Business Tech Career

Focus on the work first: when being nice isn’t always nice

Have you ever met anyone at work that wasn’t the most competent, but was the nicest person? They were perfect in every way, even beyond perfect, only if they could be as effective at their actual job.

Maybe you’re such a person. You realize you’re behind or in over your head, so you ensure you do everything else to make up for the skills you need to be good at your job.

Paying for lunches, being super friendly, bringing in snacks, helping out with extracurricular activity. When a tough decision needs to be made (like downsizing), things like these make it a bit tough on the heart strings true, but you can see the sharks circling and your days being numbered.

Unfortunately, these make up actions (so called intangibles) are never enough. Don’t get me wrong, a horrible talent that’s not personable is no better, but without being able to do the actual work, everything else just makes the inevitable break up ugly, but not tough at all to do. Once the productivity isn’t there, leaders don’t have a hard time making the necessary changes no matter how warm, congenial, or “eager to learn” you are.

I was once on this side of the track. Not that I wasn’t competent, but I was in over my head. Had I fully assessed my situation, I would have figured out what I didn’t know and how to fix it (more practice, asking questions, generally communicate better etc), but I tried a different tactic. I dressed better, it gave off the unintended consequence that I felt I was better than everyone else (even more alienation and suspicion). I brought it snacks but my fate fared no better.

Once you’re suspected of being incompetent, a very limited set of evidence can save you. You may be tempted to play politics, perhaps align yourself with a respected member of the team. Or attempt to look competent with a respected member of the team that’s not the most competent. Note, once you’re momentarily wearing the dunce cap (often when you first begin or make a mistake), there will be “investigators” people who will make it their sole purpose to find you out.

Taking the wrong actions can lead to a snowball of adverse effects. Caught in the cross hairs, I did everything wrong. I didn’t take real feedback, I became suspicious, I tried to play the political game, and while I was very busy, I did everything else but produce. It was a tough time. From what I’ve learned, here are a few things to suggest.

Once you find yourself in this position, don’t try to dodge the bullet. Avoid nonsense, but bite that bullet if you’ve reached the limits of your work related competence and are about to be found out. Eating the humble pie has a profound effect even on perceived workplace enemies and more importantly, your team and leadership. You looking relatable or human can elicit the right course of actions by your leadership to getting you on the right track.

Also, if you’re new to the organization, don’t make any assumptions. Work related gaffes may be a rite of passage the organization purposely sets to test your character. Will you be resourceful, will you reach out for help, will you hide the fact that you don’t know what you’re doing, will you shift blame? These are things organizations can’t really know when conducting interviews or when all goes swimmingly, so some may stage tough situations to get a real sense of who they’re working with.

As far fetched as it seems, all I’m saying is you should think about your actions and how you need to be perceived, not how you’ll love to be perceived. First, fess up if you’re accused of a blunder you know you made. Talk through your reasoning and thought process that resulted in your actions (One way to reduce the number of times this happens is to always weigh your actions from day one).

When talking through your actions, understand that you may be challenged. The tricky part is to remain calm and avoid the temptation to defend yourself. Receive the feedback, try to communicate the feedback within the context of the situation and your actions while expecting more feedback about whether you’re heading in the right direction. These conversations can significantly cut down on the blowback of your predicament. Just be sure to be engaged and fully invested.

The one drawback about this effective approach is that you can’t have the same issue come up multiple times and receiving the same feedback and being just as engaged. Without any variation to your learning or actions, you’ll be pegged as a chronic buffoon that just knows about to receive feedback, but can’t use it to improve. You will see far less conviction, and more irritation from the person providing feedback, because the little credibility you bought back on the first feedback session was bought fraudulently. You’re not really looking to learn or improve, you’re just playing the part.

The second and even as difficult response is to not try to look smart or competent while not accepting the title of resident dunce. Don’t try to one-up or show how bright you are in every subsequent situation. Once you’ve made the blunder, own it, have a conversation if possible, and then move on to improving and receiving more feedback.

Some people tend to want to show that that error doesn’t reflect a deeper issue, and then begin to work absurdly hard to prove they know what their doing. You can tell it’s misguided because they focus on the results instead of the process. They pay more attention to showing results, complex convoluted results instead of improving their understanding of the process to show gradual improvements in results. This need to prove is also devoid of or has a warped reaction to feedback.

An example is if a person hired to write isn’t doing a good job, and one of the feedback they receive is that there’s not enough content in the writing or it’s not refined enough. The person may focus on the content part  of the feedback and begin writing a lot more content that’s still not good, or begin making their writing so complicated that it is becomes unreadable.

The other end of the spectrum is to accept the role of the resident dunce. This is when you and your team expect you to drop the ball, and psychologically, you begin to take steps towards dropping the ball. Every blunder you make is now expected and comes with little surprise. Your successes are met with suspicion and almost brushed aside as lacking quality.

Yes, the best thing to do is not change how you carry yourself, how you respond and how you work. It’s a bit psychotic to act as though nothing happened, but if your confidence starts to fail from within, those who are without just need to nudge you a little off the cliff. You mustn’t take feedback too personally, but steel your mind. Understand you’ll receive glances and doubting looks on your next task (or next day), you may even been the headline of this week’s workplace gossip, but these only last until the another person makes next blunder. People’s attention span continues to shift. If you’re not bothered, why should they?

Another response may be the most important of all. Work like a dog, the right way. Ensure you do everything in your power to learn what is truly valuable. Now, this may not be the easiest advice to put in practice based on your particular situation. There’s only so much you can do if your work is maths and you just don’t get it. This is true, but if you are in a position where the more you do the better you can possibly get, you just have to bump up your work rate. Double, tripple, quadruple your practice. Find tips and tricks that can make you better (actually make you better, not give you shortcuts). Build a dexterity and familiarity with your domain. Become comfortable with the basics even if you’re still going to be the one who brings up the rear. Your practice will show improvements in your work in real intangibles. The one drawback about this response is that it takes time.

Unfortunately, you and your reputation may not survive your Rocky training sequence, but still do it. If not this opportunity, the next opportunity will be glad you did. For me, this response led to a very successful next opportunity. My worst experience led to a good experience that keeps getting better. What I realized is that if I practice ahead of an inevitable gaffe (don’t kid yourself, people will always make mistakes or not know enough. What separates the novice from the professional is how they respond), I will be one or more steps ahead of wearing the dunce cap. This may be the secret of all pros, just remaining one step ahead of everyone and everything else.

On the bright side, with little, passable competence and all the desirable intangibles, you can definitely get to the pinnacle. I can rattle off person after person, situation after situation of people who became university presidents, national presidents, confidants and advisers, on and on, just because they improved their competence, but maintained all the intangibles only they knew how to provide. You can use this to your advantage by disarming people, first be upfront about your limits, readily acknowledge you’re not the world’s foremost expert. Next disarm them again, by how much you do know. Occasionally go deep on the subject matter to let them know that though you’re non-threatening, they can’t pull a wool over your eyes.

Often times, when selecting candidates for roles, once the technical competence is indistinguishable (and that can be by a wide margin), other factors that are considered are definitely the intangibles. Who did we have a better experience with? Who would we like to work with everyday? However, don’t forget, it starts with competence. You must continue to improve everyday.

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