When a senior leader sponsors a junior employee, supporting and advocating for them, it’s obvious that the junior person gains a lot. But so does the senior leader. A good protégé expands your worldview and helps you fill gaps in your skill set and knowledge — which can lead to tangible benefits such as promotions and stretch assignments. To cultivate this type of sponsoring relationship, seek out a protégé who is a high performer and trustworthy. This person’s reputation will become intertwined with your own, so consider how their actions at work may reflect on you. And while protégés don’t have to be young, they should be different from you, perhaps in gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, professional background, or life experience. Think about where your blind spots are, or what areas you wish you knew more about, and use those insights to inform your decision. Also think about what you’re an expert in and who might need that expertise. When managed well, a sponsoring relationship will help both of you rise and thrive.
There are certain times of the year when it’s especially hard to stay focused and productive. (Think late summer and around the winter holidays.) During these typically slow periods, when the office might be almost empty, consider how you can give your employees extra flexibility. For example, some people might want to come in and leave early to have more family time before the school year starts. Others may want to work remotely so they can go out of town while still getting their work done. But don’t assume what your employees want — ask them. And equip managers to make the call on what to allow. If you can, you may even want to try closing the office for a few days to help people disconnect and recharge. Giving employees greater control over their schedules, even for short periods of time, can boost morale and keep everyone’s productivity at a good (and reasonable) level.
We all need feedback to improve at work, but when criticism is unexpectedly harsh, your first instinct may be to run and hide. Four steps can help you stay present and react in a productive way:
- Collect yourself. Breathe deeply and notice how you’re feeling. Silently labeling your emotions (“I’m feeling hurt and ashamed”) can help you get some distance from them in the moment.
- Understand. Ask the other person for details about, and examples of, the behavior they’ve highlighted. And then listen calmly, as if the conversation is about someone else.
- Recover. Tell the person that you need to reflect and that you’ll respond when you can. Don’t agree or disagree right away with what you’ve heard. Take some time to process and evaluate it.
- Engage. Think about the feedback, including how valid it is. Even tough criticism usually has a kernel of truth, so look for it. Then, if necessary, talk to the person again and share your thoughts.
When it comes to organizational change, most companies have some track record of failure. That’s why leaders who are beginning new change efforts should acknowledge those that fell short in the past. Employees have seen their fair share of these failures, which means they’re likely to view your approach with skepticism, no matter how promising you think it is. To win them over, show that you understand the frustration they feel. Talk about the time, effort, and emotional commitment they put toward past change efforts, and apologize for those efforts’ underwhelming results. (Yes, apologize — even if you weren’t at fault.) Explaining why previous initiatives failed, in detail, will strengthen your credibility. You should also explain why the new approach has a good chance of succeeding, making the case with evidence and no-nonsense forthrightness. Being honest and open in your delivery will help to dispel employees’ cynicism, which will help you avoid the fate of your predecessors.
If you’re a manager, your employees are probably intimidated by you — no matter how friendly you are — simply because of your position. And when people are intimidated, they’re less likely to offer ideas or point out problems. Keep in mind how your title affects the ways others perceive you. For example, if you ask a tough question about a project, a senior peer might hear a useful critique, while a junior employee might just hear criticism. You should also consider how colleagues view your facial expressions and body language. Is it possible that, say, some employees see your thoughtful frown as an angry scowl? Ask a trusted colleague for feedback about any body language that might be off-putting. You can also try being up front about your tics: “I know that I frown when I’m thinking, but that doesn’t mean I’m upset.” And be mindful of how you react to comments and questions. If you respond negatively when you’re challenged, people will be less likely to speak up in the future.
Being passionate about your job is great — but there are limits. If you become so wrapped up in your professional identity that setbacks at work affect your self-worth, that’s a problem. Keep a healthy perspective by distinguishing who you are from what you do. Your job is just that — a job. Maybe you’re a “senior analyst” at work, but in life you’re much more than that. Your worth as a person is not tied to your position on the org chart. So when someone criticizes a report you wrote or a presentation you gave, remind yourself that they’re criticizing the report or the presentation, not you. By shifting your perspective this way, you build resilience and protect your self-esteem from challenges and even failures (which are inevitable, after all). And having a strong sense of self, in turn, will help you perform better in your role.
Big-picture ethical lapses tend to grow out of small, everyday bad behaviors. That’s why it’s important for managers to watch for unethical actions on their teams. Be wary of two things in particular. The first is how company culture affects your team members. Over time we mimic the norms and values of those around us. So if some employees make a habit of exaggerating last month’s numbers, for example, others may find themselves doing it too. Revisit your culture’s norms every so often and consider how they’re influencing your team. The second is when people use approaching deadlines or high-stakes situations to justify minor bad behavior. It can be tempting to bend the rules when the pressure is on, so talk to your team about the ethics standards you want them to adhere to. Discuss what’s OK, what isn’t, and where the line is.
If your company hires seasonal employees, it’s important to make sure they feel valued and engaged. Those who do are more likely to work for you again in the future, and to recommend your company to others. Start by onboarding seasonal workers thoroughly. Sometimes temporary staffers feel as if they’re being thrown into the job without enough preparation — don’t let that happen. Train them in what they need to know, show them it’s OK to ask you questions, and help them get to know other employees. When they’re on the job, no matter how short their stint, find small, personal ways to show that you appreciate them. For example, you might buy everyone lunch one day, or create opportunities for the team to connect during breaks or after work. And to the best of your abilities, treat everyone equally. Just because someone is a temporary worker doesn’t mean they should feel like a second-class citizen.
Hiring managers don’t always ask straightforward questions, which can make it hard to know whether you’re convincing them you’re right for the job. Here’s what the interviewer really wants you to answer — however they may ask about it:
- What are you like to work with? Help them see you as a member of the team by establishing a rapport. Smile, lean forward to show you’re engaged, speak with enthusiasm, and make eye contact.
- Can you learn? Talk about how you’ve handled challenges in the past, including new skills you picked up along the way. You can also inquire about the learning resources the company offers, which will make clear that you want to grow.
- Can you take initiative? Demonstrate this by being prepared. Know what the company does, its history, its strengths, and its weaknesses. And be ready to ask good questions about the company and the role.
We all have professional idols we’d like to meet, people whose careers inspire and impress us. But how do you connect with them? Start by establishing your credibility. When you email or message your hero, mention mutual connections, shared alumni affiliations, or work you’ve done in their field. This person likely gets a lot of requests, so demonstrate why connecting with you will be mutually beneficial. Be specific about what you’re asking for and what you can offer. (If you don’t have something valuable to offer, that might be a reason not to reach out.) You should also be clear that you have no expectations — you like what they do and you’d enjoy the chance to be useful to them, but you completely understand if they’re too busy. By showing that you are aware of their circumstances, and don’t want to take up too much of their time, you can set yourself apart from the rest of their inbox.
Not everyone in a family business is a top performer. Some family members may feel entitled and slack off; others may think they’ll get a pass for their mistakes. How do you give someone feedback in these situations? Start the discussion by asking questions that will help you understand how the person sees their work and what they want to contribute. Listen carefully, and then respond with a kind but unambiguous description of the expectations of their role. Doing this will set the stage for you to offer further comments about their performance. If the family dynamic makes the conversation too risky or uncomfortable, consider having a third party convey the feedback instead. On the other hand, it may be that the person isn’t a good fit for their role. In that case, think about where in the company the person’s skills would be useful. Remember to show respect for the person’s ties to the family, while being candid about what you expect as their boss.
When you need to sell an idea at work or in a presentation, how do you do it? Five rhetorical devices can help — Aristotle identified them 2,000 years ago, and masters of persuasion still use them today:
- Ethos. Start your talk by establishing your credibility and character. Show your audience that you are committed to the welfare of others, and you will gain their trust.
- Logos. Use data, evidence, and facts to support your pitch.
- Pathos. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Wrap your big idea in a story that will elicit an emotional reaction.
- Metaphor. Compare your idea to something that is familiar to your audience. It will help you clarify your argument by making the abstract concrete.
- Brevity. Explain your idea in as few words as possible. People have a limited attention span, so talk about your strongest points first.
Difficult conversations are hard enough when they happen in person. When you have to have one virtually — with a remote worker or a boss in another city, for example — you can take a few steps to help the conversation go smoothly. First, use a videoconferencing tool, such as Skype, so that eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice will be apparent. You want the other person to be able to understand both what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Second, go somewhere private and quiet for the call, and ask the other person to do the same. If possible, make sure neither of you is dealing with any distractions. Third, be specific about what you’re saying. When we’re physically distant from someone, we’re more likely to view them, or the difficult situation, abstractly. That’s why it’s so important to be detailed, whether you’re giving feedback or delivering bad news. Making notes before the meeting can ensure that you cover all the points you need to.
Offsite meetings can be great for team building and alignment, but often those benefits vanish when everyone returns to their day-to-day work. To make sure your next offsite has a lasting impact, define the specific goals you hope to achieve and how you will measure them. (Try completing this statement: “I’d be really happy if, by the end of the offsite, we…”) Whatever you decide, let the goals influence who gets invited. If the purpose of your offsite is to have a discussion about fiscal year objectives, for example, a large meeting will be less effective. Be sure to write out an agenda. A good rule of thumb is to spend 45 minutes to two hours on each topic — and double-check that the agenda supports your goals. During the meeting, push people to think strategically about the bigger picture and tackle issues that daily operations haven’t been able to resolve. Then schedule check-ins to keep everyone accountable and on track once the offsite is over.
When you and your partner both have demanding careers, staying on top of things at home is a struggle. That’s why you have to be strategic about who does what. Make a list of household responsibilities, everything from unloading the dishwasher to picking up your kids after school. Next, categorize each item on the list as “loathe,” “don’t mind,” or “enjoy.” Then assign tasks based on each person’s preferences. Divvying up the work this way can ease tensions and make sure both partners are contributing equally. If there are certain items that both of you loathe, outsourcing can be a helpful option. It’s also a good idea to have weekly or monthly check-ins to compare schedules, ask for support, and shift responsibilities as needed. For example, if you know you’ll need to work late for a few days, your partner will have to pick up the kids. Just make sure to return the favor when your partner needs it.
Many of us have to deliver bad news at work from time to time. Research shows that people hearing bad news do indeed “shoot the messenger,” which means you should be careful about your delivery. When you have to tell someone information they’ll find unpleasant, try to convey that you’re doing it to help them. For example, preface it with a statement like, “I know that what I’m about to tell you isn’t what you hoped to hear, but I wanted to let you know so that we can work together to find a solution.” If the other person senses your good intentions, they will be less likely to take their negative feelings out on you. And when you need to deliver negative feedback, try starting with some positive feedback, which can make the person more receptive. You might also say something like, “I’m telling you this because I see your potential and I want to help you grow.”
Despite how important feedback is for employees’ development, some managers don’t like to give it. That’s a problem, because when people aren’t getting feedback, they start to wonder why. They may think that as long as they aren’t creating problems for you, they’re doing OK. But employees need to know how they are performing, both the good and the bad. Otherwise they might just keep their heads down and stay out of your way — which won’t help them take risks or be proactive about solving problems. Employees who aren’t getting feedback may also worry that you think they can’t improve. Teams need psychological safety to be at their best, and in order to feel safe, people need to know their boss is invested in their success. Giving feedback shows that you are. Set high expectations for your team by regularly talking with people about where they can grow. The simple takeaway here? If you don’t give your employees much feedback, change your ways.
Managers know how important it is to give time and attention to new employees — but few do the same for employees who announce they’re leaving. Don’t write off a departing employee or get angry about their decision; use the departure as a learning experience. Schedule some time to sit down with the person, and ask about their plans as well as about why they’re leaving. Their answers may reveal workplace issues you weren’t aware of, which could help you retain other employees. You should also talk to them about how they contributed to your team. Highlight specific examples of good work and any talents they have that you find particularly valuable; think of your feedback as a farewell gift. It’s a good idea to maintain positive relationships with departing employees, both because they could be a networking resource later on and because it shows current employees that you value the people on your team.
Most of us lie at work from time to time. And whether it’s an intentional deception or a “harmless” exaggeration, being found out jeopardizes your credibility. To start repairing your reputation, think about why you lied. Knowing the conditions that led you to that choice can help you resist the urge to lie again in the future. Next, assess how much damage your lie did. Are coworkers no longer seeking your opinion? Are your comments being received coolly? Think about what your reputation is now and what you’d like it to be. Then find ways to demonstrate honesty. If your humility is in question, express doubt about your ideas. If you exaggerated your contributions to a project, go out of your way to highlight others’ work. Your colleagues probably aren’t trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, so show them that you know you made a mistake and are trying to learn from it.
Searching for a job is exhausting, which makes it tempting to take the first decent opportunity that comes your way. But if you don’t properly vet the organization and the role, you may end up with a job that isn’t a good fit for you. Before each interview, learn as much as you can about the specifics of the role and the company’s culture. Sites like Glassdoor, which gather anonymous employee reviews, can be valuable resources. During the interview, ask detailed questions about what working at the company is really like. For example, instead of “How does your day-to-day look?” try “What projects are you working on right now, and how do you decide what to prioritize?” You should also ask to speak to employees in positions similar to the one you’re applying for. Find out what you’ll need in order to be successful and whether your talents and interests are a match for the role’s demands.