“Whether it’s your first co-op work term or you’ve been earning a paycheque for decades, there are certain common mistakes that should be avoided at all costs.”
The Fall 2016 edition of the University of Waterloo Magazine included a feature on workplace tips. When I first turned the page and saw the feature, I was skeptical – I can’t recall if I full-on side-eyed it, or just narrowed my eyes – because most workplace tip articles I see are complete crap (IMO).
This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised, so here’s a tip-of-the-hat to the fine folks at UW.
What follows is my commentary on the tips, based on my own experiences, plus a few bonus items that didn’t make UW’s list.
(you can find the full feature, including the tips, here)
The feature opens with: “Whether it’s your first co-op work term or you’ve been earning a paycheque for decades, there are certain common mistakes that should be avoided at all costs.”
1. Badmouthing your employer or sharing your bad days on social media posts
It amazes me how many people make this mistake! Remember that when you trash your employer, or your team, or your boss, or your project (and so on, and so forth) on social media, it’s there forever!
You can be an amazingly talented worker, but no employer with good judgment is going to hire you if a cursory social media creep turns up more than zero posts of this nature.
Just as companies consider loaded cost of labour when managing their employment finances, to account for all the things that go beyond salary, they also consider all the extra baggage that a potential employee brings to the table. Let’s call it a PITA-score.
Be smart, and don’t make your gripes public. Be smarter, and work within the organization to actually, y’know, be part of the solution.
Be smart, and don’t make your gripes public. Be smarter, and work within the organization to be part of the solution.
2. Believing you’re too smart for certain tasks
Maybe you really are smart; but you know who else is? Everyone!
It’s true that some tasks are not the most effective use of a particular person’s time or expertise, but it’s also true that you doing the task is sometimes the most effective way for the organization to get it done.
Some things just need to get done, and sometimes it’s you who needs to do them. That’s life. I’ve been working in tech for 16 years, and I’ve never once handed something off to someone because I felt I was too smart or special to work on it. Maybe I handed something off because it was truly in the organization’s best interest that I work on something else, but by-and-large I try to do the crappiest tasks myself. And I’ve done plenty of crappy tasks in that time…but I know that the task needs to get done, and I want to set an example for my team that no one is above shoveling some crap.
My advice: suck it up, and crank through it so that you can move onto other things. Bonus: see if there’s a way to speed up or automate the task – but make damn sure you get the task done and don’t spend all your time trying to avoid it.
3. Showing up late and taking long lunches
Well duh. I once had a guy on the team who rolled in at 9:30am, left at 4:30pm, and didn’t seem to make up the time on evenings or weekends. I honestly wondered if he knew we had a 40 hour work week, and that lunch and commute time didn’t count.
Note to Managers: letting something like this scenario last is a great way to ruin team morale, when everyone else is working hard.
[Note that this situation is not the same as someone who works non-standard hours but still puts in the complete time]
4. Too much “hey” and “yeah” and “yo” … and not enough “Good morning!”
I suppose this point is about professionalism in the workplace? I guess it depends upon your workplace. I work in a “hey”, “yeah”, and “yo” kind’ve place, with great colleagues I’ve known for years. Our casual interactions don’t harm our effectiveness – and of course we raise things up a bit when meeting new colleagues. I’ve also seen instances in the past where overly formal communications actually harm effectiveness by obscuring reality or by coming across as overly (and unintentionally) severe.
Let’s just say that you shouldn’t be the only “hey”, “yeah”, and “yo”, person in the office.
5. Not asking for feedback
IMO, this one’s all about balance. Ask for feedback at the right times, in the right way, and about the right things.
The right time: not when your manager or colleague is swamped or facing a deadline. Also, if you’re working on a larger project, then getting a bit of feedback early on is a great way to avoid costly and embarrassing missteps.
The right way: open the door to genuine conversation, and be clear about your intentions. For instance, “Please let me know if there’s anything I could have or should have done differently.” and “Is this what you wanted or expected?”
Framing the question/conversation like that helps the manager to frame an answer, as opposed to just, “Hi – I’d like some feedback!”, which kind’ve puts the person on the spot and is more likely to elicit a fairly useless, “Good job.”
About the right things: so, not for every single thing – pick the important projects, or the areas where you’re really trying to develop your skills and experience.
6. Failing to take initiative
Bingo! Man, it drives me nuts when people just kinda ho-hum through only those things that you’ve specifically assigned (I touch on some related themes in What makes an excellent performer?)
Go beyond! Suggest ideas, ask questions, investigate.
In my experience, folks can often be broken into two groups:
- Those who, come performance evaluation time, proudly point to one or two times during the year when they went above-and-beyond; and
- Those who, several times each and every week, go above-and-beyond…to the point that it’s just ordinary habit and they don’t really think anything of it
Which group do you think impacts the organization the most?
Caveat #1: When going above-and-beyond, make sure you get your basic stuff done, first. No manager wants to hear that you didn’t get assigned tasks X and Y done because you were pursuing unassigned task Z.
When going above-and-beyond, make sure you get your basic stuff done, first. No manager wants to hear that you didn’t get assigned tasks X and Y done because you were pursuing unassigned task Z.
Caveat #2: Choose your initiatives wisely. Years ago, I worked with a co-op student who was very eager, but hadn’t yet developed good judgment. Here’s an example that played out a few times: I’d ask him to complete a fairly straightforward task, something that should take a few hours and that would provide me with needed information before I could advance a larger project to the next step. Well, a day would pass, then two; maybe on the third day he’d provide his response/content, and it would be far beyond – and different from – what I’d asked for and actually needed. He’d put in way more work than was necessary, but because I only needed a particular chunk of information, that effort was wasted (worse still, sometimes he wouldn’t even answer the specific request…he’d answer something related, that he thought was better). Sometimes, just do what’s asked. When in doubt, seek clarification (see #9).
In How I made an impact, I told the story of a project I took on and – through hard work and more than a little luck – took to new heights. I’ll call attention to this particular quote: “I put more effort and hours into that study than had probably been consumed by all the previous years combined. Most of those hours were after-hours and on weekends, because the project itself usually didn’t take that long, so the rest of my workload hadn’t been adjusted…but I really didn’t mind; it was fun to work on, and I hadn’t really told anyone what I was doing with it, and I remained confident that I was building something special.”
When pursuing that initiative, I never let it adversely impact my normal day-to-day activities.
7. Avoiding building rapport with co-workers
Practically speaking, there are two major reasons to build rapport:
- It’ll help you (and them (and everyone, really)) to be more effective…which is better for you (and them (and everyone))
- Some day, you’ll rely on these people for references, introductions, etc.
But let’s not forget some other reasons!
- It’s way more fun to work with people you like and with whom you get along well
- There’s a good chance you’re gonna be working with folks for years, whether you plan it that way or not…so it’s pretty naive to take a short-term view
8. Not seeing how your work affects others
This one might be my favourite! To truly understand how the organization functions, you need to look beyond yourself, your team, your department, etc. to see how it all fits together.
You have all these interconnections between people, between teams, between departments, and by understanding the flow of information/deliverables, the shared responsibilities, etc. you gain vital insight into how to make a positive difference.
So, how do you gain this understanding? Ask questions. Talk to people. Truly seek to understand the responsibilities and activities of other people, teams, and departments. By doing so, you’ll spot opportunities and problems that no one else has seen, or that others have decided isn’t within their own job description – then you’ll be able to take the initiative to seize those opportunities and to solve those problems.
Keep two things in mind:
- Remember the old business adage 1+1=3, that’s used to express an outcome that’s more than the sum of it parts – and now extend it to entire teams and departments.
- Picture a bunch of silos – and now picture them broken. Sure, on a farm this outcome would be bad…but in business, broken silos are great.
So, how do you gain this understanding? Ask questions. Talk to people. Truly seek to understand the responsibilities and activities of other people, teams, and departments.
9. Failing to seek clarification on a task, and just plowing ahead to look busy
It’s much more effective (and much cheaper) to set the right course or to adjust course early on than to fix something later…so make sure everyone’s on the same page about what’s expected and needed.
The opposite extreme is analysis paralysis, which is also bad.
Of course, the expectation is that as you gain in experience you’ll need less specific guidance to get out of the gate. It’s a warning sign for me as a manager if someone needs very specific instruction time and time again, because it shows a lack of development, of expertise, and of judgment.
10. Believing you can drop in and make changes to long-standing processes before taking the time to learn about the bigger picture
Oh man, this one strikes a chord. A pet-peeve of mine is those business school projects that have some business students pop into an organization, interview a bunch of people, and then propose some enormous sweeping changes that’ll magically solve all the business’ problems.
As a student, I hated this type of project…because it seemed ridiculous to me that we – as relatively inexperienced professionals – could, with straight faces, come into a business and pretend to know more about it than the people actually at and running the business.
I’ve seen it happen a couple of times, firsthand, and I’ve heard about other instances; I feel like it’s a recurring point of frustration and comic relief for experienced professionals. And while this part (and, come to think of it, this whole post) might sound arrogant, I truly believe it’s simply the reality.
Every business is different.
Every business is a complex beast.
There’s no single model that’ll work in all circumstances.
The better approach is to take the time to learn about your organization (see #8), how all the parts interconnect, why things are done a certain way or not done a different way – by doing so, you’ll learn to recognize genuine opportunities for improvement (and there’ll probably be plenty).
take the time to learn about your organization (see #8), how all the parts interconnect, why things are done a certain way or not done a different way
OK, we’re done with the UW list. While typing out this post, I asked myself if I thought anything was missing? These came to mind:
- Playing it Safe: If you want to make an impact or stand out, then you need to take risks from time-to-time. Note that there’s a difference between a reckless risk an informed, considered risk. Just make sure you still always take care of the basics, that your successes outweigh your failures (because failures will happen), and that the cost of failure is reasonable.
- Being Complacent: I wrote about complacency in Of Lions, Gazelles, and Job Security.
- Not Having a Plan: A great career doesn’t happen by accident – maybe you don’t know exactly where you’re going, but you can still go about getting there. I wrote about (essentially, although not specifically) this subject in Growing your career with the adjacent possible. If you’re uncertain where to begin, then a thirst for knowledge is a good place to start.
- Complaining: There’s a biiig difference between raising a legitimate concern from time-to-time, and complaining about a world full of nothing but obstacles. The former leads to progress, while the latter is defeatist, shows immaturity, and betrays a lack of confidence. You know who else encounters obstacles all the time? Everyone. But effective people go around, over, under, or through them, or make them disappear. As a manager, I certainly see it as part of my job to break down or remove legitimate obstacles…but what I love even more than breaking down an obstacle for a team member is hearing from a team member about an obstacle that they overcome on their own.
What I love even more than breaking down an obstacle for a team member is hearing from a team member about an obstacle that they overcome on their own.