc

      Yes, this was a cautionary tale. Thanks for adding these important insights, particularly the need to balance prudent wariness with essential enthusiasm for the work we commit too. I’ve always loved the notion of “navigating” circumstances at work, taking into account the way relationships, positioning, and decision-making affect our ability to work successfully. When we go out for an evening of sailing, we’re cautious about rocks and sandbars but not so obsessively worried about them that we can’t enjoy the experience.

      I love your suggestion about an internal mentor. That’s precisely the person who can help us interpret things around us and teach us what to watch out for. Great advice on how to use a mentor: “focus less on venting and more on inquiring about choices you may not recognize, actions that may ease the situation at hand, and seeing things from a perspective you may not easily be able to imagine on your own.” Beautifully said!

      Thanks, Dawn

  3. Dawn,
    I found this to be a depressing post. I don’t want to lose my shirt but I hate to think about: people sabotaging your/my projects, people taking advantage of naivete and inexperience, art and commissions stolen.

    YOur advice is important, I know I’ve been burned trusting people but that’s still the side of the fence I want to fall on. Cherry

    • Cherry,

      Goodness, I didn’t intend to depress but to enlighten. I certainly don’t suggest that we don’t trust trustworthy people. Early on in our careers, when we really don’t know how organizations function, we can be naive about the intentions and motivations of SOME people. As we become more veteran, we also become more savvy, increasing our ability to know who to align with,making fewer mistakes. After a time, that intuitive sense becomes so much a part of our choice-making, that we simply count on it, and rightly so. I suspect you enjoy that very state! Thanks for commenting, ~Dawn

  4. hi Dawn – an interesting topic. Moving from naïveté to sophistication and awareness of what people are really capable of. I was extremely naïve when I graduated from college. I was so taken by surprise when all of those things you mentioned such as being undermined, being undercut, being underpaid, being sabotaged actually happened. I was so unprepared for this. I grew up in a working-class home. My mother stayed at home my father had his own small construction business. And I was very sheltered. My father dealt with people who didn’t want to pay him or tried to underpay him. Or tried to cheat him in some way. But I was very removed from that. Now I own my own business. I have to say I have a great partner and a really good landlord. It isn’t so easy dealing with the general public. But I’ve learned a lot in the past three years and it is much easier for me to have money conversations now. I also read that book you recommended about knowing your value and that gave me a big boost.
    I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. LOL thanks, Kathy

    • Kathy, it’s so special that you’ve shared your personal experiences here. So often we see the front people put on about a level of savvy that they want us to believe they have when they are still learning through the school of hard knocks. I love the expression: If owning your own business and being successful were so easy, everyone would be doing it. The business world is populated with all kinds of people and value systems. We can’t assume that everyone operates the way we do. Being naive is okay if we understand that we have to replace it with experienced know-how. This is a great comment, Kathy. Dorothy was pretty naive too! ~Dawn

  5. Still a very naive professional (99% of my naivete is not knowing the real-world implications of how business works), I have observed that when people for whome my good performance is in their best interest don’t realize I’m naive, they associate my mistakes and weird questions with poor performance or lack of inteligence, failing to respond with the feedback and dialogue helpful for optimal learning; but when they consciously think of me as naive, they don’t seem to mind answering weird questions or filling me in without judgement when I clearly seem to be missing something, enabeling a much steeper learning curve and preventing and discontinuing mistakes. (I am by the way, savvy enough to watch constantly to verify the second observation is not a misperception.) Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be advantageous for boss or colleagues to be aware of our weakness or vulnerability, mut might this be an exception?

    • Maris, you’re so right that naivete can work both for and against us depending on the situation and the people involved in it. That’s why, as you suggest, we need to continuously assess and reassess the dynamics around us and our place in them. Today, more than ever, everything moves at warp speed and people make judgments about us on the basis of very little information. Perceptions seem to rule. It’s up to us to figure out how to align and take charge of the perceptions we leave behind. It’s not easy, but it’s what positions us for success as we define it. Great comment…thanks, ~Dawn

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