It’s normal to underperform from time to time. After all, everyone has bad weeks — or even months. But don’t just sit back and wait for a painful performance review; be proactive and talk with your manager about what’s going on (before they have a chance to discover it on their own). Explain your view of things in straightforward, direct terms. Talk about whether your underperformance is a one-off situation or an ongoing trend, as well as whether external factors are involved. But don’t make excuses — take responsibility. It may be appropriate to express contrition, in which case a sincere “I’m sorry” goes a long way. And then segue into how you can make things right going forward. Focus on this last part — what you can do to correct the situation — to show that you’ve thought carefully about a solution. You can also ask your boss for their advice on next steps, which will show that you respect their opinion.
Just like everyone else, leaders need honest feedback to grow. But what leaders hear is often vague, or isn’t tied to specific behaviors, which means it isn’t very useful. One way to get feedback that will help you improve is to build a culture where it’s safe for employees to be honest. Show colleagues that you want to know what they think, even when — especially when — they might hesitate to tell you. You can do this by asking open-ended questions and listening carefully to the answers: “What did you hear when I shared my strategy?” or “How did it feel to you when I sent that email?” Tell your team that you want both positive and negative comments, and then resist the urge to respond to what they say — even if you disagree, simply listen and reflect. Lastly, thank your team for their honesty, and use their feedback to make necessary changes.
Do you find yourself struggling to finish your to-do list — even after prioritizing, planning, and delegating? If so, consider whether you could work more efficiently. Small changes to your work style could end up saving you hours each week. For instance, before eagerly jumping into a new project, talk to stakeholders about their expectations so that you know what to prioritize. Maybe they want a detailed project plan, but maybe a rough outline would get the job done too. It’s also helpful to ask yourself if you could reuse any past work to complete the project at hand. Say you’re preparing a presentation to senior leaders — can you pull language from the proposal it’s based on, or draw on other materials to flesh it out? Lastly, use timeboxing to organize your efforts: Decide in advance how long you will spend on each task, and stick to it. Even if you don’t finish everything in the allotted time, timeboxing will help you focus for short bursts of productivity.
How do you coach an employee who seems beyond help? Maybe the person is arrogant, is tactlessly blunt, or lacks empathy. Sometimes you actually can’t help them — but it may be that their behavior is misunderstood or misdiagnosed. To make sure you have an accurate view of the person, check your assumptions and judgments. Look beyond the obvious symptoms and think about what might underlie their destructive behavior. Observe patterns and notice when there are breaks in those patterns; these deviations can provide important clues. Consider, for example: Are there certain people this person works with especially well or poorly? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? Why is that the case? And then come up with a broad range of ways to help the employee. Until you identify what’s really causing the problem, it’s hard to be sure about how to fix it. Avoid one-size-fits-all approaches, and think through what the employee truly needs in order to improve.
Having friends at work is good for your engagement and productivity. But what do you do when you’re up for a promotion that a work friend also wants? First, step back and get some perspective. Remind yourself that this is just one of many promotions that will come up in your career. Second, remember that the friendship is probably more important than who has what job. Talk to your friend about the situation, and defuse any tension that exists. Be clear that you don’t want to let the promotion affect the relationship. Finally, keep your feelings of self-worth in check. Promotions can be arbitrary and subjective; the decision isn’t always about who is better for the job, and it may even come down to factors outside your control. Think about how you’d like to react if the promotion doesn’t go your way — that way you’ll be ready for whatever happens next.
It’s tempting to think the only way to get to the top is to work all the time. But you can be an effective leader and maintain a healthy work-life balance. It all starts with your mindset. Stop thinking of yourself as someone who’s willing to do whatever the job asks, and start thinking of yourself as someone who does great work and also has a life outside of it. Plan how you’ll set aside and prioritize time for family, friends, and hobbies; consider where you have flexibility and where you need more of it. To do this, take a hard look at your company’s culture. Does your team measure success by how long people spend at the office, or by whether they get their tasks done on time? If it’s the former, something needs to change — and you may need to lead that change. If it’s the latter, think about what’s stopping you from changing how you spend your time.
Does it seem like your boss is shutting you out? Excluding you from crucial meetings, not answering your questions, or ignoring your requests for support? This kind of situation is frustrating, especially if you don’t know why your manager is acting that way. The first thing to do is to verify whether your perception of what’s happening is accurate. Are your colleagues having similar experiences with the boss? If not, you may be missing some crucial context or information. If your perception is correct, think about what might have gone wrong and how you can rebuild the relationship. Have you overstepped in some area, or handled a project in way your boss didn’t like? You’ll likely have to initiate a conversation; try to show that you value your boss and want to set things right: “I realize that you haven’t wanted me to coordinate with marketing the way I used to. Have I done something that you felt didn’t represent the team well?” Take any feedback to heart, and use it to work on gaining back your manager’s trust.
One of the biggest reasons new hires don’t work out is bad onboarding. When done well, onboarding lays the groundwork for the employee to settle into their role and thrive. It should start with the basics: Show the person around the office. Help them understand obvious (but often overlooked) things like where to park their car and where get an ID card, so they have what they need to function. When it comes to their job, set clear and realistic expectations. They need to know what “good” looks like, both in the company and in their specific role. Provide them with a job description that includes well-defined responsibilities and a clear explanation of what decisions rights and resources they’ll have. Over the next few months, check in regularly. Put a weekly meeting on the calendar so that you can touch base and make sure they have the guidance and coaching they need. Your goal is to ensure they can make meaningful contributions as soon as possible.
Many people enjoy the convenience that flexible and remote work bring, but sitting at your kitchen table day after day can get lonely. To help your employees feel connected to each other, consider establishing an “in-the-office” day each week, when remote employees are encouraged to come in. Whether they attend meetings or just eat lunch with colleagues, having this weekly touchpoint can make them feel more engaged. For remote workers who can’t come in regularly, a monthly or quarterly visit can go a long way toward maintaining their relationships with coworkers. Their visits will have travel costs, of course, but the benefits to the team will likely outweigh them. It’s also critical that managers guard against any stigma that might make remote workers feel ostracized and further isolated. Be sure everyone knows that working from home is an accepted business practice, not something to frown upon.
There is no such thing as a “creative personality”; anybody can be creative, given the right opportunities and context. So if you need more creativity on your team, don’t just hire more people — develop the ones who already work for you. Research has found that expertise in a certain field is a key ingredient for producing creative work, so offer your team coaching to help them master the skills your organization needs. Practicing is another path to expertise. Find ways for employees to use new skills again and again, and give them feedback so that they keep improving. It’s also important to encourage exploration. Set aside time for employees to play around with new ideas and follow inspiration wherever it leads, even when there isn’t an obvious connection to their jobs. Finally, reward persistence. Ideas often need time to develop — lots of it — and someone’s passion project could turn out to be your company’s next big innovation.
When employees feel free to be themselves at work — when they don’t think they have to hide their religion or sexual orientation, for example — they’re much more likely to be happy in their jobs. One way to encourage this kind of openness is to build an inclusive culture, which starts with knowing who your employees truly are. Conducting an employee engagement survey can be an effective way to find out. Segment the data you collect by criteria — such as gender, ethnicity, and age — to help you identify and address issues among different groups of employees. Focus groups are another way to gain insight. They are best facilitated by a third party so that employees can speak freely. The most powerful way to learn about your employees, however, is one-on-one discussions. For these conversations to be effective, you need to have an open-door policy and a “tell me anything” persona. Being honest about your thoughts and feelings will build trust and show people that you’re human, too.
We all know the networking benefits of going to a conference. But to reap those benefits, you have to follow up with the people you met. Luckily, a small amount of effort can help you maintain those new connections. Block an hour on your calendar as “processing time” after the conference. Go through your briefcase, pockets, and travel bag, and gather all the business cards you collected from others. Then capture each person’s details in an app or spreadsheet, and identify your goal for the relationship. Separate people into three categories: those you have a specific reason to follow up with, those you’d like to build a deeper relationship with, and those who are generally interesting but don’t fall into the other categories. You can’t invest equally in all connections, so send quick notes to the people in the first and third categories, and spend time figuring out how to connect on a deeper level with those in the second.
The only thing worse than having a long to-do list is not knowing how you’re going to get everything done. Timeboxing can help: It’s a way of converting your to-do list into blocks of time on your calendar, so you have a plan for what to do and when. Start by looking at your to-do list and figuring out each task’s deadlines. For example, if a promotional video has to go live on a Tuesday, and the production team needs 72 hours to incorporate your edits, then put a hold on your calendar at least 72 hours before Tuesday. Repeat for each item on your to-do list. If you work on a team where people can see one another’s calendars, timeboxing has the added benefit of showing people that the work will get done on time. But the biggest advantage of timeboxing might be that it gives you a feeling of control over your calendar — which can help you feel happier at work.
When a talented employee of yours announces their resignation, it’s a dreadful moment. The first thing you should do is take some time to process any negative emotions you feel, such as frustration or disappointment. These kinds of feelings are normal, but they won’t help you address the situation productively. Once you’ve reflected, focus on celebrating the employee’s accomplishments and gathering their honest feedback about the team. Set an example by expressing genuine support for their decision to leave; you may want to throw a goodbye party or a similar event to wish them well. And then make sure you conduct an exit interview, even if HR will do one too. Ask for the person’s advice on retaining other employees and improving the experience of working for you. By being willing to hear uncomfortable truths, you’ll show the person that you respect the experience and knowledge they gained during their time there.
The fear of failing at something — of doing it wrong, looking foolish, or not meeting expectations — can be paralyzing. But avoiding challenges that make you anxious isn’t going to help you grow. To overcome your fear of failure, redefine what the concept means to you. For example, instead of thinking about failure (or success) in terms of what you achieve, reframe it in terms of what you learn. No one gets everything right, and a “failure” can still provide invaluable experience for the future. It’s also important to focus on what you want to do rather than what you want to avoid. When you’re dreading a tough task, you may unconsciously set goals around what you don’t want to happen. Creating a “fear list” can help: Write down the challenge’s worst-case scenario, how you can prevent it, and how you’ll respond if it comes true. Creating a plan for a bad outcome can give you the courage to move forward.
When you’re stressed out, it’s hard to decide what to eat for dinner, let alone get work done. How can you produce ideas when you’re feeling this way? First, take a breath and relax. Trying to force yourself to be creative will only lead to more frustration. Instead of thinking, “I must be creative right now,” tell yourself, “I’m going to play around with some ideas.” Then do an activity that will let your mind wander. Going for a walk or napping, for example, naturally loosens up your brain, which can lead to new insights. If you still feel stuck, give yourself more material to work with: Read about the topic you’re tackling, take a field trip to observe other people’s solutions to similar problems, or talk to experts. Above all else, give yourself time. You’ll have a much better chance of success when you let creative thoughts percolate.
Sometimes the perfect job is thousands of miles away. How do you know if it’s worth relocating for a new opportunity? You might be tempted to weigh the pros and cons in an Excel spreadsheet, but it’s better to think holistically about your personal and professional goals. For example, consider the lifestyle you’ll have in the new location. Do you want a small-town life, or do you prefer a big city? Do you want to spend your weekends traveling, or do you want to feel rooted in a community? Think about the repercussions of taking the job, especially for your partner and kids. Will your spouse be able to find meaningful work after the move? Be realistic about what the move will mean for your family, and talk it through — a lot. If you’re still not sure what to do, you may want to try a short-term stint or job swap to test out the new location before committing.
Open-mindedness at work — about new products, strategies, business models — is one key to success. But how do you develop it? Research has found there are several things you can do. For one, travel, whether it’s to another country or somewhere closer to home. As you encounter ways of living that differ from the ones you know best, your brain will get better at accepting new approaches and ideas. For a cheaper option, read fiction. Books can train your brain to be curious about others’ experiences and opinions. Another low-cost option is mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to help people be willing to revise their ideas. And if you’re someone who tends to get stuck in their ways, there’s a simple trick you can try: Start sentences with “I could be wrong, but…” This conveys your openness to others and forces you to start conversations with a willingness to change your mind.
Sometimes you have to work with a colleague you don’t particularly like. They may not be toxic or difficult — they might just get on your nerves. To work with them productively, remind yourself that while you won’t get along with everyone, there is potential value in every interaction. Think about the other person’s point of view: Why do they do the things that annoy you? What might be motivating them? And how do you seem to them? It also helps to approach conversations with a problem-solving mindset: “I don’t feel like we are working together as effectively as we could. What do you think? Do you have any ideas for how we can work together better?” If that doesn’t work, try asking for their help: “You’ve been around here longer than I have. What should I be doing more or less of?” This can ease tensions and reboot a difficult relationship because it shows that you value the person’s experience.
It’s not always clear how you should think about growing in your career. One thing to try is writing a “from/to” statement that articulates where you are today and where you want to go. For example: I want to progress from an individual contributor who adds value through technical expertise and closely follows others’ directions, to a people leader who creates a clear strategy and delivers results through a small team. To write a from/to, ask trusted superiors and colleagues for their candid view of your current role and your goals. Tell them to be brutally honest, because their transparency will help you figure out how you need to grow. Reflect on their answers and incorporate them into your from/to statement — and then have your colleagues read it. Sometimes people think they’re far ahead of where they are, or choose a destination that is unrealistic. Your advisers can provide a reality check.