When I was leading Leadership Development for OppenheimerFunds I told my boss, the head of HR, that one of my career goals was to be an HR generalist. He said, in his lovely British accent, “Shari, you’re very good at what you do, and you would be a terrible generalist. You will never be a generalist here.” At the next company, I also told the head of HR that one of my career goals was to be an HR generalist, and he too said, “You would be a terrible generalist. You won’t have that role here.” I could have left that company and chased my desire to be a generalist, or I could have listened to people who saw something I didn’t. I listened.
Sometimes others can see things we can’t and it makes sense to listen. That’s actually my definition of a coach – someone who can see things that we can’t, and they’re willing to tell us.
If you’re serious about achieving your career goals, consider these six practices:
- Identify what you want to do.
- Share your career goals with people who can help you achieve them.
- Ask people you trust and those in a position to help you achieve your career goals what may prevent you from having what you want. Obstacles might be organizational (i.e. the job you want doesn’t exist at your company) or they might be personal (i.e. you don’t have the skills, acumen, or temperament for the job you want).
- Work to develop skills you’re missing.
- Accept things that might prevent you from getting what you want, i.e. I don’t have the temperament to be an effective HR generalist, and I never will.
- Decide when to stop pursuing a goal. Make peace with that decision. And move on to something equally, if not, more compelling.
Most of us were raised to believe that quitting is taking the easy way out and that to quit is bad. I don’t know about that. Sometimes you have to listen to the feedback the world gives you and act accordingly.
Frustrated by a control freak, micromanager, or a high-need-to-know type? Controlling behavior stems from a need that isn’t being met. Identify the need, meet it, and your life gets easier.
This is similar to what sales people learn during good sales training. The customer wants to buy the car but doesn’t. She visits the dealership three times, but just can’t pull the trigger. She has some sort of a concern. If the sales person can identify the concern, he can possibly resolve it, and sell the car. Working with control freaks is the same.
If someone wants more updates, information, or involvement than you’re comfortable with, he has a need that isn’t being met. When you meet the need, the person will likely back off.
I ask the people who work for me to never make me ask for something twice. Meaning, if I ask for an update the week before a speaking engagement, anticipate that I’ll want that information for all engagements. Confirm by asking me and then provide the data without being asked for all future engagements. Getting the information regularly without having to ask builds trust and credibility.
Here are six tips for working with control freaks:
- If you don’t know, ask:
- Their work-related goals.
- What the person is concerned about at work.
- How s/he likes to communicate – in-person, email, phone, voicemail, or text.
- How often s/he wants information, in what format, and with how much detail.
2. Provide more information than you think you need to, and then ensure the person wants that information in the future.
3. If you’re asked for information, ask why the person wants it, and if s/he wants it in the future. Then provide the information before you’re asked.
4. If someone is overly involved in your work and you feel you have no freedom, state your observation and ask for information. That could sound like, “You’ve been involved with each major decision with this project. I’m used to working with less oversight. Do you have a concern about my approach?” Then you negotiate. Everything is a negotiation.
5. This will put the other person on the defensive. A less confrontational approach is to discuss and agree upon levels of involvement and supervision when projects begin. That could sound something like, “What kind of involvement do you want to have in this project? What do you want to do? What do you want me to do? What kind of updates would you like, how often, and with how much detail?” It’s always easier to prevent a problem than to fix one.
6. Lastly, don’t take anything personally. Oversight and involvement may be a reflection of how someone feels about your performance, but it might not. When in doubt, ask.
Regardless of who your company’s org chart says you should work with, people work with the people they want to work with and around those they don’t. One way to get people working with you (by choice) is to get to know your coworkers better, and I don’t mean personally.
Most people don’t know the people they work with very well. Coworkers often don’t know what fellow team members are tasked with doing for the company, their past work experience, education, or working style preferences. They often don’t know how fellow team members like to receive information, but get annoyed when they don’t return unopened emails.
If you’ve had any team building training with me, you know I advocate getting to know people better by asking more questions.
Organizations spend a lot of money on team building. Teams go bowling, out to happy hour, and have pot luck lunches, etc. All of those activities are fun and build comradery, and that’s important. But comradery and enjoying spending time together outside of work won’t help a team learn to communicate or overcome challenges.
If you’re really committed to team building and working well with people, ask more questions at the onset and throughout working relationships.
Here are five team building questions coworkers should be asking each other:
- What are your pet peeves? How would I frustrate you and not even know it?
- Are you a big picture or detail oriented person? Should I send you information in bullets or paragraphs?
- What are you best at doing? What type of work could you be doing that you’re not doing now?
- What are you working on now? What are your priorities for the next six months?
- What’s something I could do differently that would make your job easier? (You will survive the answer. I promise)
Your manager may coordinate an activity that gives your team the ability to ask questions like this, and s/he might not. Either way, ask the questions and be forthcoming if others ask you for this information. It’s not just your manager’s job to get your team working well together.
Your daily experience at work – how much you get done, how easily you get that work done, and how much fun you have along the way – is largely dependent on the people you work with. Don’t leave your working relationships to chance. Be assertive. Get to know people better. Ask more questions and offer information about yourself.
Most training programs about giving feedback focus on negative feedback, because giving negative feedback is hard and makes us uncomfortable. But most people aren’t any better at giving positive feedback.
Most of the positive feedback people get at work really isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, fluffy, and unhelpful. Aka, Cap’n Crunch – sweet but useless.
“Great job.” “You’re awesome.” “You’re great to work with.” None of this qualifies as real feedback.
The purpose of positive feedback is to make people feel valued and appreciated and to get them to replicate a behavior. Telling someone, “great job” or “you’re doing great work” will make the person feel good (momentarily), but won’t tell her what to replicate. These phrases are vague, and vague positive comments come across as inauthentic at best and unhelpful at worst.
Here are a few examples of what I refer to as real vs. fake feedback:
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “Great job.”
Real feedback: “You researched three vendors when making a proposal of who we should choose to manage our payroll operations. You included all the necessary information for us to make a decision and presented the information in a one-page table that was easy to read. Your work made it really easy to make a decision. Great job!”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re really reliable.”
Real feedback: “I know that whatever I give you to do will get done the first time I ask and will be accurate. I don’t have to ask again or check your work. You check your work for typos and mistakes before submitting it.”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You make my job easy.”
Real feedback: “Last week you noticed an invoice that didn’t seem accurate. You researched the invoice and got the mistake corrected before I even knew there was a problem. You make my job easy.”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re awesome.”
Real feedback: “You always do what’s right for the company. Last week you called a vendor whose service has been spotty. You provided them with feedback and asked for their plan to improve their service levels. This added a lot of value to our organization.”
The guidelines for giving positive feedback are the same as giving negative feedback:
- Be specific.
- Give an example.
- Give feedback close to the time an event happens.
To give specific and meaningful positive comments, you will have to observe performance, and that takes time. But if you want someone to replicate a behavior, tell the person specifically what she did well.
People are not us; they do things their way, not ours. This is so obvious. Yet violated expectations are consistently a source of lots of frustration and upset, both personally and professionally. “How could you not check your work before submitting information to a client?” “What do you mean you didn’t call that person back?” “You said what?!”
The most frequent request we get at Candid Culture is for feedback training. The call usually goes something like this, “The communication isn’t great at our company. Managers don’t give a lot of feedback. People don’t talk directly to each other when there are problems, they talk about each other. Can you help?”
Sure, we can help. But once we’re having this conversation people are already frustrated. Trust has been violated and relationships and reputations have been damaged. Instead of waiting for problems to occur, expect the unexpected. Set clear expectations before people don’t proofread reports, miss deadlines, and do other things you wouldn’t dream of doing.
How to avoid violated (often unstated) expectations? Ask more questions.
Here are five questions you should ask every person you work with to set expectations. And if you do, your workplace will have fewer frustrations and violated expectations:
- What’s most important that you’re working on right now? What are your goals this quarter?
- What are we both working on that we can work on together? Or what should one of us stop working on?
- How do you like to communicate? Phone, in-person, by appointment or drop by’s.
- How do you like to receive information – email, voicemail, text message or instant messenger?
- If I need information from you and I haven’t heard back from you, what should I do, and is it ok to do that?
- What are your pet peeves at work? How will I annoy you and not even know it?
- How do you like to be interrupted? (You’re going to be interrupted. You might as well have a preference.)
I know. That was seven questions, not five. I could keep going. But this is a good start.
Here’s the philosophy and practice: People aren’t you. Anticipate challenges, breakdowns, and violated expectations, and talk about them before they happen. Make requests. Ask questions.
It’s always easier to ask for what you want than to give feedback.
Most of us aren’t eager to admit when we don’t know something, need help, or make a mistake. We fear these things will damage our reputation and make us appear less than to others. But neither are true. It takes strength and self confidence to admit mistakes, accept feedback, and ask for help. Strong, self confident people do all of these things.
When someone who works for me is willing to admit mistakes, I think more of them. When employees ask for help rather than spin their wheels unnecessarily, I’m appreciative. When they’re open to feedback, I’m grateful they’re easy to work with. And the same is likely true for you.
Arrogance masquerades as self confidence. People who are arrogant come off as strong and self confident, but it’s a façade.
It may seem like your personal power and reputation will be diminished by admitting mistakes and accepting help. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes strength to say we don’t know how to do something, to embrace feedback that stings, and to admit bad choices. And strong, self confident people do all of these things, regularly.
You won’t lose credibility or damage your reputation by being humble, instead you’ll be seen as real, relatable and willing to admit a lack of perfection. And all of those things take strength that ingratiate you to others. So be yourself. Don’t pretend you’re better or more knowledgeable than you are. Authenticity goes a long way.
Lots of organizations do exit interviews after employees give notice. Exit interviews can be a source of helpful information. Employees have little to lose after they’ve quit, so they’re likely to speak candidly about their work experience. But asking for feedback after an employee has quit is a little (a lot) too late. The time to ask about an employee’s working experience is every 90 days, if not more frequently.
Employees quit. It’s a natural part of doing business. And some turnover is healthy and helpful. Surprises, however, are not helpful and are unnecessary. Turnover should rarely, if ever, be a surprise. The writing is always on the wall, if you ask the right questions and make it easy to speak freely.
Most employees are concerned about giving feedback when their input is negative. Employees at almost every company cite “a list,” and those who speak up, end up on it, and then mysteriously leave the organization. Mind you, no one has ever seen the list, but employees at all types of organizations are certain it exists.
If you want to reduce the turnover in your organization and increase employee engagement and satisfaction, ask for feedback regularly, and make it easy to speak candidly.
Five ways to get your employees talking before they quit:
- Ask for feedback at the end of every meeting. Simply ask, “What are you enjoying about your job? What are you not enjoying?”
Or ask, “What makes your job easier? What makes your job harder?”
- Manage your responses to feedback. The easier it is to tell you the truth, the more truth you’ll get. Employees are afraid of their manager’s reactions. Resist the urge to become defensive (which is very difficult to do). Saying, “I’m sorry that was your experience. Thank you for telling me,” goes a long way. Employees will breathe a sigh of relief and are more likely to speak candidly in the future.
- Replace one satisfaction survey with roundtable discussions during which a leader or manager asks a small group of employees for feedback. Live conversations build trust and loyalty. Written surveys do not.
- Help employees who aren’t a good fit, exit the organization. Don’t wait for poor performers or employees who aren’t a good culture fit to leave. Help misplaced employees find a better match. The right employees raise performance and morale, the wrong employees destroy both.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Just because you asked for feedback, doesn’t mean you have to act on that information. Employees don’t typically expect all of their requests to be met. It’s often enough just to be able to speak and be heard.
Keep doing exit interviews, and add quarterly or monthly requests for feedback. Talk with people over the phone or in person. Ask one or two simple questions to get the other person talking. Manage your face. Smile. Say “thank you” for the feedback. And watch your employee engagement and satisfaction rise.
I recently interviewed a candidate who asked for a lot of ‘stuff’ during the interview process. He wanted compensation, perks, accommodations, and benefits that were way outside the norm. I’m assuming he was employing the adage we’ve all heard, that “it can’t hurt to ask.” Unfortunately, it can hurt to ask.
When forging new relationships, we watch (judge) people. We’re trying to figure out who they are and how they are. Are they the person they claimed to be during the interview process? Are they trustworthy? Did I make the right decision in bringing this person into my team, organization, and life?
Requests always make an impression. When we’re building new relationships, requests make an even bigger impression. Candidates who said the commute wouldn’t be an issue, but complain about it two weeks into the job, cause managers to doubt their hiring decision. Coworkers who consistently ask for extensions to deadlines, appear unreliable.
People watch us and silently judge, making assessments about our commitment, reliability and even character. Don’t make people question you. Make reasonable asks.
Five ways to make reasonable requests:
- Vet your requests with people who know your company, manager, and/or industry, before making them. What is a reasonable request in one organization, might not be in another.
- If something is important to you, ask for it during the interview process or at the onset of new projects and relationships. Don’t wait. Waiting to ask for things, until after you’ve started a job and are comfortable with your manager, can damage your relationships and reputation. Managers don’t like bait and switch, even when it’s unintended.
- Don’t ask again, once you’ve received an emphatic “no.” I worked with someone who asked for something during the interview process. I said “no” and explained why. He asked again after being hired. This annoyed me and made me feel like he didn’t listen and would push me on this and on other things.
- If you aren’t sure that what you’re asking for is reasonable, say so. Tell the person you’re asking what you want and to please tell you if it isn’t a reasonable request.
- Ask for feedback on your requests. If you’ve seen me speak, you know I’m a proponent of telling people, “If I do anything that damages our working relationship or makes you question me, I hope you’ll tell me. I promise I’ll take your feedback graciously, and say “thank you.””
Ask for what you want, within reason, be up front when relationships begin, and build your relationships rather than break them.
It can’t hurt to ask, right? Wrong. Requests make an impression. Make reasonable asks. Repair a relationship, when you’ve asked for too much.
When I was pregnant, I worried that I would gain sixty pounds and never take the weight off. Well, that’s not what happened. I gained 18 pounds (amazing) and most of it was gone when Grayson was a week old. Six months later, I was fourteen pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight. I couldn’t explain it. It certainly isn’t a result of eating well or exercising, because I did neither. But it left me with a problem that impacted my professional image. None of my clothing fit. This was a good problem to have, but nonetheless, it was a problem.
Until I made some changes to my wardrobe, I went to events in my ‘old clothes’ and hoped no one would notice. And they might not have. For all I know, I was the only person who knew I was wearing ill-fitting clothing. But more important than what others saw, is how I felt. I felt unprofessional, unpolished and silly. Aka, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t trust my appearance and it had me doubt myself.
We feel more confident and do better work when we feel good in what we’re wearing and know we look good.
Here are four things you can do to elevate your professional image:
Elevate your professional image tip #1: Take photos of yourself wearing your ‘go to’ outfits. Look at the photos and assess how you look in your favorite clothing. I’m often dismayed at how I ‘really look’ in my favorite pieces of clothing. Then start taking photos of how you look in pieces of clothing before you buy them.
Elevate your professional image tip #2: Ask a friend whose judgment you trust to weigh in on your clothing. Specifically ask, “What’s the first impression I make in this outfit? Where should I wear this? Where shouldn’t I wear it?”
Elevate your professional image tip #3: Get a good haircut. You get what you pay for. Utilize the same practice as above. Ask a friend who always looks great to share the first impression your hair makes. Then make friends with your blow dryer. This might be the part of the blog when men check out. Stay with me. This applies to you too.
Elevate your professional image tip #4: Try on old items in your closet and get rid of everything that doesn’t pass the photo and friend evaluations. If you can’t bear to get rid of things you love, box them up so you won’t wear them. I admit, this is a painful process.
You’ll present yourself more confidently when you have confidence in your appearance.
Note, these suggestions only apply when you’re in front of other people. If you work from home and don’t see anyone during the day but your dog and the occasional neighbor, bring on the spandex or the jammies. There is a school of thought that says you’ll do better work, even at home, if you’re professionally dressed. This isn’t true for me. I do better work when I’m comfortable. So now you know what I’m wearing when you call me. Aren’t you glad we don’t Skype!
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is hire someone to care for my almost two year old son. “Here is the person most important to me in the world. Keep him alive.” I had no idea how difficult it would be to trust a relative stranger so implicitly. And as a result, let’s just say I’ve not been the easiest for a nanny to work with.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wrote sixteen-pages of instructions of how to take care of my kid. And I gave that ‘booklet’ to a nanny with much more childcare experience than I have. When I work from home and hear my son crying, I tell myself not to walk into the room and check on him, knowing it undermines the nanny, but I do it anyway. When the nanny sends me an update of when my son last ate, I reply telling her when he should eat again, even though I know she knows. Yes, I’ve really been doing these things.
Each time I over instruct, monitor, and advise, I regret it. I know micromanaging the nanny makes me difficult to work with, which is not how I want to be. It reminds me of a comment an old boss said to me after we interviewed a candidate for a job together. He said, “Shari, your job as the interviewer is to make the candidate feel comfortable and ensure she leaves feeling good, regardless of how well or poorly she interviewed.” My face must have said anything but, “I want you to feel comfortable and you’re doing a great job.” His words stuck with me and I’m reminded of them each time I over manage our nanny.
Many people attend training on how to manage others; I’d suggest we also look at how we manage ourselves. How does working with you make people feel? Do your questions, requests, and interactions make people feel more self-confident and valued or do people feel questioned and undermined? Do you pick your battles? Do you give just enough direction but not so much as to squelch the other person’s ideas, initiative and spirit, especially when the stakes are high?
As you know, I’m evaluating how I do these things too. We are always a work in progress.
Here are four ways to build confidence in the people you work with:
Build Confidence 1: Ask people for their ideas and implement those ideas whenever possible. And if you aren’t open to others’ ideas, don’t ask for them. It’s better not to ask for ideas than to ask when you’re really not interested.
Build Confidence 2: Ask for and be open to others’ feedback. People will be more receptive to your feedback when you’re receptive to theirs.
Build Confidence 3: Say “thank you” regularly and mean it. Give specific examples about what you’re thankful for.
Build Confidence 4: Admit when you’re wrong. Strong people admit mistakes, weak people don’t.
People can work with you, around you, and against you. Earn loyalty and respect by respecting others’ talents and knowing when to take a step back.