Working for a manager with unrealistic expectations can feel like you’re being set up to fail. But there are a few approaches you can take to get the feedback and direction you need. If your manager sets too-lofty goals, create several plans of action and ask which is closest to what they have in mind. Use their response to steer the conversation toward a realistic version of the goal. You may have to iterate on the plan, but this process can help build trust on both sides. If your boss ignores the practical realities of what they want to get done, acknowledge the goal without labeling it as unrealistic. Discuss your concerns, as well as what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and ask your boss what the next steps should be. And remember that you and your manager probably are on the same side, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Stay calm and pay attention to which approaches your boss responds well to.
Your first few months in a job have a major impact on whether you succeed. Many people have trouble deciding where to focus their energy early on, so use three questions to guide you.
- “How will I create value?” Know what is expected of you, by when, and how your progress will be assessed. Consider the interests of all stakeholders (not just your boss), and keep in mind that the answer to the question may shift over time.
- “Whose support is critical?” The company has a political landscape — learn to navigate it. Learn who has power and influence, and then build alliances with them. If you can help them accomplish their goals, they may return the favor later on.
- “What skills do I need?” The abilities that got you the job may not be the same ones you need now. The sooner you understand what you should acquire and develop, the better.
When a direct report is underperforming, being told as much may put them on the defensive. That’s why you should consider asking the person to evaluate their recent work. Doing so will open up the conversation and help you understand whether their view aligns with yours. Ask the employee what their key metrics are and whether they’re reaching them. If you two are in agreement, you can move on to discussing solutions. If not, explain what you’ve been seeing, citing specific examples of when the employee has fallen short. But be sure to listen to what the person says — you may discover a project is more involved than you realized, for example. Then work together to craft a plan for improvement. Ask the employee how they will address the issues you’ve identified. Agree on goals, a timeline for reaching them, and how often you’ll check in on their progress.
Podcasts are a great place to share your knowledge and expertise, but how do you get booked as a guest? Start by identifying the shows you’d like to be on. Find out where other people in your field have been booked, or visit shows’ websites to search for previous guests. (Googling “podcasts about [your area of expertise]” isn’t a bad idea either.) If you know someone who’s been on a show that interests you, ask for an introduction. And listen to an episode of each podcast to make sure you’d be a good fit. Once you have a few shows in mind, prepare your email pitch. In one or two short paragraphs, lay out who you are, your background and credentials, and why the show’s listeners would be interested in what you have to say. Then get ready for the interview. Think of questions the host might ask, and practice responding to them with a friend until your answers are clear and crisp.
Speaking up in a meeting can increase your visibility at work, but it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you struggle to offer your thoughts on the spot, you can try a few things. Before the meeting, prepare a few comments or questions so that you know you’ll have something to say. You should also think about your reasons for wanting to speak up in the first place. Ask yourself why you care about the meeting’s topic, and use the answer as inspiration when crafting your comments and questions. During the meeting, when your turn comes, pause and breathe. Doing this can strengthen your voice, helping you to speak with clarity and authority. But remember, saying something just to say something isn’t always a great idea. If you’re speaking up to show off or to offer a comment that would be better expressed one-on-one with someone, it may be better to say nothing.
When our jobs are at their most hectic, our approach to work can shift from “How do I get everything done?” to “How do I survive this?” To cope with intense times, try a few strategies. One is to reward yourself for finishing a tough task (like writing a report) by completing an easy task (like running an errand). This will help you pace yourself and ensure your brain gets a break while you stay productive. Another is to motivate yourself with the pleasurable parts of hard projects. If you don’t love writing reports but do enjoy editing, let yourself look forward to when you’ll clean up and improve your text. A third strategy is to use small scraps of time for mental rest. When you’re forced to do nothing for a few minutes — whether before a meeting starts or in line at the grocery store — take some slow breaths, drop your shoulders, and unwind.
Most people have far more work than they can possibly get to. That’s why it’s so important to say no to things that aren’t a great use of your time. But turning people down can be uncomfortable. To get better at it, practice saying no politely and gracefully. For example, if a colleague asks you to do something that isn’t your job, you might say: “That isn’t my area of expertise, but I’m happy to connect you with Kei, who could help.” If you’re asked to attend a meeting or join a project that you don’t have time for, say: “Thanks so much, but I have to decline. My schedule is at capacity right now.” If you’re asked to finish a task on a too-tight deadline, say: “I would love to help, but due to my other commitments, I won’t be able to finish by that deadline. Can I get it back to you by next week?”
How many push notifications do you get in a single day? For most people, the answer is “too many.” We do our best work when we have uninterrupted blocks of time, but the sounds and buzzes of our devices can make finding that time nearly impossible. To protect your productivity, be more intentional about how often you let technology bother you. One big way to do that is to consider disabling all (or at least some) notifications on your laptop and smartphone. This may seem extreme, but it will help you focus without interruption. You might also turn on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb mode while you’re working. Schedule breaks throughout the day to check and respond to email, and resist the urge to check otherwise. If you’re a manager, set expectations with your team for email and other messages. Be clear about how quickly people need to respond, and make sure they have windows of quiet time for doing deep work.
When you make a mistake at work, do you replay it in your head for days or even weeks? This kind of overthinking is called rumination, and it can lead to serious anxiety. To break out of the cycle, there are a few things you can do. For one, identify your rumination triggers. Do certain types of people, projects, or decisions make you second-guess yourself? Notice when (and why) a situation is causing you to start overthinking things. It can also be useful to distance yourself from negative thoughts by labeling them as thoughts or feelings. For example, instead of saying “I’m inadequate,” say “I’m feeling like I’m inadequate.” These labels can help you distinguish what you’re experiencing from who you truly are as a person and an employee. Another way to short-circuit rumination is to distract yourself. When your brain won’t stop spinning, take a walk, meditate, or fill out an expense report — do any simple activity you can focus on for a few minutes.
Many of us get defensive in response to negative feedback. We play the victim, sink into denial, or blame our circumstances — but these behaviors let our egos get in the way of important learning. Here’s a better way to respond, no matter what the feedback is or who’s giving it: “I really appreciate you taking the time and the effort to tell me. Thank you.” This response may seem simple (and it is), but it shows people you’re open to hearing what they have to say. As a result, they will be far more likely to speak directly to you when they have an issue, as opposed to going to your boss behind your back. That means you’ll have the chance to respond and improve the situation before it gets any worse. The added benefit? This response dramatically increases your ability to listen. When you stop defending against feedback externally, you stop defending against it internally, too.
Remote workers often feel excluded from company culture. To build camaraderie on a geographically dispersed team, find meaningful ways for people to connect online. One effective approach is to have everyone watch the same TED talk, read the same book or article, or take the same online learning course, and then discuss it over videoconference. Kick off virtual meetings with an icebreaker question that has nothing to do with work (say, “How did you take your coffee this morning?”) to get people relaxed and talking. Another surprisingly helpful tool is video games — yes, video games. While it may sound odd, playing a game that forces people to collaborate and allows them to fail can have multiple benefits: building trust, encouraging them to speak up, and revealing how they navigate challenges together. Doing a group activity like this, even one that may not seem to belong on company time, can be great for team cohesion.
If your desk (or desktop) is a mess, you might be too. Research shows clutter adds to our stress and anxiety levels, detracts from our ability to focus, and makes us seem less conscientious and agreeable. That’s why you should make a habit of tidying your workspace. Try blocking off a few minutes on your calendar every week to sort through your piles of stuff. Managers may want to establish “spring cleaning” days (pro tip: order a pizza for motivation) or institute a clean desk policy for shared spaces. When it comes to managing digital clutter, ask IT for tools to organize online documents and advice on which items can be discarded. And if you work at home, set up a designated workspace so that you have a boundary between work items and home items. (It’s worth noting that research has also found messy environments can encourage creativity — you just don’t want your desk to get too chaotic.)
Many professionals are intrigued by the idea of hosting a networking dinner. To make yours a success, think about the details you need to get right, starting with the venue. Cooking at home is more intimate than eating in a restaurant, but make sure you won’t be stuck in the kitchen all night. Ask guests about their dietary restrictions, and consider hiring a chef or a few servers to free you up to socialize. If you decide to use a restaurant, hold your event earlier in the week to avoid noisy crowds and consider how payment will work. Offering to buy dinner is generous but could be expensive; going Dutch can keep the evening affordable for you — but tell attendees what to expect. It’s also a good idea to send around the guest list a few days beforehand. Include everyone’s names and websites or LinkedIn profiles so that they can look each other up and prepare questions and talking points.
A healthy work culture requires healthy conflict. But it’s hard to have constructive disagreements if people view conflict as only an interpersonal problem. Help your team understand that there should be a certain amount of tension between different roles at work. This exercise can help: Draw a circle and divide it into wedges, one for each role. With your team, discuss: What is each job’s unique value? Which stakeholders does this role serve? What tensions does this job’s responsibilities put on other people? Write the answers inside the wedges, and then use them to talk about why different roles naturally come into conflict with each other — and why that’s OK. For example, there probably should be tension between sales and operations, because sales looks for new customer solutions while operations tries to create consistency and efficiency. Your team will start to see that the conflict they’ve viewed as interpersonal friction is actually healthy, role-based tension.
As a manager, it’s your job to support your team through intense work periods. The first step to take care of yourself: Eat nutritious food, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and find a friend to vent to when you need it. These things aren’t luxuries — a healthy mind and body will help you lead well. When you turn your attention to your team, think about how you can be compassionate, be a source of optimism, and set a good example. Show your employees that, whatever the stressful situation, you’re all in it together. Talk about how you cope with stress, and encourage people to take breaks, improve their work-life balance, and maintain a healthy attitude toward daily work and deadlines. It can also be useful to remind people why their work is important to the company and to customers. Renewing your sense of purpose is a good way to fight the drain of burnout.
Do you have too many meetings to get your work done? If you never seem to have enough time to tackle your big projects, rethink your to-do list. Break down big assignments into bite-sized tasks you can complete when you have a few minutes (even if it’s a short break between meetings). Keep a list of these small tasks, and use it as a guide for making incremental progress on the work you’ve been putting off. Ticking off even one or two items will bring you closer to the finish line. If you’re still struggling to get things done, set aside a few hours by adding “project time” to your calendar as a recurring event. For example, you could reserve an hour or two each morning for focused work. Try to protect these blocks of time, and use them for the important tasks you can’t get done otherwise.
We all want to feel that we belong at work, but many people feel physically and emotionally isolated. To remedy this problem, we need to create a real sense of community, and one way to do that is to make sure we’re checking in with our coworkers. A simple “How are you doing?” in the morning, or a “How can I help you?” after a tough day, can go a long way toward helping colleagues feel connected to each other. Find out how the people on your team like to talk — some may prefer email or a digital chat, for example, while others prefer to speak in person — and then create a habit of building relationships. Whether you talk about work or your personal lives, be present, be curious, and ask questions that show you’re listening. Find ways to show your coworkers that you value and care about them.
Social media is an effective tool for expanding your network, but reaching out to people you don’t know can be awkward. You’ll have a better chance of success if you prioritize people who are close to your level in their careers. This network will grow in seniority with you and can connect you with opportunities down the line — and peers are more likely to respond than someone in the C-suite anyway. Make sure your initial message is brief and personal; approach it as you would a handwritten note. Think of the three points you want to convey, and let your natural voice come through. If you and the person have something in common, like a shared interest or mutual friend, mention it. It’s also a good idea to be direct (and polite) about what you’re looking for. If you’re seeking advice, for example, you can say, “I’m struggling with a business problem and would love to find out what you think. Can I buy you coffee?”
Email can be a black hole that swallows productivity, but a few changes to your inbox habits can help you take back your time. First, don’t let yourself check email more often than once per hour, and turn off any notifications that tempt you to. Most people don’t expect you to respond immediately, and doing so keeps you from concentrating on other tasks. Second, move emails out of your inbox the first time you read them, so you don’t waste time by having to read them again later. Put messages into two folders: one for those that require a response and one for those that don’t. Many of us use lots of folders, thinking it’s better to file email in specific places, but having more choices slows us down and drains our decision-making energy. Third, take the time to set up automated filtering. Move the messages you need, delete the ones you don’t, and block the spam that’s left over.
When you see offensive behavior at work, speaking up can be scary. But you aren’t doing your job as an employee, colleague, or leader if you let it slide. Research shows that we’re more likely to follow through on difficult things if we acknowledge the challenge ahead. So your first move should be to take a breath and remind yourself that speaking up will be hard. And be prepared for the person to push back when you confront them. Frame your comment as feedback to show you aren’t out to get anyone and aren’t assuming any ill will on their part. If a coworker makes an offensive joke, for example, say, “You may not have meant to offend, but here is how I experienced it.” It’s a good idea to think about different types of situations where you may need to speak up and how you’ll respond. Having a plan will ensure you’re ready to confront bad behavior when you see it.