You will be passed over for jobs, projects, and second dates, and never know why. Being passed over isn’t necessarily a bad thing, not knowing why you were passed over is problematic. If you don’t know why you’re being passed over, how can you be prepared next time?
Organizations are political. People talk. You’ve undoubtedly already experienced this.
If you want to manage your professional reputation, one thing you must know is who talks about you and what they say. How decisions get made in organizations isn’t always obvious. There are the obvious channels of decision making, like your boss and your boss’s boss. But there are also the people who talk to your boss and boss’s boss and have an opinion about you, who you may not be aware of.
Everyone in an organization has people they trust, who they listen to and confide in. Who those trusted people are isn’t always obvious. When you’re being considered for a new position or project, the decision makers will invariably ask others for their opinion. Knowing who does and doesn’t support you in a future role is essential to managing your professional reputation and career.
I don’t want you to be nervous, paranoid, or suspicious at work. I do want you to be savvy, smart, and aware.
It’s not difficult to find out who can impact your professional reputation at work, you just need to ask the people who know. Start with your manager. Your manager likely knows and will tell you, if you ask.
To ensure you know who can impact your professional reputation, tell your manager:
“I really enjoy working here. I enjoy the people, the work and our industry. I’m committed to growing my career with this organization.”
Who in the organization should I have a good relationship with?
Who/what departments should I be working closely with?
Who impacts my professional reputation and the opportunities I have?
What skills do I have that the organization values most?
What contributions have I made that the organization values most?
What mistakes have I made from which I need to recover?
Your manager doesn’t walk around thinking about the answers to these questions. If you want thoughtful answers, set a time to meet with your manager. Tell your manager the purpose of the meeting – to get feedback on your professional reputation so you can adeptly manage your career – and send the questions in advance, giving your manager time to prepare for the meeting. You will get more thoughtful and complete answers if your manager has two weeks to think about the questions and ask others for input.
Don’t be caught off guard by a less-than-stellar professional reputation. Take control of your reputation and career. Ask more. Assume less.
I’m a big fan of taking responsibility and personal accountability. I think being accountable is easier than passing the buck. When I’m accountable, I have more power and control. When someone else is accountable, I have neither. But there’s a difference between being accountable and apologizing for yourself.
Last week I vowed to stop saying, “I’m sorry.” And yet, the next words out of my mouth were apologetic. Apologizing for oneself is so natural, it’s pervasive, aka, a hard habit to break.
Below are a few strategies for being accountable but not apologetic:
Establish clear priorities and boundaries. Having clearly established boundaries makes decision making easy.
Only commit to things you know you will do. For personal situations, only commit to things you genuinely want to do.
Tell the truth. If you don’t plan to do something, say so, without apology. “Thank you but no” has a lot of power.
Know your limits and what you need to be healthy and functioning at an optimum level. If you need eight hours of sleep, structure your life to get it. If you need weekends focused on your family, do that. Taking care of yourself enables you to take care of others.
Renegotiate when you need to. If you realize something you agreed to isn’t feasible or in your best interest, renegotiate versus suffer through it. Or, keep your commitment, but don’t agree again the next time a similar opportunity or request comes around.
Be careful where you invest your energy. I love my family and friends, and they will never get a printed party invitation or holiday card from me. I want to do both; I really do. But just thinking about collecting addresses puts me over the edge.
Give yourself a break. You’re doing the best you can. You’re a human like everyone else. We’re all doing the best we can.
Being accountable isn’t being perfect, it’s being human. Be yourself. Take care of yourself. And do your best, unapologetically.
Breakdowns happen. There will be days people won’t give you what you need to complete projects. Things will break. And you will look bad. When breakdowns happen, I always ask myself, “What could I have done to prevent this situation?” or “What did I do to help create this situation?” I see myself as accountable for whatever breakdowns occur.
It may sound odd that I always look at myself when breakdowns occur, even when it’s someone else who didn’t do their job, but it’s just easier. I can’t control anyone else. But I can control me (admittedly, some days I do a better job at this than others). When I can identify something I could have done to make a situation go differently, I feel more in control – aka better.
It’s like getting off a highway versus sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The alternate route may take longer, but at least I’m moving. I feel like I’m doing something and thus have more control. Taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is similar. When you’re accountable, you can do something to improve your situation. When someone else is accountable, you’re at the mercy of other people and have very little control.
There are, of course, exceptions to the practice that “we’re always accountable.” Terrible acts of violence, crime, and illness happen to people, about which they have no control. But in general, in our day-to-day lives, there is typically something we did to contribute to a bad situation or something we can do to improve it.
Here are five practices for improving difficult situations, even when you didn’t create the mess (alone).
1) Ask more questions. If you’re not clear about what someone is expecting from you, ask. You’re responsible for doing good work, regardless of the type of direction you receive.
2) Tell people what you think they’re expecting and how you’re planning to approach a project or task, to ensure everyone’s expectations are aligned. Clarifying expectations beats doing several weeks worth of work, only to discover what you created isn’t what someone else had it mind.
3) Ask for specific feedback as projects progress. Don’t wait until the end of a project to find out how you performed.
4) Say “thank you” to whatever feedback you receive versus defending yourself. People will be pleasantly surprised and their upset will dissipate more quickly. That could sound like, “That’s good feedback. I’m sorry that happened. Thank you for telling me.”
5) Admit when you make a mistake or when you wish you had done something differently. Don’t wait for someone to tell you. Saying, “I’m sorry. How can I make this right with you?” goes a long way.
I consistently ask the following questions:
“What could I have done differently?”
“What did I do to contribute to this situation?”
“What can I do now to make this situation better?”
I encourage you to ask these questions, even when someone else drops the ball. You can’t control others, but you can control you. And your happiness and success is your responsibility.
The normal, natural reaction to negative feedback is to become defensive, a response I’ve labeled as The Freak Out.
Everyone, even the people you think do little work, wants to be seen as good – competent, hardworking, and adding value. When anyone calls our competence into question, we get defensive. Becoming defensive is an automatic response that we have to train out of ourselves.
Until the people you work with train themselves not to become visibly defensive when receiving feedback, just expect it. And be happy when you get a defensive response. It means the person is breathing and cares enough about what you’re saying to get upset.
While you can’t get rid of a defensive response to feedback, you can reduce it by following a few feedback practices. Practice these methods of giving feedback and your input will be heard and acted on, more often than not.
Employee feedback practice one: Don’t wait. Give feedback shortly after something happens. But do wait until you’re not upset. Practice the 24-hour guideline and the one week rule. If you’re upset, wait at least 24-hours to give feedback, but not longer than a week. If the feedback recipient can’t remember the situation you’re talking about, you waited too long to give feedback, and you will appear to be someone who holds a grudge.
Employee feedback practice two: Be specific. Provide examples. If you don’t have an example, you’re not ready to give feedback.
Employee feedback practice three: Praise in public. Criticize in private. Have all negative feedback discussions privately.
Employee feedback practice four: Effective feedback discussions are a dialogue; both people talk. When the feedback recipient responds defensively, don’t be thwarted by their reaction. Listen to what they have to say and keep talking. Don’t get distracted.
Employee feedback practice five: Give small amounts of feedback at a time – one or two strengths and areas for improvement during a conversation. People cannot focus on more than one or two things at a time.
Employee feedback practice six: Give feedback on the recipient’s schedule and in their workspace, if you are working in person and the recipient has a door. It will give the other person a sense of control and they will be more receptive.
Employee feedback practice seven: Talk with people – either in person or via phone. Don’t send an email or voicemail. Email is for wimps and will only damage your relationships.
Employee feedback practice eight: Prepare. Make notes of what you plan to say and practice out loud. Articulating a message and thinking about it in your head are not the same thing.
Employee feedback practice nine: Avoid The Empathy Sandwich – positive feedback before and after negative feedback. Separate the delivery of positive and negative feedback, so your message is clear.
Employee feedback practice ten: Offer an alternative. Suggest other ways to approach challenges. If people knew another way to do something, they would do it that way.
You can deal with whatever reaction to negative feedback you get. The other person’s response might make you uncomfortable, but that’s ok. You’ll survive. Try to practice the guidelines above, and if you don’t, and you ‘do it all wrong,’ at least you said something. Just opening your mouth is half the battle. When you come from a good place of truly wanting to make a difference for the other person, and you have both the trust and permission to give feedback, you really can’t go wrong.
If you were on a diet and stepped on a scale that said, “Pretty good. Keep up the good work,” you’d return the scale, claiming it didn’t work. Likewise, if your GPS told you that it “seemed you were going the right way,” you’d probably use a different app. Scales and GPS provide us with feedback, but vague feedback is unhelpful. It doesn’t tell us what to do more, better, or differently, which is the purpose of feedback.
Vague, positive feedback is also inauthentic, and inauthenticity smells. Hearing you did a great job is nice, but utterly unhelpful because the feedback recipient doesn’t know what he did well and what to replicate. If you want people to replicate a behavior, tell them precisely what they did well that you want them to do again.
Most feedback training focuses on giving negative feedback, because it’s so hard to do, but we’re not much better at giving positive feedback. Giving useful, positive feedback takes attention, observation, and timely communication. In short, it’s difficult.
I too find myself telling my team members, “You did a great job on…” I know vague words like these serve as a short pick-me-up. My team probably smiles and appreciates the recognition, but I also know I haven’t given them substantive direction of what actions I want them to replicate. Those of you who have participated in feedback training with me know that I call vague input Cap’n Crunch – all of the sweetness, with none of the nutrients.
To give effective, positive feedback, simply state one or more specific actions you want the person to replicate.
Here are a few examples of positive feedback:
Cap’n Crunch: “You did a great job on……”
Positive feedback example one: “You did a great job onboarding our new analyst. You outlined what he needed to do during his first 90-days to be successful. He now knows precisely what he has to do and won’t have to guess.”
Cap’n Crunch: “Thanks for being so committed to our business.”
Positive feedback example two: “Thanks for calling in to today’s team meeting on a day you had off. Your participation helped us make a decision that would have taken much longer without your participation. I appreciate your commitment to our business.”
Cap’n Crunch: “Thanks for paying attention to the things that may impact us negatively in the marketplace.” This is not terrible, but not as effective as it could be.
Positive feedback example three: “Thanks for paying attention to the things that may impact us negatively in the marketplace. I appreciate you tracking the new products our competitors are launching. It helps me know where we are ahead and behind.”
Don’t assume people know what they did well and that they will replicate positive behavior without receiving positive feedback. Watch people’s actions and tell them, shortly after they do something, what they did well. And watch those positive behaviors be repeated.
Companies want people who make things happen. And to make things happen, you have to speak up. Anticipating the train wreck and commenting after the train goes off the tracks doesn’t count.
What if you said what you thought, in a way other people could hear you, when you had the right to do so? Meaning, you have the relationship with the other person to tell the truth and you’ve asked permission to be candid?
6 Courageous Steps to Advance Your Career:
Look for opportunities to make things better.
Ask for permission to take the ball and run with it.
Find a way to say no, while engaging the other person in a conversation so a new approach is generated.
Be willing to go out on a limb, work hard, and fail.
Here’s how to speak up for change without being labeled as the problem person who finds flaws in everything:
Look for and present solutions, not just problems.
Offer to do the work to move towards a better way of doing things. Don’t drop problems at other people’s doors.
Ask questions versus overtly say that something is wrong. That could sound something like, “I’d love to help. Tell me more about how this works. Maybe we can insert a step to make the process better. What do you think of trying ________?” No one likes to be told he’s wrong. Asking questions elicits participation more than overtly saying, “This is broken. We need to fix it.”
Many people are afraid to speak up at work and believe that people who speak up get fired. I haven’t found this to be the case. People who work hard and produce results are typically the last people to be let go.
Say what you think in a way that is not critical. Offer solutions not just problems. Be a force for good and take an active role in making things better. And my hunch is your career will accelerate faster than you ever thought possible.
Unless you never interact with other people, there’s probably someone in your life who repeatedly engages in a behavior that annoys you. You’ve probably made requests about what you’d like the person to do differently, and hopefully you’ve given feedback. But the behavior hasn’t changed.
At some point, we have to accept that people are who and how they are. People can and will change certain behaviors, if their motivation is high enough. But other behaviors won’t change, and if you want to have the person in your personal or professional life, you have to accept the behavior and the person as they are. Accepting frustrating behaviors can be very difficult, at least it is for me. I admit, I often have this conversation myself, “Why won’t he…? I don’t get it. It’s not that hard. How many times do I have to ask?”
Here are five strategies for working with difficult people:
Working with difficult people strategy one: Decide on the behaviors you absolutely must have from others. We want certain things. We need other things. Get clear on what you need.
Working with difficult people strategy two: Make a request and ask the person to do what you want. It’s always easier to make a request than to offer negative feedback. Be sure you are being explicitly clear in your request. For example, “Please include me in meetings” is too vague. Instead, try, “Please invite me to all client meetings so I can stay connected to the clients and projects.”
Working with difficult people strategy three: Make requests at least three times. With each successive request (nicely) remind the person that you’ve made this request in the past and it still isn’t happening. For example, “We’ve talked about this in the past. Help me understand what’s happening.”
Working with difficult people strategy four: If you’ve made a request at least three times, give feedback as to what isn’t happening and why that causes challenges. For example, “We’ve talked about inviting me to client meetings a few times. It’s still not happening. I’m getting calls from clients with questions I can’t answer because I’m not included in the meetings. Can you help me understand why I’m not being invited to meetings?” Read chapters nine through eleven and chapter thirteen of How to Say Anything to Anyone to get more examples of how to give clear and specific feedback.
Working with difficult people strategy five: Know when to give up and accept the person and behavior as they are. If you’ve made a request and have given feedback three times, you likely aren’t going to get what you want. The person either can’t do what you’re asking or doesn’t want to. Now you have a decision to make.
Decide how important the behavior is. Is it a deal breaker? If it’s not a deal breaker, stop expecting the behavior to happen and accept that it won’t. When you accept that you won’t get what you want from someone you’ll suffer less.
Strategy five is really the crux of this blog. Knowing when to stop expecting something and coming to peace with that decision will give you great freedom. In order to let go of the expectation you have to decide that it’s really ok for you not to get what you want. Ask yourself, “Can I live with this behavior as it is?” If you can’t, you have a hard decision to make. If you can, then stop expecting and asking for the behavior. You’ll feel better.
I recently realized that when I recommend someone for a job, first I mention the person’s competence, second I mention how easy they are to work with.
I want smart, competent, and committed people on my team. I also want people who are easy to work with. People who take everything personally, get defensive when receiving even the slightest amount of feedback, and accuse first and ask questions later, are difficult to work with. These behaviors are exhausting. Working in our current environment is hard enough, working with people who make work harder because they’re difficult to work with is unnecessary and avoidable.
There are a few behaviors that make people difficult to work with. Avoid these blunders and accelerate your career.
Five tips to be easy to work with:
How to be easy to work with tip 1: Don’t take things personally. Human beings are wired for survival. Most people are so worried about themselves – looking good and doing well – they’re not all that worried about you. When you get overlooked for a project or a meeting, rather than feeling slighted, ask what happened that you weren’t included. Or just be grateful you have one fewer meeting to attend.
How to be easy to work with tip 2: Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Most people are genuinely trying to do the right thing. If you question someone’s motives or actions, ask a question before making a decision about that person.
I like the question, “Help me understand…?” It’s neutral and invites the other person to speak. If you choose to ask this question, watch your tone of voice. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you have a tone issue.
How to be easy to work with tip 3: Don’t hold a grudge. When an event is over, it’s over. Set expectations for how you want people to interact next time and then let your upset go. Let people recover from mistakes and miscommunication.
How to be easy to work with tip 4: Temper your emotions at work. You’re human and human beings have feelings. But sometimes our feelings can be off putting to others. Most people are uncomfortable when managers and coworkers yell, cry, or give the silent treatment. Wait to have conversations until you’re not upset. And if you can’t manage your emotions during a conversation, excuse yourself until you can.
How to be easy to work with tip 5: Be introspective and self-aware. The better you know yourself and how you impact others, the more you can work with others how they like to work. Periodically ask people you trust for feedback on the impression you make and what you’re like to work with. Listen to their feedback and adjust your communication habits to be easier to work with.
The bottom line – positive work performance isn’t just about producing results, it’s also how we get those results. Are we easy to work with or do we make work harder than it has to be? I want to be someone and want to work with people who make work easier, not harder.
Think about all the people and situations that frustrate you. Now consider what you’re asking for. My hunch is, you’re getting what you ask for.
While most of us aren’t great at telling people when they violate our expectations, we’re not any better at asking for what we want. You might be afraid of appearing demanding or may not feel you have the right to make requests. When you tell people what you expect, you make their lives easier. Think about when someone invites you to their house for a socially-distanced, backyard barbeque. If you have any manners (and I’m sure you do), you ask what you can bring. When the other person says nothing, it makes your job (to be a good guest) harder. Now you have to guess what the other person wants. It would be so much easier if he would just tell you. This also applies to birthday gifts and where to meet for lunch. When people tell you what they want as a gift and where they want to eat, you don’t have to guess and they are easier to please.
It’s much easier to live and work with people when we know what they expect from us. And setting expectations is always easier than giving negative feedback. Negative feedback implies someone did something wrong. And no one likes to be told he is wrong. Setting expectations provides a road map to success, making it easier to win with you.
Here are a few phrases to make setting expectations easier:
Setting expectations example one: Consider saying, “I need time to get settled when I start working in the morning. Will you hold all questions and requests until 10:00 am?” You’re not telling someone she barrages you with questions before you’ve opened your laptop in the morning; you’re simply asking for what you need.
Setting expectations example two: You could say, “I like to have things done well before they are due. Will you send me all input for the weekly status report by Wednesday of each week so I have a few days to review your input before I have to submit it?” You’re not telling the person that working with him requires a weekly fire drill; you’re simply making a non-judgmental request.
Setting expectations example three: You could ask, “Would it be possible to touch base once a week via phone 10 minutes before you officially login so I can get your input on projects?” You’re not telling the person she is impossible to get time with; you’re simply proposing an idea.
One of the keys to getting what you want is make requests in a neutral, non-judgmental way. The more you ask for and the more specific your requests, the easier you are to work with. What you need and want will be clear; there will be no guessing. People may choose to ignore your requests and violate your expectations, and then you’ll provide feedback. But start with making clear and specific requests, and see how many fewer feedback conversations you need to have.
When my son started pre-school, I attended new parent orientation. I had never sent my son to school and I had lots of questions. I asked my questions at the orientation; I was the only parent who asked questions. The mom sitting next to me wasn’t even sure she qualified for the program. Her child was enrolled in a parent-tot program; parents had to attend with their child and couldn’t send a caregiver. The mom worked full-time and couldn’t attend herself. Even though she wasn’t sure her child could participate in the program, she didn’t ask any questions. It was just me asking all the questions. By the end if the evening, I could feel the other parents’ eyes on me, wishing I’d shut up so they could go home and relieve their babysitter.
One of managers’ and employers’ biggest complaints is the inability to hire critical thinkers – employees who question. I hear this complaint all the time. Yet we often find the people who ask questions irritating and bothersome. “Why do they have to look for what’s wrong? Why do they have to question?”
Questioners are often seen as boat rockers, challenging the status quo. They are ‘difficult’.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t hire people who think critically, who don’t question.
I’m not talking about people who can’t make a decision and are constantly asking managers to validate their solutions or employees who use managers as google rather than doing their own research. I’m talking about squelching the counter-point-of-view.
If you want employees who identify and solve problems and create new products and ways of working, then you need to reward those who question.
One of the reasons employees may not ask questions is the fear of appearing as if they don’t know. Who likes to admit they don’t know something at work? Not knowing makes us appear less valuable, less reliable. It takes strength to admit, “I don’t know.” Managers and leaders need to model the behaviors they want to see. We need to ask our own questions visibly and regularly. We need to admit when we don’t know. We need to be willing to be wrong and to let others see it.
There is an old workplace adage, you get what you reward. Does your organization have an award for the employee who asks the most questions? If not, create one. Do you recognize employees publicly who are willing to point out inefficient processes and costly systems? Do you have a reward system in place for employees who fail trying to fix a problem or create something new? If we get what we reward, what are we rewarding?