how to be an awesome hard-ass

by Ask a Manager on March 8, 2012

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A reader writes:

In a post recently, you described yourself as “blunt, assertive, kind of a hard-ass, and not a sugar-coater,” which is awesome. This is exactly the sort of person I want to be in my professional life. The thing is, I’m only just starting out in my career and I’m currently more wide-eyed, just trying to absorb everything I can and become better overall, build my network, etc. (I’m also generally quite bubbly and personable, which I know doesn’t exactly command respect.) What can I do over the next few years to transform myself into a hard-ass-career-woman-manager-superstar?

I wasn’t like that in the beginning, believe me. When I first started working, I was shy, hesitant, convinced that everyone else knew what they were doing when I didn’t, and uncomfortable calling the older woman in the office next to me by her first name.

And frankly, that’s probably better than the alternative, because if I’d been blunt and assertive and kind of a hard-ass before I knew what I was doing, I would have been the office nightmare.

Confidence — the good kind, the kind that’s warranted — builds over time, because it’s a direct result of you gaining experience, developing your instincts, figuring out where your strengths are, learning how to get things done, and getting all that validated by seeing over time that you’re able to get the results you want.

Here’s what you can do right now, to lay the groundwork for later:

* Pay attention to how things work around you. Absorb all that you can. Pay attention even to things that don’t directly involve you — like meetings that would otherwise be boring.

* Pay attention to the people you respect and try to figure out why you respect them. When you don’t respect someone, try to figure out why that is, too.

* Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work — in your field, in people’s interpersonal styles, in your managers’ managerial styles. Notice what gets things accomplished and what doesn’t. Develop opinions about what’s effective and what isn’t effective. (But keep most of those opinions to yourself for now, and keep testing them against new information.)

* Find people who speak their minds without seeming rude, and watch how they do it.

* Volunteer for extra responsibilities. Take on things that feel like a stretch.

* Ask for feedback. Value the critical feedback the most (assuming you respect the person it’s coming from; if you don’t, the value of their feedback goes way down, sometimes to zero).

* Try really hard not to take things in the workplace personally, even when they feel personal. This will be hard to do and you might never do it perfectly. But try.

* Put a high value on having your act together: Stay on top of things, be responsive, don’t let things fall through the cracks, and do what you say you’re going to do.

* Pay attention to mistakes — yours and other people’s. Figure out where they came from and how they could be avoided. (But know that you’ll always make mistakes anyway, and some are okay.)

* Do all the stuff in this post. And what the hell, this one too.

* Do really good work. This is the most important thing of all.

Over time, what’s going to happen is that you’re going start forming your own personal philosophy about How to Be At Work. And you’re going to look around and realize that you feel pretty confident about your abilities and your judgment, and when you combine all that into one package, it is fairly powerful and the sort of thing that entitles you to feel pretty damn good about speaking up and saying what you think.

And you’ll be able to seek out employers who value that in you.

That’s basically my manifesto on how to grow into the person you want to be. If you follow it, you will be one of a fairly small minority who do, and you will stand out in a pretty noticeable way for it.

I’d love to hear advice from others too. What have I missed?

P.S. By the way, on the “bubbly and personable” thing — You don’t need to lose that to command respect. I have the voice of a child and a weird sense of humor that I don’t bother to hide, and I try to be warm and open with people, and I crack jokes that I’m often the one most amused by, and I talk like a normal person rather than being really polished. I used to always think that those things must not come across as especially professional, but what I’ve realized over time is that I don’t want to work with people who don’t like that style. (In fact, now I see most of them as selling points for the right people.)  So don’t be someone who you’re not; instead, be exactly who you are, so that you self-select for places that like who you are and where you’ll feel comfortable. This is one of the best things you can do for yourself, actually.

{ 94 comments }

fposte March 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Understand that success isn’t the same thing as always pleasing people.

Learn the value of both “Yes” and “No.”

ARM2008 March 8, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Expanding on that – become your own person and be willing to stand on your own and not have everybody like you. This does not mean that everybody should hate you! If you are worried about everybody liking you, you won’t progress much in becoming a hard-ass.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I think you covered it all. :) Your advice, as usual, is right on the money. I gained my confidence by doing pretty much everything you stated above.

KayDay March 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Don’t be afraid to politely but firmly ask for what you need when you need it, even if it means “bugging” a more senior person. E.g.” hey ‘boss,’ have you had a chance to look over the draft I sent you; I need it by tomorrow morning.” or “Dear ‘Dr. Super Expert in Your Field’ and ‘assistant’, Could you please return the signed contract as promised.”

(That said, don’t drive them crazy by constantly doing this; but do “remind” or “follow up” with them when warranted.)

Michael C. March 8, 2012 at 1:47 pm

This is excellent. Thank you. With more experience, I hope to resemble you in a lot of ways, AAM!

Alison March 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm

I’m going to print this out and tape it to my fridge!

Sally Go Lightly March 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Love this! I would add, which goes along with Alison’s third point: pick your battles. You may have ideas about better ways of doing things, but you need to figure out when it’s appropriate to make those suggestions, where, and to whom. There may be internal politics in play that you don’t know about, or you may just come off as a know-it-all, trying to tell someone else how to do their job, or saying they aren’t good at their job, even if your intentions are good. As Alison said, observe the dynamics before plunging in.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm

And to build upon that, it’s not always possible to be on top of everything. You can be very assertive about some or most things, but when you’re not sure of something, be “assertively unsure” – don’t hedge or fake it. As in saying things like “I don’t know about that – I need more time to decide and will get back to you” in a confident tone. Because sometimes that’s reality.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm

“Assertively unsure” — yes!

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Occasionally I will be asked my observations on a work process from a coworker or a superior, and if I’m not 100% confident of my answer, I’ll state where my doubts lie. After that, I say “if you are getting more observations on that subject, can you keep me in the loop as to what you find out?”

I find this helps build my knowledge of our business processes and reinforces my confidence if my observations are accurate. If my observations are not accurate, it builds my knowledge base so I can be more prepared the next time someone asks me a related question.

Cruella March 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Remember that there will always be someone who thinks you are a bitch because you are firm, direct, assertive, confident, etc… That is their own personal perception. Don’t let it bother you.

I chose to be a bitch anyway.

Jamie March 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm

When bitch is short for holding people accountable while doing my job it’s not an insult…more like a badge of honor.

Don’t get me wrong – it would be a mistake for someone to say it to my face at work…but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

Anon in the UK March 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm

One of my colleagues once said to me ‘You are really not a people-pleaser, are you?’

I think it was supposed to be an insult. I was just surprised he was so perceptive.

Esra March 8, 2012 at 7:58 pm

I got told I “should learn how to kiss-ass sometimes.” in a tone that was meant to be insulting.

Sometimes those ‘insults’ are more inspiring than praise.

Piper March 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm

I’ve heard something similar to that one, too. I’ve also heard that I should try to be more of a “robot than a thinker.” Yeah.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Let me go on record saying that I would be happy to work with anybody above this post *because* these things have been said to you. Please keep doing what you are doing! People like me love you for it.

Piper March 9, 2012 at 9:17 am

Can I come work for you?

Esra March 9, 2012 at 11:32 am

Haha I think you just got yourself two new employees.

Anonymous_J April 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

Make that three! :P

Charles March 9, 2012 at 9:34 am

I have been told, in annuals reviews no less, to be more of a brown-noser. And, yep, that is the language that went into my “official file.”

But, that same manager would always turn to me when he needed to make sure that the work actually got done.

The down side of his attitude was that I was passed over for a promotion; but, the up side is that my raises (and salary) were higher that the one who was promoted.

Freida March 9, 2012 at 10:23 am

haha! my friends call me “Business Frieda” whenever my work personality comes out. In my social life I’m incredibly relaxed and agreeable and ready to go with the flow and make people happy, but put me in the office and some switch gets flipped and I turn into a “blunt, assertive hard-ass” right away. It shocks people, actually, who know me one way and then see me become a different person in a different setting.

Anne March 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Every time someone calls me a “bitch,” I think of this SNL moment:
http://videosift.com/video/SNL-Tina-Fey-on-Hillary-Clinton-Bitch-Is-The-New-Black.

HR Gorilla March 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Wow! What a great post! This puts into words how I got to be corporate girl despite my hippy-dippy MA in liberal arts. I don’t get all of AAM’s advice right all the time, but I do recognize that the process she described is exactly what helped me survive and thrive despite my lack of hard business knowledge.

Jamie March 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm

“* Try really hard not to take things in the workplace personally, even when they feel personal. This will be hard to do and you might never do it perfectly. But try.”

I would pay a great deal of money if someone could teach me how to do this and have it stick.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I’ve gotten much better at not taking things personally when I remind myself that I’m not responsible for the way people react. I’m only responsible for my actions – what other people do is out of my control. Sure, I can certainly *influence* people, but not *control* them. For example, if I tell John Doe that no, I can’t process his forms RIGHT THIS INSTANT because A and B aren’t completed and he yells at me/calls me names/threatens to tell my boss, I’d let him rant away and remind myself that in the split second before he opened his mouth, he CHOSE to react in anger (I didn’t MAKE him react that way). In return, I’d remain calm, stick to the facts, and stand my ground.

I don’t know if this would help you, but it helped me to realize that it’s not necessarily ME that the person is getting pissed off at, it’s just the situation and I happen to be the person attached to the situation.

I need a more annonymous name March 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I really envy your ability to seperate their actions. I understand that intellectually…and I don’t take things personally like I think I suck if someone yells at me, but I get offended.

On the rare occasions that someone at work will raise their voice to me or swear at me – I do get offended. I’m willing to have any work related discussion – and some are unpleasant – but I’ve always been willing to discuss issues. I am, however, unwilling to be the brunt of someone else’s stress…I have enough of my own.

It’s happened where the yelling had little to do with me. It was illogical and not something for which I had authority, anyway…and even knowing that it didn’t stop me from being personally offended.

I know, the whole develop a thicker skin thing or get out of the game…I don’t seem to be able to do the former and the latter seems kind of drastic considering I have bills to pay.

Natalie March 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I think it is okay to calmly, politely-but-firmly tell someone you won’t discuss an issue with them if they are going to swear or yell at you. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “get a thicker skin” that wasn’t actually an asshole looking for a justification for continuing to be an asshole.

AAM has posted a couple of good columns about yelling that you could search for, too.

Nichole March 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Agreed on “get a thicker skin”=”I’m a jerk and don’t want to take responsibility for the fact that this makes other people unhappy.” I’ve found I’m much more thick skinned than I thought, and it just comes from realizing that whatever the other person is upset about has nothing to do with me. When someone I care about yells at me or makes a snarky comment, I turn into blubbering goo. When a person I work with or for does, I get mildly irritated because they’re impeding my ability to do my job. Once you think of it as a “them” issue (i.e., they didn’t get what they wanted and are angry) rather than a “you” issue (i.e., you are personally and maliciously impeding them from getting what they want), it’s easier to not take it personally. They may think it’s a you issue, but it’s not, and since you know that, all you have to do is figure out the most productive thing to do while you wait for them to realize it.

the anonymous that you replied to March 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Actually, you bring up a good point. I should’ve elaborated and said that there are definitely exceptions and sometimes it IS me that someone has an issue without. For these cases, I would treat them separately. But definitely for the one-offs, I would just let it slide.

I think this comes with my earlier experiences working in the hospitality industry and getting yelled at to my face by pissed off customers. I had no choice but to develop a thick skin, otherwise I would’ve had a breakdown every time I got yelled at (which was a lot… sometimes for stuff that had nothing to do with me, but people immediately see the front desk agent and decide to load off their frustration!).

Elizabeth West March 12, 2012 at 12:31 am

This is SO difficult to do for me, and for others too, I’m sure. Kudos to you for being able to do it. I had to learn it the hard way. The only way I was able to do it is to stop caring, but the entire situation was a wreck anyway.

Freida March 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

The best thing that helps me not take things personally at work is the realization that the people who DO take things personally, who blow up and get angry over every little thing, who are petty and vindictive and more concerned with making things difficult for a coworker they don’t like than actually getting the job done: they will be stuck in their jobs forever (or, worse, the first to be let go when you downsize), because these people quickly develop a reputation as being difficult to work with. If, on the other hand, you can stay calm, professional, and focused in difficult situations; take the high road when someone else tries to blame you for their mistakes; handle your mistakes honestly and learn from them, then people WILL notice, and you will be the first person they think of when promotion time comes around. And then you will be the boss of the person who can’t keep their emotions in check, and they will wish they had been nicer to you. (Of course this assumes that you work for smart and effective managers, but in the long run you don’t want to be working for a company that rewards the whiners anyway.)

When that tactic fails, in those really trying situations, I just remind myself that this is not the worst thing that has happened to me in my life, and I survived those previous crises so I’ll most likely survive this one as well. It’s a way of changing your perspective so you can reflect on how much the current problem really matters and whether it’s worth your time to care. (If someone being bitchy to you at the office IS the worst thing that happened to you, I really have no advice. I actually have a really difficult time relating to people like that. Maybe you should read this article: http://tinyurl.com/3enqv2a.)

Keli March 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Me too! But . . . . there’s no money that will pay for this. Those things are bought with hard knocks. It’s like praying for patience. Don’t do it unless you’re willing to go through the pain of learning patience! I’m glad AAM reminds us that it’s hard to do and people might never do it perfectly.

Joey March 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Realize youre never going to have all of the answers.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Realize your staff is smarter than you think.

Hire people who have a strong point of view and aren’t afraid to disagree.

Simplify the problems as much as you can

Know what your values are

Realize you’re frequently going to have to make decisions without every piece of info you want.

Know there’s more than 1 right way to manage.

At least pretend to act confident.

When you make a decision own it.

fposte March 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm

“Realize you’re frequently going to have to make decisions without every piece of info you want.”

Boy, this is definitely one I would have benefited from knowing. Excellent point.

NicoleW March 9, 2012 at 11:01 am

Agreed!

David B. March 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm

You’ve included this one by Doing rather than Telling, but don’t be a jealous guardian of knowledge. Some people are very precious about holding on to what they know as something that makes them better / more able to make decisions than those around them, while really it just slows other people down and annoys them.
Always be willing to teach and you’ll find people are always willing to help you learn :)

Jamie March 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

This!! I hate knowledge horders. Give your knowledge away to anyone and everyone who wants it. Some people act like there is a finite amount of information – talk about handcuffing potential.

A Bug! March 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm

I don’t think it’s a matter of information being finite per se; it’s a matter of being the person in control of that information to the exclusion of others who might compete with you. If you’re the only one who knows a particular process, then others need to rely on you for that process.

They know that if they teach anyone else, then they’ve lost control of the information, and they’re suddenly replaceable, which is a scary thing for a lot of people. It’s comforting to believe that the company literally can’t let you go because you’re the only person who possesses a particular piece of knowledge. It’s much easier than being so good at your job that the employer simply doesn’t WANT to let you go.

Ms Enthusiasm March 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm

Wrong! I can’t believe someone still thinks this way. Anyone and everyone can be replaced – no matter what they know. I’ve been in both types of places and trust me the places where everyone is open and willing to share are a lot nicer than the ones where everyone is scared they could get let go if someone else knows how to do their job. And from what I can tell the trend is moving towards having more knowledge available.

fposte March 8, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I don’t think Bug was advocating that view, just describing it.

Ms Enthusiasm March 8, 2012 at 7:06 pm

Yeah sorry if I was a little off on that. That point of view (I can’t be replaced because no one else can do what I do) just really gets me.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Also, people who can’t be fired can’t be promoted either.

The Other Dawn March 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

I would also add to this, don’t be the person that says “I know too much already. I don’t need to know anything else. And I don’t want to know anything else, because then people will expect me to do XYZ.” This annoys the crap out of me when I’m trying to show someone how to do something or I’m explaining something. We’re a very small shop of nine people. Sometimes you have to know, even if it’s not in your realm of responsibility, simply because there aren’t enough people.

Elizabeth West March 12, 2012 at 12:34 am

Not to mention, if other people know how to do what you do, they can cover you if you have to be gone for some reason, and vice versa. That way nobody panics when someone is sick or on vacation. I always made sure all my job info was accessible. And they survived when I went on vacation, but they were glad to see me when I came back!

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Don’t be afraid to change things. You can always change it back.

Jamie March 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Not much to add, as usual Alison has it covered – but something a mentor told me once that’s helped me immensely over the years.

Apologize for your mistakes. Once. And only for your mistakes. Don’t say you’re sorry because you’re trying to placate or as a way to express that you’re sorry someone else is in a bad spot.

My male boss on my first job took me aside and gave me that advice – he wanted to keep me from sabotaging my credibility in a male dominated field.

Funny – I haven’t worked for him in years and I don’t think a week has gone by where I haven’t consciously channeled his management style…he’s the manager I will continually strive to be.

We talk a lot about crappy management, but good management has collateral benefits too. Every person I’ve helped in my career owes it to some guy they’ve never met. He set that bar pretty high – but even if I never clear it I’m still a better manager than if I hadn’t tried.

Anonymous March 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Yes, the best way to deal with it is. “Apologies, I’ve done X Y and Z to fix it.” (If it is appropriate. )

I had a instance where I sent one letter by fax which had an incorrect company name linked to it. That person questioned it. There were about 30 more already in the post office which were also wrong (2pm in the afternoon). Rather than trying to shift blame or justify it I went straight out to the post office and begged the post master for them back. They were still banded together and we got them back. I corrected them. I apologised and got the boss to check the corrected letter before sending. The correct versions were sent out.

When it came to my review I asked why he hadn’t mentioned that as we were wrapping it up. He said “The mistake you made was fixed. The mistake you made didn’t matter as much as how you fixed it!”

ChristineH March 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm

What an awesome post…I may have to print this out and tape it to my forehead so it’s in front of my eyes 24/7! lol.

Seriously though – the main theme I get out of this blog (especially this particular post) is this: Observe and learn from others while staying true to yourself. I admire people who value the idea that you do not have to change who you are to succeed. Being comfortable in my own skin is something I’ll always struggle with, and this will certainly help.

For the record Alison, I have the voice of a child too, and I’m in my late 30s! Now I don’t feel so odd :)

Verbal March 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Understand that while you may not understand something now, you have the capacity to understand it, and let the confidence from knowing you are capable be a driver for you. Put another way, don’t be meek because you may not have the requisite knowledge. Be confident and assertive in your willingness to learn things and you will have a seamless transition from Confident Trainee to Confident Expert.

HB March 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Thank you for this amazing post, AAM!! I am a female in my mid-20s, and have struggled with the same things as the OP. The advice you gave, as well as the advice of other commenters, is truly valuable. The biggest thing I struggle with is delivering bad news or giving someone a negative review. It is getting easier the more I do it, but it makes me incredibly anxious to be the bearer of bad news!

My first professional job was working for a non profit that specialized in mentoring kids, and I often had to deny potential volunteers whose backgrounds or interviews raised serious red flags to me about their ability to work with children. And then I had to call them on the phone and tell them that. For a people-pleaser like me, it was torture!! But I’m so glad I went through that experience, because it has helped me feel more comfortable having the tough conversations.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm

You guys should write in with more of these manager-side questions (like how do you get comfortable giving a bad review, or whatever) — I’d love to have more manager-side questions to answer!

JfC March 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I have managed volunteers in a few capacities, and I find that it helps to realize, that while you should strive to provide a good experience for your volunteers, ultimately your job is to help and protect the patrons of your organization, and your loyalty is to its mission. I’m a huge fan of good screening procedures, especially if your nonprofit deals with vulnerable populations. You can think of it in hiring terms, as ensuring that there is a good fit between volunteer and role. A good fit is essential for volunteer, organization, and patron.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Love this! Most of the red flags I’ve dealt with are indications that our volunteer program is not what the potential volunteer is looking for. Usually when I contact them to let them know it’s not going to be a good fit I also provide them with some names of organizations where the need/mission better fits their skills and needs as a volunteer.

Volunteering is a two-way street, both the organization and the volunteer should be benefiting from it!

Joey March 8, 2012 at 9:39 pm

If giving bad news to an employee ever comes easy to you you need to stop being a manager. I’ve fired probably hundreds of people in my career and to this day I still get anxious and hate giving an emloyee any bad news- but it still needs to be done in a straightforward way. It’s the fair thing to do for your employee and it’s in the company’s best interest. But, you don’t have to stop being compassionate on a personal level. Nobody wants to get bad news, but looking back most people would rather have it than to falsely believe there’s nothing wrong. I even feel compassion for those employees who lie, cheat and steal. Yes they had it coming, but their family who depends on that person to support them sure doesn’t.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Well said.

Charles March 9, 2012 at 9:50 am

” . . . It’s the fair thing to do for your employee . . .”

This is something that SO many managers don’t get. Too many folks think that they need to give the person a chance; just another chance – without any guidance. It seems to me that a lot of folks wait for things to “work themselves out.” Like a miracle is going to happen!

NicoleW March 9, 2012 at 11:10 am

Agreed! This happened with someone I used to work with. The role responsibilities kept growing until it was no longer a good fit for her. Management kept giving her somewhat negative reviews but without a path to improve or what success in the position would look like. They were really good at being vague about her weaknesses and tiptoed around what the consequences might be.
I am a born people-pleaser and always try to be nice, but I’ve learned that it’s still best to be direct and clear.

Malissa March 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm

A very important thing that I’ve learned is it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Especially if it’s something that will make your life easier and has benefits for the company.

Malissa March 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm

If anybody hasn’t read today’s Dilbert, check it out. It totally made me think of this blog.

Joey March 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Be careful with this one. You don’t want to be a maverick if the company doesn’t embrace it. Taking calculated risks is smart but frequently your manager will want to be in the loop on what you’re doing. Otherwise it’s hard for your manager to defend you when she didn’t know what you were doing.

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I have to say, I get very frustrated when people use this strategy. I work in operations for a nonprofit organization. We may be a little bureaucratic, but there are reasons for this. We don’t set policies and procedures simply for the purpose of inconveniencing staff, but rather because we are accountable to our Donors and our auditors. Someone asking for forgiveness is usually accompanied by extra work for me in having to straighen out the mess it can potentially cause.

Malissa March 9, 2012 at 10:10 am

You are right. This only works if you know what you are doing. Which is part of being a good manager.

Ms Enthusiasm March 8, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I have to add my .02 since I heard a great piece of advice yesterday. And it might not be particularly new but it still is powerful. I was speaking to a manager who told me a story about an annual review he once had with the VP. The manager explained that it had been a tough year for him. He felt like he worked A LOT and had A TON to do. It seems like he kept getting asked to do more and more to the point that he was running around like a crazy person. But he sucked it up and did accomplish everything asked of him. So finally at the end of the year he expected to receive an outstanding review. But he was only rated as “meets expectations”. The manager was upset and asked the VP why he wasn’t rated higher and the VP replied that yes the manager had done everything they asked him to do, BUT nothing else that wasn’t asked of him. He never went above and beyond and offered more than what was asked. He never came up with new ideas or offered additional analysis on reports.

The lesson is that to be considered a high performer or a high achiever you not only need to do what the boss is thinking about – you need to also work on what the boss isn’t thinking about. Come up with a new report or process before the boss even realizes he needs it. Doing things like this is the way to be a star.

H March 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I think an addition to this rule is – sometimes you have to figure out how to please your boss, not just do the job well. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re the kind of person that wants to do the job well, but sometimes it’s necessary to get ahead in an organization.

Zweisatz March 10, 2012 at 2:46 am

Sounds like the first thing the employee should have done is to say “No” more because it didn’t sound like he had the capacities to do “more”.

Elizabeth West March 12, 2012 at 12:39 am

Yeah, but nowadays when people are making the same money doing the work of two or three people in the same amount of time, sometimes it’s all you can do just to keep up.

Anonymous Q September 11, 2013 at 11:51 am

I agree with you Elizabeth. Ms. Enthusiasm you said that the guy was running around like a crazy person with all that he had to do so quite frankly he didn’t the extra time or mental space to think about other things he could have been doing on top of what he was already doing. So yes, Zweisatz’s perhaps he should have said “No” to some of those tasks. Finally, either I think the VP didn’t have realistic expectations or the extra work wasn’t assigned by the VP in the first place.

Drew March 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Thank you so much for this post and all the subsequent comments. I just received my first job rejection yesterday since graduating and between this and a comment you made a while back about things coming easily to you throughout your education, I was able to limit my disappointment to one day. I’m slowly learning that “real life” is not going to be the same as school was and this blog and community have been priceless. Thanks again.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 7:10 pm

For anyone wondering about the “coming easily to you” thing, I think this was about how if you’re someone who’s always done well in school without tons of hard work and has generally been able to achieve things pre-graduation, it can be really rattling to get into the work world and discover that things are harder and you don’t always get it right on the first try (or even the fourth). (Drew, if you have a link to that post, I’d love to refer people to it; I just searched and couldn’t find it!)

Drew March 8, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Yes, that is what I was talking about. I should have been more clear. Anyway, I can’t find the post either. I thought it was in the same one where you mentioned volunteering as a kid, but I was able to find that one and it wasn’t the right one. Sorry! I’ll post the link if I ever find it.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm
Drew March 10, 2012 at 3:07 am

Alright, I just had a really odd experience. I was offered a temp position this afternoon (after only applying last night!) and not an hour later the company who rejected me called and offered me a different position. I had told company A (through a recruiter) that I would take the position, but company B is by far and away my first choice. Can I, or should I, back out of the first offer? I feel guilty, but company B is directly in my career path while A isn’t. Help please!?

Drew March 10, 2012 at 3:10 am

By the way, in neither case have I gotten anything in writing, although company A’s recruiter asked me to come in next week to sign some paperwork.

Drew March 10, 2012 at 3:30 am

Ha, never mind. I found an older post on the subject. AAM really does have the answer to all my questions!

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Very inspirational piece , AAM!

Anonymous March 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm

In my first “real” job I was a twenty something with no formal post high school education working with college graduates and scientists with doctorates. My first plan of action was to address people by their first name, not Mr. Last name. I was raised to call elders and persons in authority by their last name, but I felt that by doing so int the work place would immediately put me in a position of the young subservient girl. I believe in fake it till you make it. Even if you don’t feel confident, acting confident will make others take you seriously.

I also receive the most compliments from my ability to follow up. So many people are overworked and overwhelmed, being able to follow up with someone, follow through on what you say you are going to do, and take responsibility for stuff, you’ll get a lot of respect.

KayDay March 9, 2012 at 10:27 am

re following up–so true! Sometimes it can be hard to bug somebody about something for your project, especially when you know that the person is really busy. But a lot of times those busy people are relieved that you reminded them about it before that something fell through the cracks.

Rana March 8, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Wonderful advice, AAM. :)

I think the two pieces of advice that I learned that have been the most useful in my work (beyond the very good advice to not take things too personally and to be willing to admit when one is wrong or doesn’t know something) were these:

Own your own authority. Don’t flaunt it, but don’t apologize for it either.

Don’t apologize preemptively. This just cues people to be watching for mistakes.

I find that these are particularly hard to do as a woman, as we’re socialized to be apologetic and to shy away from seeming “too bossy,” but they make a significance difference in how you carry yourself, and how other people see you.

Ask a Manager March 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Yes! There’s a whole book that could be written on how to use authority like a normal person, and not get weird about it. And actually, my book, Managing to Change the World, which I co-authored, has a whole chapter on this, called “exercising authority without being a wimp or a tyrant” … second edition to be published in a few weeks, at which point I will make a grand announcement here!

Anonymous March 9, 2012 at 1:36 am

- Know when to be an advocate. If you’re lucky enough to have a seat at the table, use it. People expect that of you – at the senior level and from your subordinates. Not every day has to be a defensive fight, but you have to know when to go to bat for your team, for your profession.

- Know that some people can’t be shoehorned into roles, regardless of how much you want them to succeed. I have a brilliant writer on staff who I have been trying for the last 12 months to coach into being a strategic thinker so he can move into a management position. He executes well, but really struggles with vision, planning, and taking initiative without being prodded. At the end of the day, he is still a valuable team player, but not as a strategist.

- Nip problems in the bud quickly and directly. Don’t dodge criticism. Always have your staff direct questions to you if you are indeed the original source of information (“own it”).

Anonymous March 9, 2012 at 2:40 am

My golden rule: if you do something or make a decision always ask yourself if you could explain it in a logical manner to your colleagues. That works good for me. Better to take action than to keep wondering what you should do. You will experience that you can act fast and

Anonymous March 9, 2012 at 2:42 am

always are one step ahead of your colleagues

Liz March 9, 2012 at 2:41 am

LOVE this post! Thanks AAM!

My only advice to add: Never take sides in an argument between or among other people, and avoid people who try to bond with you by complaining about coworkers.

Anonymous March 9, 2012 at 10:54 am

“So don’t be someone who you’re not; instead, be exactly who you are, so that you self-select for places that like who you are and where you’ll feel comfortable. ”

Yes, exactly this.

At my last job I frequently received the feedback from Boss that I “seemed stressed” and was “too intense” around co-workers when I didn’t particularly feel stressed (and I really didn’t know wtf “too intense” meant; nor could she really articulate what I should change).

Finally it came out that it was my rate of speech that she objected to. She thought I talked too fast. Fair enough; I do speak quickly when I’m enthusiastic about a project and I felt that was a valid criticism. I immediately started making an effort to start speaking more slowly and clearly at work and rein in some of my enthusiasm and “intensity” (STILL don’t know what this meant)…..

…. I then was told that I now sounded “condescending” and was now speaking too slowly. Short of sitting down with Boss and a metronome to determine what she felt was an appropriate rate of speech, I was at a loss. And way too much of my energy was going toward thinking about how I spoke rather than getting work done and meeting tough deadlines.

I ended up leaving for other reasons but now I’m really careful when job-hunting to try and determine whether I’d be able to be myself and do my work, or whether I’d spend all my time thinking about things that are hard for me to change, like my rate of speech or level of enthusiasm.

Lisa March 9, 2012 at 10:59 am

This post and all of the comments have been so helpful. I would add one thing and that is to remember ALL of the people that you as a manager are accountable to. When I first stepped into a management position I was apprehensive about debating my points with more senior-level people both inside and outside of my own company. It really helped me to remember that if I capitulated or didn’t make that extra effort to engage that there were a lot of people that I was going to be accountable to and having to explain to them, and especially to my own team, that I wasn’t brave enough to do my job and advocate on their behalf would be a million times more uncomfortable than whatever conversation I was trying to avoid.

Meghan March 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I have a super upbeat and bubbly personality too. It makes for a great contrast when I have to get all formal and serious. People react to it with the same ‘jump’ as they would if someone else were to yell :P

My biggest success has come from getting myself organized. I file all my emails and documents so that I lay hands on anything that anyone sent me in the last 5 to 6 years within 10 minutes. This ‘skill’ has enabled me to be the go-to person not just in my department but those that surround mine as well. That makes it *seem* like I’m indispensable to those around and above me on the org chart. The fact that I’m cheerful and polite to whomever I encounter has also reaped huge benefits since you never know where the secretary of today is going to rise to tomorrow.

I think the biggest challenge of this personality type is not letting people abuse our good nature. There are some great books on setting boundaries at work. Again, if your normal ‘mode’ is chipper and cheerful, going serious and formal will command more attention and respect then if that was your ‘normal’ state :)

Just me March 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm

OK, I got one here. I have been in my position about a year and a half. There has been basically no stability in my dept with people being fired, maternity leave,others placed in temp positions not doing my stuff anymore and it has lead to me to be the only one in my dept that has been there steady for a full year and a half.

Because of these consistant changes I have had many different changes to my duties, schedule of things to do, etc. I am also asked to clean up the work of fired people. None of that is a problem at all for me to do. Never once do I complain, I take everything they give me and go Sure….. no problem. I am now the only one being relied on to handle 36 clients.

After reading this, I really do think that a simple, no frills comment from my manager like.. ” Hey Susie Q…. I know there has been a lot going on in the dept and I really do thank you for bearing with us with all these changes “,would be nice. A simple, 2 second comment.

I am not holding my breath for it at all, just thought I chime in to managers out there about this threads subject.
If there is a lot of changing going on and people are rolling with it with a smile… take 2 seconds and thank them.

Stacy March 11, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Just had to comment to say how much I love this post. So great.

Lemon Meringue March 12, 2012 at 11:51 am

I’m a little late to the party, but I also just wanted to chime in to say this was such a terrific post! (As they all are – but this especially.)

I’m a few years out of college, and when I first graduated, I figured I’d “take time off” by working a few years before grad school. I had no idea that, instead of “taking time off,” I’d be learning an immensely valuable skill set that you can really only gain by having a full-time job (I’d had long-term part-time jobs during school, but now I know it’s just not the same). It’s funny to see newly-minted college grads entering my workplace now – I realize how much I’ve learned about How To Be At Work, and how far they have to go (though they may not even see it right now!). Maybe I can steer them to this post. :)

Anonymous March 14, 2012 at 8:59 am

Hi Alison
I also have a little girls voice and I’m finding it so hard to get rid of the judgements that people make due to that!

Anonymous March 14, 2012 at 10:10 am

“How to be an awesome hard-ass”
That should be the title of your next book!!!

Anonymous Ireland March 15, 2012 at 11:43 am

I discovered this blog today through a ‘should I tell my boss I’m leaving’ Google search. I don’t have a new job to go to. This will give you some clue as to mindset in relation to my job right now :)

Anyway both the original question and answer above really resonated with me. (And I also have a little girl’s voice; what gives?!) When I first started in my current workplace nearly 12 years ago I frequently left meetings without having said a word because I was too scared. Now they can’t shut me up and more often than not my opinion is sought, despite the fact that is NEVER sugar-coated. I sometimes find it hard to believe I’m the same person. But that confidence came from doing many of the things listed in AAM’s response (the rest I will be taking on board and doing from now on). It also comes from caring enough to want to do those things.

That’s really what prompted me to respond on this post – I find it so inspiring that there are obviously a lot of other people out there who really care about their work and about doing it well; even if that’s not in most conventional, sugar-coated, brown-nosing way. It’s the hope, however naive, that I will find a new workplace where those qualities will be valued and lead to more personal development and learning rather than stagnant frustration, that has made me decide to quit. Thanks AAM and commenters for restoring my faith in employed humanity :)

Job seeker December 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Alison, I think you are a lot more than you described yourself in this post. I think you are so amazing and I wish I just knew half of what you know. You are the kind of manager everyone wishes they could be lucky enough to have.

Ask a Manager December 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Aw, thank you :)

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