I had a long conversation yesterday about the things I wish I knew straight out of graduate school with a friend who was struggling communicating with his boss. He was caught up in needing to be right and feeling criticized in a way he perceived as unfair. After our talk, I was struck by how much really good advice I had on this subject and decided a blog entry might be in order.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a great boss, but there will always be someone in your work environment with whom you will have challenges (boss, co-worker, direct report, that guy who slurps his soup in the lunchroom). Learning how to deal with challenging relationships is a key skill to having a happy and productive work life. These skills are rarely taught in graduate school (quite the contrary, actually, sometimes I think you survive graduate school by downplaying these skills)! Here, I present bullet points of advice that I thought might be useful, and I have to give credit for several to Mike Flatbush, sage and mentor.
1. School and work are different. As an undergraduate, you get both regular feedback in the form of grades and almost constant turnover in your environment when you change classes, instructors, or even departments. In grad school and work, you are with the same cohort for years. In grad school, no one really cares whether you get along with others as long as you perform. At work, everyone cares. It will serve you to also care.
2. When you feel emotional, wait it out. Do not judge yourself and do not judge others. I heard somewhere that emotions can only last up to 45 minutes (sounds like a wonky stat, but I like it so I stipulate to its truth). There are few reasons to send that email, have that conversation, or make that phone call that cannot wait for 45 minutes. Just wait. I have even implemented a 30-minute pause before emails go out on my server to give me a chance to change my mind!
3. 80% of the time people are just looking for approval. Often behaviors that come across as annoying are just attempts to gain approval or be seen as “right.” If you can authentically acknowledge someone’s value early and often (really needs to be authentic!), you can get right into the real discussion and get things done. Remember that it is human nature to want to be acknowledged with more money, more authority, a better title, more control, more influence, more respect. All are formal methods of acknowledgement. Informal methods (like verbal acknowledgement) can also be powerful motivators. Remember this and you will work better with others.
4. People will test you. These tests are usually unfair. When you first start out on a project team, others on that team will want to know if you are enough like them to want to work with you. If you know this up front, you can navigate the testing waters to give someone enough time to really get to know (and hopefully work well with you).
5. Act as though it is your company. The standard for your work actions should always be what is best for the company, not necessarily what is best for you. If what is best for you is in conflict with what is best for the company, think about what aspects of your job you may need to change (or change jobs).
6. Always look at making things better. Hourly employees add value to materials and salaried employees add value to process (another Mike-ism). Be solution-driven when you find unsavory aspects of the current process and come up with a suggested solution. Before presenting your solution, ask first to make sure that it is truly a problem and assume that you do not have the full story when you bring it to someone else’s attention. After you present a possible solution, know that your way may not be the way that the solution is implemented, but often your suggested solution will help others understand the problem better and make change more quickly than they might otherwise.
7. Learn Project Management (aka “cross-functional” management). Do this BEFORE you have direct reports. It will teach you how to have influence in the absence of true power. It will serve you.
8. Manage yourself and your boss. Your boss is an employee and what you do to make him/her more effective will make you more effective. If you are unhappy over the long term, maybe you need to consider something different. You do not do your professional reputation any favors by staying in a job you hate. Few people pull this off (staying in a role longer than they should have) without others noticing it and judging your performance as a result. In that situation either change your attitude to gratitude or change your job.
9. Business is business. Emotions are emotions. Everyone has emotions, but not everyone confuses their emotional reactions with what is best for the company. Learn how to tell them apart. Refer to number 2 above.
10. Promotions occur after you deserve them. Promoting someone who does not already demonstrate the necessarily job skills is a risk few managers will make. When you are ready to approach your manager about a promotion, approach it not from a place of “entitlement,” but from a place of looking for the next opportunity. Try “I have established this skill set and I would like to formalize it so that I can continue my professional growth.”
Hope that those are helpful. I look forward to your feedback.