how to be an awesome hard-ass

It’s Flashback Friday! Here’s an old post from March 2012 (okay, it’s not that old, but I like it) that we’re making new again, rather than leaving it to wilt in the archives.

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 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.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. WorkingMom

    This is a fantastic post, I can’t add anything to it – but I feel like what you’re saying is not to just “go to work” – really BE there, soak it all up, pay attention to people and projects. I love it.

    You know what would be a nice next step? Some advice for the young professionals, but not entry-level. I’m thinking the 30-somethings with a solid 10-or so years of experience but looking for the next step. How can we help ourselves to get to that next rung on the ladder? We’re now confident performers, but how can we translate that into the next Big Move in the corporate world? How can we position ourselves toward that corner office for the future?

    1. Anonymous

      +1. I’m right there, early 30s, picked up some bad habits from burnout, not sure how to “start over” without starting over.

  2. VintageLydia

    I’d just add pay attention to your body language. You can be the most knowledgeable person in the room, but if you look closed off and nervous, no one will believe you. When you’re inexperienced, open and confident looking body language signals that you care about the work and are willing to learn, and when you are experienced, it gives you credibility. Just do it in addition to the advice above, not instead of, or it will backfire horribly (basically you’ll look arrogant rather than confident.)

    1. Jamie

      I actually don’t find a little arrogance off-putting if they can back it up. The again I’ve seen some people mistake true confidence for arrogance…because they think anyone not qualifying their statements or expressing self doubt is arrogant.

      Arrogance/confidence is a fine line to walk, so if you err a little bit (but don’t fall totally off the line into the Chasm of Asshattery) it’s not the end of the world. Just recalibrate.

      1. Sandrine

        Sorry for threadjack. Not sure if you saw the other one.

        I need to send you a picture or something you like (totally SFW I swear) that I took for you in mind today somewhere where this thing is from ;P .

        Can you please e-mail me xD ?

        1. Jamie

          I sent a message through Facebook with my email …took me forever to find my Facebook log in since I never use it. :) Thanks!

          And I really love these Friday replays of old posts – gives me the slightest sense of deja vu until I realize I’m not crazy, I have seen this before.

      2. VintageLydia

        Oh I agree! I know several people who were accused of being arrogant when all they really were was justifiably confident. By arrogance I mean walking the walk, but not doing or learning anything that will actually make you a more effective employee (or manager.) It’s one thing to use body language that demands attention, but when all that comes out of your mouth is rubbish, you just look silly.

  3. Leslie Yep

    This is such valuable advice.

    To the advice about seeking out role models of bad-assery, I can’t emphasize this enough. And not just one but many diverse models. My manager is really competent and smart, but also super, super mellow; there’s one model. I have a colleague who’s really, really direct and intense, but also so loving; and another who’s really cerebral, an intellectual badass. It’s been really important for me to have all of these models to learn from so I know that this isn’t an issue of putting on a particular hat, but of really finding an authentic, real badass inside myself!

    Also second the stretch projects. I excelled immediately in my first position because it just wasn’t a challenge; it wasn’t until my current position where I feel a little bit in over my head that I started to feel really confident, odd as that is. Actually failing a little bit, and having to be really mindful of how I’m developing myself has started to eliminate some of that impostor syndrome.

    1. Yup

      Agreed on the role models. There are some folks who are great all-around examples, and others who are standouts in one particular area. I find it so hopeful to observe both and figure out how I can learn to do XYZ better.

    2. Chinook

      I am another one with finnding role models for badassery, especially because different personalities can get away wih different things. If you are naturally shy, you may never pull of being able to command a room with a look, but you may find the power in knowing when and how to speak up. A naturally outgoing person wouldn’t have that come naturally to them (does that make sense).

      And with this idea is the fact that you are going to make mistakes and it is important to realize that and have a way of admitting to them as well s learn from them.

    3. tcookson

      +1 about the role models . . . I watch everyone (peers, superiors, anyone!) for their different ways to be at work, how they interact with people, attitudes that they have about their work and other people . . . anything I can pick up on that will help me think about whether I can/should adopt a similar outlook.

  4. Ms Enthusiasm

    I’ve always loved this post and have sent the link to several people (I have it saved in my favorites).

  5. sara smile

    How do you know you are n0t going too far in the wrong direction? I am confident, blunt, assertive (and a bit kooky). Once people know me, they really respect my approach. If someone does not know me, they can be put off but the bluntness, etc. I get excellent reviews so I am not concerned about the perception of those above me. However I do recognise that you do not always get a chance for people to get to know you and I want to make sure that I am making a good impression where ever possible. I am not sure if I should be striking a better balance.

    The above is a super simplified question and I have not gone into specifics but I would interested in people’s thoughts generally.

    PS First time poster, recently found the website. Yay!

    1. MadtownMaven

      Me, too, @sara smile. If I let my guard down too soon, the wacky & fun-loving aspect of my personality can come on strongly.

      This is a great post, AAM. I’m sharing it with my mostly-younger group of professional contacts!

      1. TL

        yeah, I’m working to balance my strong personality, my natural tendencies towards confidence and being new to the working world. I like to think I’ve done a good job – but y’know, natural tendency towards confidence.

        I think for me, it’s been really helpful to be open to feedback and to spend some time reflecting on it when I receive it – not immediately, but after I’ve had it for a day or so. See how it works into my perception of myself and if it’s something I care/need to change or if it’s just specific to that person – assuming that person isn’t my boss or someone I really need to have a good working relationship with.

        Also, some people just aren’t going to like you and the stronger your personality, the more people tend to be polarized about your approach. It’s okay if people don’t care for you, as long as you can all work together, be civilized and pleasant, and don’t offend one another.

    2. COT

      Sometimes I can come across as bossy or intimidating when I’m just being confident. What I’ve found helps is to be extra-collaborative, make a point of asking for input, and being a team player.

      Awesome article, Alison. Bookmarking.

      1. Jamie

        I can come off as intimidating and unapproachable if you don’t know me. At least that’s what I’ve been told…I think I’m delightful but then again I consider Ice Princess a compliment.

        I know people tend to read me this way so I deliberately address it by going out of my way to make small talk with new people, to bring in muffins to meetings I’m running with people who don’t know me (people who already know and like me get no muffins…there is a bad lesson in that somewhere.)

        For some reason I’ve found people tend to be intimidated by those in IT, which I find hilarious, but it’s true. So if I’m frosty AND an wearing a lanyard with flash drives on it I scare people and no one wants that. Although, sometimes it’s useful.

        1. Lillie Lane

          But it’s an HK lanyard, right? I don’t think I could be intimidated by somebody wearing Hello Kitty. I would squee and declare that she must have a heart of gold. Though I suppose there are probably some evil people out there that are fond of cartoon cats with hair bows.

          1. Jamie

            Ha – it is now and believe it or not that really does put people at ease. If I had a different persona the HK lanyard and my shoes would be a reason to write me off…

            Kind of like if my personality was softer the cartoon cat would lessen my credibility…but since I need something to soften me up it works in my favor.

            And some evil people like adorable things. It still bothers me that Delores Umbridge loved cats and wore pink. Those are MY thing…not for her!

            1. ChristineSW

              What a great strategy, Jamie! I think I do the opposite – I consider myself meek and occasionally immature. Thus, I dress a little nicer and put makeup on as a way to try to give off a more professional, mature image. Not sure if it works because the immature side still comes out on occasion, but one can hope!

    3. fposte

      Unhelpful answer: when it hurts you more than it helps you. How much do you need the good will of these people you put off? How much does your bluntness achieve for you? The answers to this will depend on a lot of things involving just what “bluntness” is here, what field you’re in, how much you produce, the weather, etc., etc., etc., but that’s a way to start thinking about it.

  6. Lils

    This is the best AAM post of all time! I printed it out long ago and re-read it sometimes. I’m a much better manager because of these tactics. Thanks for reposting, Alison!

    1. Lindsay

      I know! I love this, and shared it with some peers as an example of what type of employee/manager I want to be.

  7. JenTheNiceHRGirl

    I love this post. I especially like the P.S at the bottom. That’s something that I used to stress over back in the day. I am extremely laid back, always calm in a crisis, and some managers I have had in the past used to think that I just didn’t understand the gravity of certain situations or needed a higher sense of urgency. I just needed to match myself up with managers, and a team, who could appreciate my style. While I have came along way since I was fresh out of college starting off my career, I am really happy now that I maintained that part of my personality style, because it certainly has it’s advantages in my area of work. Some people don’t like it, but that’s ok, and I don’t take it personally.

    1. NatalieR

      This is me too! I started mentioning this in job interviews, when appropriate to avoid the mismatch. I just prefer to focus my energy on thinking through solutions than on being excitable.

        1. Frieda

          I am also like this and I absolutely agree about finding a culture that fits. For me, not only am I calm in a crisis but I get really stressed out by people who get freaked out in a crisis, so it’s not just about finding a place where people appreciate your personality but also where you feel comfortable.

  8. Ivan

    I have a slightly OT question: until how long after graduating would y’all say that the term “recent grad” apply?

  9. Frieda

    After the first time this was posted I actually started a Google doc called “How to Be at Work” where I write down little notes to myself about this big-picture stuff. I started by thinking about things that I learned from my boss at my last job, who was a real mentor and a very effective manager. Some things he said to me explicitly over the years, but also I made a point to sit and think about why he was such a great manager. Over time I’ve added things that I learned the hard way or that I’ve learned from other mentors. Now I’ve got about a page and a half of little notes like “assume that other people’s intentions are good, even if how they are acting is frustrating or seems to be undermining you” and “Do not reward a great employee who works hard on an unappealing task by giving them more of that task to do.” Whenever I am dealing with a frustrating situation at work I read through the notes and it generally helps me get a better handle on the situation and how to deal with it.

  10. Manda

    I didn’t realize that “bubbly and personable” doesn’t get you respect. Being shy and reserved sure as hell doesn’t. It always seems like the quiet types are looked down on for not being personable. Maybe I’m missing something.

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