6 things you should unlearn to succeed at work

Life has a way of instilling lessons in us that don’t always apply in every context. That’s especially true when it comes to work: You may have habits or ways of thinking that served you well in school or beyond, but which will actually hold you back in your professional life. Here are six of the most common things you may to need to unlearn in order to succeed at work.

1. Thinking that being thorough is always better. You might assume that of course your boss wants to know every detail about the situation you’re emailing her about – being thorough is good, right? – but in most cases most managers just want the upshot. You’ll generally do better if you focus on high-level takeaways and save background and details for when and if they’re specifically requested, especially when you’re communicating in email. That can be a hard lesson to learn if you’re naturally thorough – but remember that it’s not that your boss doesn’t want you to be thorough. Rather, it’s that she trusts you to gather the details and then curate the most important points for her.

2. Figuring that guessing at an answer is better than nothing.Sometimes when people feel put on the spot by a question from a colleague or boss, they respond by giving their best guess. That can be fine if you’re up-front about the fact that it’s a guess. But if you present your guess as a certainty, it can be disastrous since people may act on the potentially wrong information you’ve provided. Instead, it’s far better to acknowledge when you don’t know something, and say that you’ll find out and come back with the answer.

3. Thinking that appearing impartial will make you more credible. People often assume that appearing impartial and perfectly objective will make them come across as more credible, but in fact the opposite can be true. Your boss knows that you have biases because you’re human and we all have biases and agendas, and making a point of disclosing those conveys that you’re being open and transparent. For example, if you’re recommending that your department purchase a new software, it’s fine to say, “I have a bias in favor of this software because it will make my life significantly easier, although I know that not everyone will like it as much as I do.” Or if you’re sharing concerns with your boss about someone who you manage, you might say, “I want to be transparent that Jane really gets under my skin at times, and it’s possible that’s influencing my take on this situation.” Good bosses will appreciate the full disclosure.

4. Assuming it’s normal to not get along with coworkers. Whether or not you like every coworker or enjoy working with them, part of what you’re being paid for is to be pleasant and polite to people and to maintain decent relationships with them. That doesn’t mean that you need to be friends with everyone at work, but it does mean that you need to be cordial and not take out a bad day, a bad mood, or a personal dislike on the people you work with.

5. Thinking it’s okay to show that criticism gets you down. Another things that you’re being paid for is to take feedback with reasonably good grace. Part of having a job and a boss is that your boss may sometimes point out weaker areas of your work and ask you to do things differently (or simply better). An unspoken part of your employment agreement is that you’ll listen with an open mind and not get defensive or angry or shut down.

6. Figuring that perfect is always better than good. Conscientious employees tend to think that “perfect” work is always better than “good enough” work, but very often the opposite is true. Often the time that it would take to perfect a project means that other work will get short shrift, and in many cases getting something done quickly is more important than making it flawless. If you struggle with perfectionism, it can be useful to ask your manager whether she actually cares about the details you’re spending hours to perfect; you might find that she doesn’t.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Kai*

    Number one rings so true for me. In my first job (data entry/customer service), my coworker and I were both fresh out of grad school. Boss asked us for a quick report on our client base. We really took “report” to heart and basically wrote him a many-page paper, with all the info laid out in very academic language. It felt normal and right at the time, but I laugh at my younger self now!

    1. Jillociraptor*

      I remember with great mirth when my boss at an internship asked me to create “a presentation,” which I took to be Literally the Greatest PowerPoint of All Time (feat. Additional Research) when he really wanted was for me to take the one page of bullet points and organize them into 4-5 slides using the organization’s standard template. We were so young and plucky!

  2. C Average*

    Man, if I’d had this list a decade ago, and if I’d been smart enough to heed this advice, my career would’ve gone so much more smoothly. Every item here is cross-stitch-on-a-pillow material, and every item here took me for-freaking-EVER to grasp. The people who get this stuff get it intuitively, and figure only a willfully obtuse idiot WOULDN’T get this stuff. And the people who don’t get it aren’t ever going to get it unless someone actually spells it out to them, which few people do, because what’s the point in trying to spell out soft skills to a willfully obtuse idiot? And so the cycle continues. Thank God for people like Allison who deconstruct these things for the clueless masses.

    Regarding the thoroughness thing. This is definitely one of my biggest weaknesses. I know I sometimes drove my colleagues nuts with my bullet-pointed emails. But those emails came in awfully handy for CYA purposes when questions arose about, say, who made what decision when. I think there’s a place for thoroughness if you work in a highly political environment where CYA is necessary. Just, you know, stick a tl;dr at the top of the email and let the recipients know you’re creating a record for the archives, but they should be fine with a top-line grasp of the subject.

    1. stevenz*

      Don’t be too hard on yourself. You can know these things, even intuitively, but actually following them can be very hard.

  3. LQ*

    Ah the perfect. I struggle with my coworkers who do this so much. In what we do perfect is not achievable. This isn’t data entry where you can check and see if it is exactly a match. This is, like most work, a little squishy. People will spend months, months, fighting over a single word.

    They’d rather spend all the time fighting over the word choice that doesn’t matter and not put out more work. My boss knows it’s bad and tries to steer away from it, but he personally tends to that and so he’ll end up in the same loop.

    That said I really struggle with when to guess. Part of my job at this point is educated guesses on things, but I tend to lowball my confidence sometimes and get steamrolled by someone who is “completely certain” but really just guessing. Then next time I’ll overshoot my confidence and steam roll someone else. It’s definitely something I’m still struggling with.

  4. Argh!*

    re: #6 Perfect is the enemy of the good!

    re: #1, my perfectionistic boss really does want all the details even for something she won’t give me the go-ahead on. Or, she won’t make a decision without every single thing laid out. I find that really frustrating. I’m not talking about special, never-been-done-before types of things. I’m talking about ordinary things she should be able to trust me to remember & to do.

    Also re: #1, I get lengthy e-mails explaining the history of this or that from a colleague whenever I ask what I think is a simple question. I don’t read the e-mails beyond the first paragraph, and I reply in five words or less. I have stopped asking questions, which is a shame, but I don’t want her wasting her time on answers I won’t read.

    1. Callietwo*

      Oh, the giver of background info before questions. This was me. I want the background/history so I gave it as well. I’ve learned to stop doing that, no one reads beyond the first line or two.

      Also, I learned early on that my boss was only going to read and answer 1 question per email and that email better be less than 3 sentences. If there were two questions, they had to be made in separate emails, period end of story. Even when I was new and learning this new position. Problem was the boss was offsite, with only having face to face once a month for about 40 minutes so there were more emails than there might’ve been if they were in the same location.

  5. Artemesia*

    And when you are unsure how much detail is required as a newbie, you work backwards:

    Here is the problem and what I think we should do — in 50 words or less at the top of the page or Email.

    THEN provide the supporting analysis and detail you think may be necessary. That way the boss knows that the bottom line is right there are the top of the page, and you can adjust the amount of detail provided over time as you learn to work together and know what is needed.

    1. AMT*

      I don’t think we should be piling onto that LW, but it does illustrate a larger point about the way you operate at work vs. in college. Neither is necessary the “correct” way to do things — they both work for their respective settings — but it can be jarring and lead to some awkward moments if you’re not prepared for it.

  6. Joseph*

    #6: This is probably the most difficult lesson to learn of all of them, honestly. In school, you’re taught to always, always strive for perfection. You want to be an A+ student, doing 100% work, all the time. In the working world? I’d rather get a B+ report on time and within budget than an A+ report which is late and over-budget. It’s basically the 80/20 principle: The last 20% to go from “pretty good” to “perfect” requires far more effort than the first 80% took to take the project from “non-existent” to “pretty good”.

    1. SRB*

      Actually, the “guessing” one was the hardest for me to unlearn from school. The rule on some of the standardized tests was “it’s better to guess and have a chance of being right than to not answer at all and have a 100% chance of 0 points”. I was pretty good at that.

      Definitely, absolutely not true in the real world.

      1. De Minimis*

        Same here…actually had a professor that said that was what employers wanted, though I think he meant more that you should not be afraid to contribute or give an opinion even if you weren’t 100% sure of the answer. But the key, as AAM noted, is to say that you are guessing, not portraying your guess as fact!

    2. Kate M*

      I…sort of disagree with this point to some extent. Yes, nobody is perfect, and perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. But I also think that your rank and experience allows you to make different kinds of mistakes.

      I’m sort of a middle rank in my office – several above and below me. My bosses are paid for their ideas, strategy, and connections/relationships. So it’s not a big deal if they don’t take the time to completely edit their memos or emails; that can be my job to make sure things go out to clients in perfect form.

      However, for the people under me, I do expect things to be as perfectly edited as possible, well thought out and researched. It’s not really my job to go back and edit things for them – you should know how to use spellcheck and write a sentence by the time you get out of college. Yes, I’ll look it over, but I’m not going to be happy if it needs a lot of editing. The things they should be getting feedback for are higher level things that they might not know already.

      So I think, coming out of college, not everyone strives for A+. Some are happy to get a C, and that’s fine if that’s what they’re ok with. But if a direct report is giving me C work on things they should know how to do, I’m not going to be happy. It’s not their call anymore to decide they’re ok with doing C work, because it doesn’t only affect them.

    3. Joanna*

      It really depends on the role. When I was in school getting 90% on exams was fantastic. Working in retail banking if I were to only get 90 % of the transactions I processed right I would be creating chaos multiple times a day and would quickly loose my job.

  7. Tammy*

    #2 is probably the lead-in to one of the most shocking job interviewing experiences I ever had. I was on the interviewer side of the table interviewing a candidate for a system admin job, and a candidate decided to guess/make up an answer when he didn’t know the right solution. This is a bad strategy in general in that field, because there are definitely times where a wrong guess can make the problem you’re trying to fix worse and no one person can reasonably know everything, so one of the things I was explicitly looking for was his willingness to say “I’m not sure where to go from here, so I’d ask for help from my team.” Unfortunately for this candidate, his guess was something that was impossible to do on a real computer. Even more unfortunately, when I pointed that out, he had what I can only describe as a mini-tantrum in the midst of the interview, and I heard him say “munblemumble f**king b*tch munblemumble” – under his breath, but plainly audible.

    Guess who didn’t get the job. An honest “I’m not sure” would have served him soooo much better.

    1. Victoria, Please*

      Whaaaaaattttt????!!!!! I hope you stood up and said, “We’re done here” immediately!

    2. nonegiven*

      My son had an answer like that when he was phone interviewing a candidate to assess skills. “He should have googled it, if only he’d known he was wrong.”

  8. Dynamic Beige*

    Completely unrelated, but going to read the article, I was confronted with an ad for the Mayo Clinic — in Arabic. I don’t know what there is in my browsing history or analytics that brought that about!

    1. Anna the Accounting Grad*

      I keep getting ads in Spanish (on various sites, including YouTube pre-rolls). Again, no idea where the assumption of bilingual-ness came from.

    2. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

      I get German ads. Which creeps me out a little because I’ve never gone on German sites on my phone that I can recall, but I recently visited with a German family friend, where we conversed in a bizarre mix of broken English and verrry broken German.

      *eyes phone suspiciously*

  9. AthenaC*

    #5 – I actually had a manager get frustrated with me once because no matter how bad the feedback I was given, I just took it, said “okay,” and committed to fixing it. He actually asked me why I never got more upset, giving the degree and type of feedback I was getting. I replied that since I can’t go back in time, there’s no point in getting upset. All I can do is fix it this time and not do it again next time. He seemed to understand that.

    #6 – I had to coach one of my staff with this. The way our job works, it’s way more efficient for the lowest-level people to blitz through things, submit them for review, and then fix the things the reviewer has them fix. This girl spent a lot of time on first drafts trying to make them perfect, only to have to go through the same process of addressing review notes as the faster, blitzier types. At the end of everything, both people end up with the same quality work product, but one person burned a whole lot more hours to get there.

    1. Pennalynn Lott*

      #5 – I had a manager write me up for being cold and distant when it came to receiving criticism from her. When I said, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, here’s my plan to fix it going forward. . .” she interpreted it as meaning that I was blowing her off. (??) Ditto for the day when I forgot to hand write all my stats down on a sheet of paper [even though they were all in the system] and so next to the blank boxes on the form she wanted us to use I wrote, “Sorry!” She thought I was being b*tchy.

      That was back in 2008-2010 and I still have nightmares about her.

  10. NW Mossy*

    #4 is something I never quite appreciated it as an individual contributor, but as a manager, it’s really come home that just being technically skilled at your corner of the work is not enough – you have to be able to engage with the team constructively, regardless of your base personality type.

    This can be really hard for deep experts to understand, especially when they perceive the situation as “Fergus gets more respect but he shouldn’t because his work product isn’t as good as mine.” They don’t necessarily see that while Fergus’s work is consistently B+, his gift for interpersonal relations makes him deeply valuable for situations that can’t be worked through without strong communication. Soft skills matter too, and they’re challenging to coach because some people have a hard time believing that they’re as important as expertise.

    1. Jesmlet*

      ‘Soft skills matter too’

      I 100% agree with this and would take it one step further. Soft skills to me matter more. You can teach job related skills, especially if you have a temperament that’s adaptable and willing to learn, but you can’t teach someone to be a good team player or a pleasant person to be around.

      1. Simonthegrey*

        If only I could convince my husband this is the case. He is very much a to-the-point person, which is great, but it can come across as really unfeeling at times.

    2. AcademiaNut*

      In academia, I’ve noticed that soft skill become suddenly much more important when applying for permanent jobs.

      In undergrad, it’s purely performance. Even the jerkiest students get top grades if they do the work, short of getting kicked out or arrested. In grad school and postdocs, it’s still mostly performance – personality does have some impact, but most of the emphasis is on having the publications and productivity, and being smart.

      But when it comes time for faculty or staff applications, there’s a minimum level of publications that are needed to get on the short list (which can be dauntingly high, mind you), but after that, the people hiring you are looking for other stuff as well. If you’re talented but difficult or jerky or antisocial, you’re going to have a harder time than talented and adept with interpersonal interactions.

      Part of it is that you’re not just going to be there for a couple years and move on – these are generally either long term staff, or permanent with tenure faculty. A nasty or difficult colleague will make life hard for the rest of the long-term employees, and is going to be less useful supervising and leading.

      Of course, if you’re brilliant enough – a field leader, rather than just very good – being a jerk can be overlooked, at least until the international, articles in the NYT, sexual harassment scandal comes up.

      I’ve had colleagues hit up against this, and be genuinely baffled about why they were getting passed over for what they saw as less competent colleagues. But the problem was that they were very good, but not field leaders, and they had personality traits and ways of behaving that made hiring committees wary – easily frustrated and prone to public outbursts in one case, overly arrogant and dismissive of those they say as inferior in another.

  11. Mimmy*

    I am guilty of just about all of these, particularly #1 – I am extremely detail-oriented, sometimes to the point of being blind to the bigger picture. Also, I have trouble keeping emails and, at a previous job, call logs succinct.

    #5 and #6 are also issues for me. For me, they are knee-jerk reactions despite knowing in my head that these tendencies are Not Okay.

  12. James*

    Re #6: This can be taken too far, though. “Good” is only good enough when it is, in fact, good enough. I’ve seen people use this as an excuse to get things out the door that are sub-par, however, with very serious consequences for the company.

    I think it’s context-dependent. Sometimes good is fine; other times, anything less than perfect is a failure. The trick, it seems, is to know when each is the case.

    And honestly, I’ve never met someone with a problem with this who didn’t have problems in other areas as well. It’s never, in my experience, that they want the thing to be perfect–the perfectionism is usually a screen for something. Fear of being criticized is big for new employees. Wanting to exert control over others is another, usually for older employees (the ones that get passed up for promotions and raises, oddly enough). Inability to handle change is another; particularly with field work some people want everything exactly the way they said, and when reality won’t allow it they fly off the handle. I’m just not sure that perfectionism is the real problem here; I think it’s a mask for a suite of issues.

    1. Manders*

      This is a great point. We talk a lot about perfectionism, but there are so many different things that go into expecting perfection of yourself or others. For a lot of people, it’s actually coming from (justified or not) anxiety about being caught making a mistake, or even just dislike of the revision process.

    2. Kate M*

      Exactly. I touched on this a little in a comment above, but I do expect a lot of things that come to me to be as near perfect as possible from my direct reports, assuming it’s something they should already know. I don’t want to have to go through and do spellcheck or edit grammar on their memos, but I’m happy to explain the different processes that go on in Congress if they haven’t come across a particular one and need to know it.

      I think a lot of people when they’re young come out of high school and college with the mentality that either you get several drafts to get a paper right, or if you get a C it’s fine because it only affects you. It doesn’t really work that way in the working world – I’m not sending a client less than A+ work.

      1. James*

        I learned that lesson with submitting waste profiles for approval at landfills. There were one or two errors–so the whole thing got sent back and I had to re-do it. Fortunately the errors weren’t my fault; there were a lot of complicating factors (gotta love dig-and-haul remediation…) and the landfill was working with us to get the situation resolved. But it drove the point home: if it’s not up to the appropriate standards, it’ll get sent back–and if they have to send it back three or four times, they will! This can delay operations, which in turn can cost the company money. And if that happens often enough, you don’t get to do that work anymore. In the consulting world, that’s a slow death for your career.

        The other thing I learned on that job was proper identification of standards. Part of perfectionism is focusing on the wrong things. The reality is that the client has certain expectations and requirements that need to be met for the deliverable to be accepted. Those cannot be compromised (though working with a client they may be changed). But if you’re focused on something outside of those standards, you’re usually wrong. If you’re adding value that’s one thing–most people like it when you do extra for them, particularly when it doesn’t cost them anything extra! But obsessing over a detail the client doesn’t care about is a pretty serious error.

  13. stevenz*

    The last one, about thoroughness. I’d say that thoroughness of thought is a good thing, but how you operationalize that is different. Everybody has only so much time in the day so it doesn’t work to tell them everything you know. There are at least two common terms for this: satisficing, and sub-optimization. And there’s the old saw “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” which means that while you’re taking the time to be perfect, you many not even achieve something good, and good is, well, good.

    I’ve noticed that the drive for perfection/thoroughness is related to having a very structured mind and not being able to tolerate uncertainty, and the the total conviction that everyone else needs the same amount of information. It varies, of course. In engineering or accounting or celestial mechanics precision is the only way. But there are myriad other professions that require flexibility of thought, especially when dealing with human nature.

  14. Kore*

    #1 is very very true to me. I tend to be very thorough and detail oriented when reporting to either a manager or another coworker. Recently I went through the annual performance review process and got some pretty negative review. The comment I got from a peer was that I don’t own up to my mistakes. I was trying to figure out what this was referring to – I have zero problem with saying “I messed up, here’s what I did wrong, here’s how I will be better,” and if I mess up I will be the first person to say I messed up. Then I realized, they had been interpreting my thoroughness as excuses – that me explaining how something happened was being interpreted as giving an excuse, when I did not intend it as such at all. I’ve been amending my speech/email writing with the hopes that will be better liked, even though that’s not my preferred method.

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