Reader: I joined a new organization about eight months ago. A few months in, I was approached about a department head position. I applied for it because I have prior management experience. Long story short, I was selected as the new department head and will officially start the new role in about two months.

Colleagues in my department have all congratulated me on the promotion. But someone not in my department came up to me and said: “My condolences!” When I looked at them quizzically, the person explained that my department is dysfunctional and nobody else wanted the job. I replied that I have prior management experience and expressed confidence about taking on the new role. The person went on to say that I am probably not getting paid much extra and that they assume that I am only taking this position to set myself up for other opportunities down the road.

I was speechless. This is a person I hardly know or interact with. Why the disrespect? How should I handle this situation?

Karla: You probably feel like the star of a suspense movie who moves to a new town and finds a gorgeous old mansion for a bargain price, only to have the local wild-eyed crank inform you that it’s cursed. Is this a ploy by someone who wanted the property but got outbid, or would you do well to heed the warning and vacate before blood starts seeping through the walls?

The good news is, you have two months before your move-in date to investigate. So get to it.

I would start by asking the crank for a coffee chat to find out more. “Can you tell me more about what I should be on the lookout for? What are some examples of dysfunction you’ve seen? What do you think is causing it? Do you know which people are good resources if I need guidance?”

Practical answers to these questions would be great, but you should mostly be listening for clues about why this person who hardly knows you would feel the need to drop a black fly in your celebratory chardonnay.

If they’re just a dirt farmer who enjoys stirring up [shenanigans], you will figure it out pretty quickly; their anecdotes will be either based on hearsay or focused on personal wrongs committed against them, offering little in the way of specific, useful tips for you. In that case, their disrespect isn’t aimed at you personally — aside from the insulting insinuation that you got the job only because no one else wanted it. Just assume that whatever they do, they do for their own reasons, not to help out the new kid.

That doesn’t mean they’re lying or wrong about the hazards of your new venture. Even bad intel, seasoned with a liberal pinch of salt, has its usefulness as background information.

And if this person does provide plausible examples and helpful suggestions, you should weigh their value against what you learn from speaking with actual denizens of your (allegedly) dysfunctional department.

What do they see as the challenging parts of the job, and where do they recommend you turn if you run up against those challenges? Who held that position before, and why did they leave? What kinds of skills or traits will be helpful in this position — patience? A firm hand? Organization? Flexibility? Obsessive documentation?

Keep in mind that even the people who support you will offer at best a partial perspective of the bigger picture. But the more people you consult — and the less invested you let yourself become in any one person’s story — the more accurate your expectations will be when you take the leap.

Incidentally, confidence is important, but be wary of complacency. Your prior management experience, while valuable, may not align with your current situation. You also need the humility to acknowledge what you don’t know and the flexibility to at least consider other solutions.

Don’t be so bound to how things “should” work that you overlook what’s actually effective in this particular workplace. Your fresh perspective might be the key to breaking out of dysfunctional cycles — but you have a better chance of getting people to respect that fresh perspective when you understand how the status quo came to be.

And if you approach this new opportunity with a realistic vision, you will be less invested in the sunk costs if it turns out to be dysfunctional beyond repair.

All that said: Congratulations on landing the promotion. Your mysterious naysayer is right about one thing: Regardless of the outcome, this opportunity will leave you wiser and better prepared for bigger things. And while I’m sure you would rather have a success story to add to your résumé, even horror stories can show others what you’re really made of.

Reader Query: Have you ever had a manager who was a nice, likable person — and therefore a lousy manager? Let me know at karla.miller@washpost.com



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