the best work advice you ever received

I recently asked readers to share the best advice they’ve ever received about how to succeed at work. Here are my favorite tips from readers about doing well at your job and getting along well with your manager and coworkers.

1. When you’re the expert, talk like one

“When you are the expert, talk like you are the expert. Don’t be overly deferential or modify your statements with things like “I think” or “Maybe…” when you are talking to people who are in peers or are ranked higher in the organization.

This advice was from my boss in my first corporate job after years in publishing, to encourage me to be more assertive. I’m a woman, I was younger than everyone else on the team, and I was often in a position of having to tell our IT team — all older than me and 95% male — how I wanted things on our website. They wouldn’t always follow my directions exactly or in a timely fashion; instead they would follow their own opinions and regard my instructions as advice. When I started sounding more direct and assertive, they had more respect for my experience and my projects were done to my specifications and timeline.”

2. Praise publicly and criticize privately

“Praise publicly, criticize privately. You will need, at some point, to get cooperation and work out of someone who does not report to you, whose boss does not take an interest in your work, whose department does not give a rat’s butt about your department. If you cannot get people who do not report to you to work with you, you will be dead in the water.”

3. You’re the average of the people you spend time with

“Someone once told me, ‘You are the average of the 6 people you spend the most time with.’ Professionally, I took this to heart and made a point of networking with not only people who are generally successful, but also people who exhibit the kind of work habits I know I need to emulate.”

4. Never be good at anything you don’t want to do

“Never be good at anything you don’t want to do. Tongue somewhat in cheek — of course, as a junior person you have to get good at the grunt work before you’ll be given more interesting tasks. But as a general rule — the better you get at something, the more you’ll be asked to do it. The way to make sure your niche is what you want it to be is to make sure you’re best at those things!”

5. Don’t present problems without solutions

“When you present your boss with a problem, also come in with as much knowledge as possible and potential solutions. If I’m talking to a superior about a case, I need to have read the entire file – even stuff that may not seem completely germane to my question – so that I can answer his questions and have an informed discussion about the issues of the case. (Sometimes doing this will resolve what you saw as a potential problem anyway.) If I do have a problem, I explain the problem and the potential solutions, i.e., I can do A, B, or C with this. Doing this saves your boss time and helps you get a better result, because often they were thinking about/working on something else or don’t know/remember the specifics of your project. I’ve used this strategy in multiple workplaces and found that it helps both me and my bosses.”

6. Find things interesting

“If you don’t find something interesting, it’s your job to find something about it that interests you. My mom gave me this advice when I was in university (and bored by required courses). But, it became excellent career advice for me down the road, and opened a lot of doors.”

7. Own your mistakes and then move on

“If you make a mistake, own it and move on. Don’t try to hide it or its impact.  Don’t blame others.  Take responsibility.  Then stop obsessing over it. It happened, you learned from it, and you’re past it.”

8. Align your emotional energy with your priorities in life

“The best advice I ever got was: Force rank the activities and people in your life. For example, maybe your kids are 1, parents 2, friends 3, employees 4 … boss 10. Then, work to ensure that your time and emotional energy expenditure are aligned with that ranking. If my boss ranks a 10 and I react to something with a very high emotional energy level (high stress, etc.), then I’m using emotional energy that I should be expending on my kids on my boss. My mentor told me that I’m essentially ‘stealing’ emotional energy from the important people in my life by overreacting to my boss.

This structure helps me keep my emotional energy and time expenditure in alignment with my priorities. So when I start to react to something, I ask myself if it makes sense or am I overreacting based upon my priorities. As a part of this structure, I found myself reducing the number of hours at work and increasing the amount of time with my kids.

Amazingly enough, this exercise helped me succeed far more at work because I’m more consistent and steady at work. I get more done and I’m more trusted because I don’t overreact very often. I’m also happier and comfortable with where I am with my job. It was very hard to implement, but very worth it!”

9. Be responsive

“My former boss’s very successful father once told me 90% of professional success is returning all your calls and emails. He was exaggerating a bit, but it was good advice because it can be easy to ignore certain requests, emails, or calls from people. And if you make the effort to respond to everything, you’re way ahead of most professionals who tend to ignore a lot.

10. Work will still be here tomorrow

“’It will all still be here tomorrow,’ said by a former boss (a big deal VP at a big company), looking at a giant pile of work I was frantically attacking on a Friday night. It was a good advice because it was a dose of reality from an extremely hardworking person, that there is no such place as ‘done.’ Her point at the time was that I should get some rest because the world won’t end if I don’t finish XYZ tonight. But what I learned from it was perspective, focus, and strategy. You can wear yourself out trying to cross an ever-retreating finish line, or you can figure out how to approach your work in a meaningful way that addresses what you’re really trying to do.”

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. RB*

    Woohoo! Made #2!

    Seriously, I love the comments here as much as I love Alison’s blog. I can always take away something useful from both.

    1. Coelura*

      SWEET! Gotta love hearing that someone else is getting something out of advice that I’ve shared forward!

      I always share this one with my employees – I truly think it helps so much with balancing home & work.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        That must be really powerful, coming from their boss. What a great standard to set – this work is important, but I’m not asking for it to be the most important part of your life.

          1. Piper*

            Maybe that is the norm (as it should be), but I’ve encountered my fair share of people who clearly put work first and expected everyone at their company to do the same. The boss was working on his second divorce because of this and many other employees’ relationships were suffering because they followed his terrible “work comes first” advice. I was viewed as the “lazy” employee because I didn’t work 80 hour weeks. Never mind that I was productive and got a ton of results and turned out many successful projects in the short time I was there before I was laid off.

              1. Piper*

                Right, and I agree that a boss sending the message that family should come first is a great message for a manager to send. I’m not disagreeing with you; simply relaying my experience with the exact opposite and how it’s a stupid idea for a manager to say that work comes first.

              2. Victoria Nonprofit*

                Oh, crap – I’m sorry I didn’t see your response until now.

                That wasn’t sarcasm! I was being totally sincere: It’s awesome for an employer to say out loud that work isn’t the most important thing in the world.

                (I’m basically never sarcastic – it’s just not my thing – so this happens to me all the time. People think I’m being snarky when I’m just trying to be earnest. :))

        1. Coelura*

          I have found that people start doing more rework than productive work after about 45 hours per week. And the higher their home stress, the more mistakes they make. So it makes more sense for my employees to be highly focused & super productive in 40-45 hours than for them to be 75% for 60 hours and 15 hours of those 60 to be rework. My people end up getting more done at a higher quality.

          Plus – the big thing is that they don’t have nearly as many anger outbursts and interpersonal issues in the workplace when their energy is aligned with their priorities. As an IT PMO shop, the pressure can be overwhelming. So its really important to reduce it where possible.

          I know that its a bit odd for a senior leader to encourage alignment & balance. But it really does result in better work performance & happier employees. My folks are very loyal & will go over & above when they feel its necessary – because they are encouraged to keep their priorities & energy in alignment.

          1. Victoria Nonprofit*

            Just to be clear, I genuinely think that was awesome for you to say, and I’m bummed that I gave you the impression that I was snarking on you!

  2. CoffeeLover*

    #4 I learned the hard way :P

    #7 Is a major way I work and something that annoys me in others. I can’t stand when people waste time explaining why they didn’t get something done or why they messed up. Tell me you messed up, what that means and how your fixing it. Period.

    #9 Is something I need to keep in mind and to really work on.

  3. Kristi*

    #10 Work will still be here tomorrow

    I completely agree with #10 but use a slightly different interpretation. Once you start starting early, staying late or skipping lunch to get that To Do List done, it may become expected that you’ll ALWAYS carry such a heavy workload without a problem. As I learned, the To Do List will always have more to do, and there’s nothing on it that can’t wait. Certainly nothing you’re getting paid enough to spend more time away from your family/friends/life.

    1. Blinx*

      Exactly! I used to say “well, I could be here until midnight and still not get it all done, so I may as well leave at 6.” You can drive yourself crazy!

  4. Allison*

    Kinda wish my boss believed in 10. He decided it was unprofessional to start a task and not finish it by the end of the day, so the new rule is that we can’t start anything we won’t be able to finish by 5:30, and if we don’t finish something we have to stay late to finish it.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit*

        Well, most tasks can be broken down into smaller tasks. “Develop a training program for new members” is actually “Set objectives for training program,” “Select trainer,” “Book room for training program,” and on and on and on.

        But still. He crazy.

      2. some1*

        Ntm, it gives employees a perfect excuse to goof off at the end of the day. If I finish my last task at 4:40, and I am supposed to leave at 5:00 but there are no tasks I could finish in 20 minutes, what’s to stop me?

  5. Pam*

    I loved this topic and was really inspired my many of the comments. Thanks as always, Alison, for the great content on this site!

  6. Blinx*

    #1 resonated with me – always couching responses with “I think we should do this…” instead of “We should do this…”. Still working on that one!

  7. Anonymous*

    Number 10 made me laugh. I get what the point is, but it sounds like her boss telling her “It will be here tomorrow” when she’s trudging away on a Friday night is saying “Come in on Saturday and finish your work.”

    1. Tax Nerd*

      I thought the same thing – that her boss was telling her to come in on Saturday to work.

  8. Corporate Cowgirl*

    Great list! Defintely agree with #8 (be responsive) and the fact that most people don’t do this. However, I noticed that by being responsive, it helps me influence without authority when I need it.

  9. Nil nil*

    #8 was great!! Really helps define the line between work and what’s important…a line that is often all too nebulous!! Really look forward to employing this tip.

  10. Bryce*

    If ever there’s a need for a #11, it should be this one from a former college professor:

    “First, find work. Then, find a job. After that, find a career.”

  11. YAK*

    Thanks Alison! I told my boyfriend about this thread and he told me to go through and pick out the good ones – glad you got to it before I did :)

  12. Toni Stark ` Stark Enterprise*

    Every company has a problem or a goal they are trying to reach. Be the answer to their needs and don’t go in thinking they are the solution to your needs.

  13. Kou*

    So the returning calls/emails one actually reminds me of something I’ve had rattling around in my head for a while: Why is it that it’s so common to call or email someone and never get a response whatsoever? How is it that so many people are unresponsive that we consider it totally normal to have to re-contact people on a regular basis?

    I know some people are busy, sometimes you forget, etc, but that doesn’t really explain how incredibly common it is for a voicemail or an email to just disappear into the void once it’s left you. How often is it a person being overwhelmed vs unorganized vs just straight up ignoring something because they don’t think it’s important? Maybe I’ve just never been busy or important enough to want to do that, I don’t know, but I don’t know if I would ever feel really comfortable just letting messages slip with any kind of frequency.

    1. moss*

      I am actually leaving my job over this. My manager ignored my emails too much. Buh Bye.

    2. Original Dan*

      Huge pet peeve of mine. I don’t understand how some people can’t take 10 seconds to send a quick reply. SMH

  14. Jill*

    Mine came from my first boss:
    Sometimes ya gotta toot your own horn.

    I live in the Midwest where we tend to be a bit humble. Plus she was a woman and so am I. It’s a common thing for some people to think that merely mentioning an accomplishment is on the same level as bragging. But if you only ever work behind the scenes you can be overlooked because people assume you never do anything of importance.

    So if you have a particular accomplishment (getting a degree, getting praise from people outside your department, being asked to participate on a special team…whatever) mention it. Not in an overly arrogant way, but just in a way that reminds people that you are relevant.

  15. Rana*

    I have to think that #10 needs both context and some qualifications. If it’s on-going work, then, yes, there’s no point in killing yourself over it, just like it makes no sense to take a vacation day to do twenty loads of laundry in a misguided belief that you’ll not have to do it again in a week or two.

    But sometimes the work will not “be there tomorrow” if we’re talking projects with hard deadlines. I do my very best to avoid last-minute crunches by being efficient and working at a slightly more intense pace throughout, but sometimes? It happens. And if you’re working on a project where missing a deadline will cause all sorts of grief and chaos, then, yeah, you gotta suck it up because “tomorrow” is too late – either the work gets done today, or you just ended up wasting weeks of work.

    So I think you need to know what sort of work your work is, and whether a day’s difference really does matter – or not.

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