Everyone knows what it’s like to have a frustratingly dumb coworker to deal with, but what if you’re worried that the frustrating coworker is you? After all, it’s easy to point out the faults in others without taking responsibility for your own shortcomings. Let’s look at how you can make sure you’re not the one everyone in the office has to plan around instead of work effectively with.
Even if you’re not the office screw-up, there are ubdoubtedly a few things you know you could work on — some skills you could grow, or some areas where you know you’ve had to lean on someone else’s expertise or experience more times than you care to admit. Here’s how to identify some of those areas of growth, and how to tackle them head-on.
Learn To Receive Feedback Gracefully
Before you can make any changes, you need to know where your weaknesses are. Unfortunately, even though your colleagues are probably aware of them, they may not be willing to explain your flaws to you. You’ll have to coax it out of them gently.
You don’t have to jump through hoops to get your colleagues’ or your boss’ honest feedback, just be as honest with them as you want them to be with you:
- Start with your boss. It may be tempting to go to peers first, and there’s a lot to be gained from talking to them, but remember it’s not your coworkers’ job to make sure you know how to do your own job. Your boss has responsibility over you, and if you have a good relationship with them, they should be willing to talk to you about your strengths and your weaknesses. Have an honest talk with them about where you can improve, and ask if the rest of the team has had to carry you along. Urge them to be honest, and explain that you just want to grow and get better at what you do.
- Make the conversation informal and private. Grab a cup of coffee with your boss or a trusted teammate and ask them honestly how you can help out, or where they think you should keep up. If you don’t have a good relationship with your boss, or you fear asking about your weaknesses will draw the wrong kind of attention, talk to a colleague you trust, and that trusts you, too. Trust is important here — make sure the entire situation is relaxed and informal. No pens and paper, no signed statements, no conference rooms. You want them to be open without fear of repercussions. If you’re talking to your boss, you might want to take some notes, but all-in-all, this isn’t a review — you’re just talking. You shouldn’t wait until your performance review to ask for critical feedback.
- Encourage your colleagues to be honest (but kind). Your colleagues may balk when you ask them what they think of you and your work, but let them know that you’re concerned and just want to pull your weight. Let them know you don’t want everyone else working extra hours because of you. Your boss may even have reservations talking about things outside of a meeting or official setting. Encourage them to be honest with you, but put them at ease — you’re looking for kind criticism and honest feedback, not a laundry list of to-dos or a training regimen, and you want opinions and thoughts, not a performance improvement plan they’ll have to oversee.
- Don’t let them off the hook. They may try to pretend everything is fine, or that they have nothing to say. Don’t let them off the hook. Explain you already know you know you have room to improve, you just want to know where. Everyone has the capacity to grow, and everyone at any office has opinions on their colleagues: good, bad and in-between. Urge them to get into that in-between territory.
- Don’t make it personal. This can be really difficult to do, but it’s important that you remember that the criticism you hear isn’t too personal. Explain to the person you’re asking that it’s not personal either — the goal isn’t to unload, it’s to help you improve (and, over time, keep your job.) Boost your own self-esteem first if you have to, but keep the conversation focused on the things you do at the office, the tools you use, the projects you work on, and the results you need to get. You don’t have to extend into your personal habits or behaviours unless they’re directly related to your work.
Taking criticism is difficult for the best of us, but it’s an important skill to develop. Obviously, you need to be able to differentiate criticism from bashing, but if you’re honest and upfront with trusted colleagues, there’s nothing in it for them to make you feel bad about yourself. Sure, some of the feedback may be negative, in which case you should ask for clarifying details, and ask how your boss or colleague handled the situation since you didn’t (or how they think you should have handled it if they were in your shoes.). If they’re honest with you and you get the message, then make the right changes, everybody wins.
Identify Your Pain Points
Once you get some feedback from the people you work with, write it all down and distil it into specific areas where you want to improve. Some of what you’ll hear will wind up being things you can’t change. Other things however, like your proficiency at specific applications or tools, your response time, your hours, your email style — those things are easily adapted and changed.
Make your list, and prioritise it based on the issues you hear from multiple people. Then sort that list by the things that you can easily change (things like frequency of email, tone of communication, and other “soft” skills) to things that may be more difficult to adjust (your work hours, your level of expertise with a company tool or program). Now it’s time to get to work.
Soft skills are easy to change — a few reminders, a couple of Post-It notes, and you’ll make a habit of double-checking your emails to make sure you don’t sound like a jerk before you click send. If the issue is response time or communication, setting expectations up front with people can help you move from being perceived as unreliable to being seen as communicative and on top of your workload.
For job-related skills or specific tools, it might be time to get some outside training to bolster your abilities. Check with your boss to see if job-related training is available for the tools you use. If it’s an in-house package, maybe you can talk to the person who made it or the team that manages it. They can give you ideas to make better use of it. You’d be surprised at how many useful PowerPoint training decks get lost and forgotten on company network drives, only remembered by the person who created it or sat through some initial training.
If it’s a commercial or off-the-shelf tool, see if your company will send you off or pay for training for it. For most companies, it’s a win/win — -they spend a little money to make you better at your job and more likely to stay because you’ll (hopefully) be a happier, more valuable employee.
Find A Mentor To Guide You
Remember, asking for feedback isn’t a one-time thing. If you can make a habit of it, you can grow and improve constantly. You’ll become better at what you do, you’ll be more valuable to your company (and ideally, they’ll prove it with more money and/or career advancement), your colleagues will be happier to work with you, and you’ll be more confident at work. One method we’ve mentioned before that helps stay on the feedback train is to find a mentor to help you grow. They may be someone outside your department but in your team, an old boss you really trusted and liked talking to, or someone you meet in a professional association. Anyone who knows you, that you trust, and you look up to professionally is a good candidate as a mentor.
If you don’t have someone like that, consider a colleague you trust, or a peer. Even if they’re not in your department, a “feedback buddy” can help you grow a thick skin, be open to feedback, and improve on the fly.
Regardless of what you do, if you’re worried you’re that guy at the office (and, of course, you’re open to the possibility that the problem really is with you), switching jobs or departments won’t help — the problem will just move with you. Don’t fear feedback or failure — they’re the things that help us improve.