Does one of these sound familiar: You’re recently out of school, in your first few years in an office gig and trying to learn the ropes. Or, you’ve been a professional for a while–but aren’t learning or advancing as fast as you’d like.
No matter where you went to school, there are things no one teaches. We assume the best performers are on call 24/7, do what the boss says, and fit in seamlessly with team members–right? Not! Here are some things we often assume starting out in the workplace that might be hurting your career more than helping it.
1. You respond immediately to all emails.
This shows you’re on the ball, ready to act, an email machine… right? Well, yes and no. Responsiveness can be a plus, especially if you’re responsive to your boss. But if your hastily-dashed-off-response means you forgot to include an attachment, or creates an extra email–like when you respond to a request with a clarifying question–you look disorganized and can actually slow things down. A speedy response is only helpful if it’s correct and appropriate. Sometimes, it’s better to wait and think things through until you can reply with all the info requested.
2. You’re online 24/7.
Sending emails at all hours can make you seem committed. But it also gives you a false feeling of efficiency. What you’re likely overlooking as you congratulate yourself for your dedication (you ARE the job!) – your colleagues will quickly come to expect that you’re online 24/7, which results in a vicious cycle. Your boss or team may send emails requiring an overnight response simply because, hey, they assume you’ll be there. Work will expand to fit whatever time you give it. Being on call 24/7 is bad for your health and dangerous long-term–so don’t do it! If you’re in a new job, or a role in which 60-80 hour weeks are the norm, then you likely won’t be punching out at 5. But, if your job constantly takes 12 or more hours a day, it’s a good sign that there’s a better way to do it.
3. You spend your time with a core group.
It’s great to have a team with which you work and socialize. But in a larger company, it’s important to branch out. If you’re in marketing, make friends and find sponsors (more senior staff who take an interest in your career) in HR, or operations. This will expand your perspective and let you find out about new opportunities for projects, development and promotion across the firm. So get out of your comfort zone and meet new friends next time you’re in the corporate cafe or are assigned to a cross-functional project!
4. You avoid difficult people.
We learn early on to steer clear of those who give us grief. This works well on the playground–but not in the office. We all love spending time with people we get on with. But, we can learn the most from those with divergent opinions (even when they’re hard to hear) and distinct personalities. Don’t be afraid to engage with people who may seem a bit abrasive or who hold different perspectives. It’s the people who challenge us that make us better–not the ones who think exactly like we do. And, as you advance in your career, you’ll have to work with more and more kinds of people, so it’s great practice.
5. You dress like everyone else.
Ever hear the phrase dress for the job you want, not the job you have? Clothes aren’t everything. But if you’re aspiring to move up, or take a public-facing role, it’s easier for senior people to picture you there if you already look the part. It’s also a great way to set yourself apart from other contenders–the small things matter and it shows you’re committed to the details. It’s also worth trying to stand out from the masses, but do so in a way that’s appropriate for your work place. If you’re at a law firm, you’ll likely be making more conservative choices than your friend who works at a design agency.
6. You never ask for help.
Going it alone is a sign of strength… right? Sometimes it’s good to invite others’ input. This can not only provide new perspective but help others feel invested in your project. Going to individuals other than your boss is a great way to do this. If one of your colleagues has a great eye, ask her for input on your latest PowerPoint or Prezi. Most people like being asked to contribute, so long as it’s easy for them to say yes. Note: be cautious of inviting input if you don’t expect to take it! Colleagues will quickly catch on and be less inclined to weigh in next time.
7. You let perfection be the enemy of good.
The 80/20 rule says that 20% of the efforts produce 80% of the results. Know which part of your effort is the 20%, and which part of the results are the 80%! Economists call this diminishing marginal returns, which basically means that you can put lots more effort into something and get only modest benefits. Sometimes it’s better to get something done fast and well than spending three times as long to make it perfect. Understanding what, of your portfolio, can be done faster and what needs your full attention is a critical skill to mastering your job and moving up.
8. You try to be good at everything.
Guess what–everyone has weaknesses! And if you’re one of those superhuman types that’s good at nearly everything, here’s an important lesson: just because you’re able to do something doesn’t mean you should. Instead of trying to love what you’re good at, get good at what you love. Show competence at navigating tricky administrative issues and people will come to you as a fixer. If you love being a fixer, great; if you don’t want to be tagged a fixer, then be cautious about displaying those talents to the world! Instead, showcase your writing skills (because you love to write) or your people skills (because you dream of being in recruitment).
9. You live for your to-do list.
Having a to-do list is ok–if it’s a certain kind of to-do list. First, it should not just be urgent but important items. Focus on fighting fires and you’ll always be in damage control mode. Include tasks (usually project or strategy work) that won’t burn if you don’t get to them today – the paradox is, because they’re never urgent you may never get to them. And almost always, it’s those projects that will make or break your company’s, and your, success. Second, know yourself. Everyone has best times of day for writing, or mindless tasks; times when they’re focused and distracted; times when they’re patient and impatient. Schedule your to-dos to take advantage of that! If you’re most creative in the morning, do your writing or big idea work then.
10. You’re afraid to fail.
All of us like to succeed. We can get tempted to stay in a safe zone where we know we’re performing well and can do a great job. But the real wins happen when we stretch ourselves and take risks. The best managers and executives know this, and will support you in setting stretch goals and trying new things–hitting up that new market or trying a new process might be the next big break for the company (and for you)! And when you fail (which we all do from time to time), be ready to pick yourself back up. We learn more from losses than from wins, so treat each setback as a rich source of learning.
11. You don’t know your value proposition.
Know how you create value at work. It may be through helping groups of diverse people get to common ground, or writing killer proposals, or keeping morale up through tough periods of work. If you’re not sure what you bring to the table, write down the things you do better than anyone else at work. Then think about which of those contribute most to the company’s business–if you weren’t there to do those things, how would it affect the organization? This can do two very important things: 1. it helps you understand what, from a company perspective, you’re worth (very helpful when negotiating that promotion or raise), and 2. it can help you see where you fit long term and how to market yourself to a prospective employer.
12. You wait to be told what to do.
Take initiative. Companies are built on creativity and strategic thinking. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. If you’re listening to a project update in a meeting and have an idea that could help, speak up–but do pick your time. It might be best to say it then and there, or it might be better to follow up after. It depends on the culture and formality of meetings and roles.
Try some of these tips to get ‘unstuck’ at work–and maybe even give you the energy, perspective, or confidence needed to move up the ladder or take on new challenges. It’s amazing how a few changes help you see yourself and your career in a new light!
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