The One Excuse Killing Your Career

“It’s not my job,” is the single most irritating, and career-limiting answer you can give to a request. You might be right, it may not be your job, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.

Let us consider a rather trivial example. You have a meeting with ten people. After the meeting everyone leaves and there is an empty cup on the table (someone just forgot it there). Now, what happens?

You have a person who sees the cup and decides to ignore it. It is not his job so why should he take it to the kitchen? And then look at second person, who sees the cup and without a word grabs it to put it to a dishwasher. It is like a reflex for this person and she is not even thinking about who should do that. Who would you rather have on your team?

Even in a small thing like this the second person shows a great sense of ownership, a desire to keep things neat, a way of thinking that will most likely show also in other aspects of her life and work. The way she works with customers, with the team, how is she approaching her job. She simply sees that something needs to be done so goes and does it without a word or thought whether she is the one who should do it.

“It’s not my job,” is a common excuse that hides all sorts of fears. So what are you really saying when using this excuse? What are the things you say to yourself that hold you back?

  1. I don’t care – if you are here just to do as little as possible to earn your paycheck you will never get a chance of career progression and you will most likely be just mediocre performer who will be miserable and eventually leave. You should just get out now for your own good and the good of the team.
  2. I don’t have the authority – there are very few situations where this really matters. This is a valid excuse only when there are legal aspects involved, like you don’t have the authority to sign a contract, but you can still prepare or review it.
  3. I could make mistakes – you probably will, and that is fine. How else do you expect to learn?
  4. It is a huge effort – most things worthwhile doing are difficult. Just split it into smaller manageable pieces and get started.
  5. I got burned in the past – understandable, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Analyze what exactly caused getting your hand slapped and find out strategies how to mitigate it in the future. Sitting in the corner, doing nothing, is not a good strategy.
  6. I don’t know how to solve the problem – great, so go out and learn. You can say this about anything that you do for the first time so don’t let this fear to hold you back.
  7. I don’t have the skills – how else do you want to grow than by learning new skills? Very often no one really has the right skills, but someone brave takes the job anyway and learns as she goes. This is the person who grows and gets ahead.
  8. I’m not good at this kind of things – is a great example of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is this negative self-defeating conversation in your head that you need to reframe to something more constructive. Try this instead: if I put all my best in the effort, I will succeed.
  9. I’m too important and this job is too menial – is just an arrogant attitude that will shape who you become, what culture you create and ultimately will lead to other people stop respecting you. “There is no job too small for me to do,” is much healthier attitude that will serve you well in life.

If this is happening within your team you need to get back to basics and talk about values of the organization, why they are important and what does it mean to do things the right way. And obviously, you don’t just talk. You lead by example. Even if you are a team lead, manager, director, or vice president you still need to be able to get your hands dirty when you see a job that needs to get done regardless how menial it may seem.

If the problem starts with you remember that you don’t need permission to do excellent job! Whatever your role in the organization, it is an unsaid expectation that you work to the best of your abilities and use your best judgement to make the organization successful.

Let me list couple of strategies used by people who don’t have “It’s not my job,” sentence in their vocabulary. These attitudes lead to the exact opposite. Instead of avoiding tasks outside of your job, you embrace them and expand your skills and sphere of influence:

  1. Constantly seek how to improve things – by finding ways how to make your life, the life of your boss, and others around you easier you not only solve problems but learn about how the organization works
  2. Volunteer to help others – very similar to previous one. By volunteering to help others you learn about their jobs and expand your understanding of the organization and grow your skills
  3. Constantly ask questions – you obviously shouldn’t ask the same question over and over again, but by questioning things that are being taken for granted you not only help yourself to better understanding but you may unearth gems in form of potential improvements. Times are changing and maybe the process that was set up five years ago doesn’t fill the needs of today.
  4. Don’t complain – if you constantly complain not only you will be seen as someone who whines all the time and doesn’t help but you will create this internal self-talk that will make you feel miserable with your own life.
  5. Be prepared – learn to spend the time upfront to ensure you understand the big picture, you know what options you have and have your arguments well backed up with data and solid reasoning
  6. Understand that ideas are not enough – you can have tons of great ideas but no one will ever care about them as much as you do. If you want to see them implemented you need to be the person who has the energy to drive them through.
  7. Don’t shy away from difficult tasks – volunteering for tough assignments is a great way to develop new skills, grow as a person, and even grow your reputation. People will give you all the support if they see that you took on a job that they were scared off.
  8. Don’t overanalyze – paralysis by analysis is often the one thing that prevents getting things done. By overanalyzing problems, waiting to collect all the data, waiting for all the opinions to be heard, we forget that there is a job to be done. Get the basic information, make a decision, and get the job done, even if it means there is some inherent risk in being wrong.
  9. Keep pushing and persist when things get tough – giving up too early will not only make you fail, but will damage also your self-confidence and ability to succeed in the future so be relentless in getting stuff done.
  10. Learn to enjoy even the boring bits – when you find some positive on things that other people hate you can gain a significant influence. Especially, when the things needs to get done for the good of the group and no one is to keen on doing them.

Utilizing this proactive attitude you can expect the ultimate reward. You will strengthen your character, learn new skills, build resilience and positive can-do attitude. It will then reflect positively on your self-image, on how you are seen by others, and on the career opportunities opened to you.

To be completely clear, I’m not advocating that you should say “yes” to every small, unimportant thing someone throws in your direction. It is ok to say “no”, but make sure you are strategic about when you say it and smart about how you say it.

 

What does “It’s not my job,” question mean for you? Do you see similar situations around you? How do you react? And how you do to improve the environment when people just don’t care?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

 

One question you should never ask

Why I wasn’t told?!

Have you ever got mad at your subordinates for not telling you something they were supposed to? Were you ever on the receiving end of such a wrath? How did you feel? I would bet that it triggered anger, frustration, possibly guilt but definitely not a need for better communication and cooperation. “Why I wasn’t told?” is a question that you as a leader should never ask your subordinates. Let me walk you through some of the actions that usually lead to this question and what you can do to never get to a point that you need to ask it. And even if you get to such situation, how do you reach the desired outcome without actually asking the question at all?

At the beginning let me make clear my position on the topic. If I have a manager on my team who comes to me and says that it is not his fault that something happened because he didn’t know about it and his team didn’t inform him, essentially implying that it is their fault, he is in trouble. It is solely and completely problem of the manager and not his team. In fact, because he blames the team it makes the whole situation also my problem as this guy obviously has some serious leadership issues that I need to go and fix.

What leads to this question?

Surprise – by the fact that something happened and surprise by the fact that you wasn’t told. It can happen but what does it really mean? Why should you be surprised? It is very likely that you either didn’t set the expectation with your team, or you don’t listen, or you have trust issues.

Expectations – you have set or most likely not set for your team. Is your team clear on what information they should pass on you? Do they know how to recognize critical issues you want to be informed about?

Listening – or rather lack of it. Do you actually listen when people tell you the information you requested? Do you reply back when you are getting reports to either inquire about details or at least say thank you? Because if people send you reports and never hear back they will stop sending it, or at least will not collect all the information and the reports will be of low quality. Why to spend time on a report that no one reads? And if your team talks to you and you ignore their comments and concerns than it is again a signal for the team not to talk to you at all.

Trust – does your team actually trust you? What did you do recently to win trust of your team? If you want the communication to flow you need to show to the team that you care, you trust, you are someone who can make things happen if provided by information.

Guilt – that you missed something and you feel it was expected from you to know. So now you are trying to find a scapegoat, someone you can blame. I hope this one doesn’t apply to you but sometimes we can act from guilt on subconscious level. You need to catch this as soon as possible and stop looking for scapegoats. If there was a communication issue between you and your team then it is completely your responsibility and as a leader you need to take it on your shoulders and not pass it on your team. It would destroy the trust as mentioned above.

Panic – did you actually really expect to get the information? Or was it just that some external pressure (for example from your boss) clouded for a minute your judgment so you started to act like you of course should have the information available even though a minute ago you couldn’t care less? If that is the case, just calm down, ignore your team and rather have a conversation with your boss about his expectations and what level of details he believes you should have or provide.

How to avoid the question?

What is done is done. No point of bothering your team with this question. Direct this question to yourself instead. Ask why you believe you didn’t get the information and try to analyze it from the perspectives mentioned above. And if you come to conclusion that indeed there was something more you expect from the team to do then sit with them and “set the expectations”, while doing it “listen” to their comments and ask what you can do to help them to provide what you need thus building the “trust”. And if you acted without thinking early on, then “apologize” for the rushed act.

Good leader knows all what he needs to know. People inform him about the right things at the right time because they trust him, know his expectations, and know he will listen and act when needed. Because of these traits, they bring to his attention issues and potential risks at early stages while it is still time to deal with them. If the leader doesn’t listen or doesn’t act then people stop coming.

At the end let me debunk the title of the article. Yes, you should never ever direct this question to your team, but it is somewhat fine to ask it your boss. If you are not getting the information necessary to get your job done then it is fair to ask why not. Though you may still want to be a bit more diplomatic and rather than yelling at your boss just remind him that in the future it would be beneficial for all if this sort of information somehow found its way to you.

Twitter type summary: “Why I wasn’t told?” is the single question a leader never asks his people as it transfers blame for failure from him to the team.

Have it ever happened to you that you blamed your team for note providing information you needed? In retrospect, what led to the behavior of your team? What let to your own behavior?

What problem are you trying to solve?

It happens very often especially when you try to prioritize too many things that you have trouble to actually distinguish what the right top priority stuff is and why it should be done. One approach for dealing with these situations is to ask a simple question: “What problem are you trying to solve?” It doesn’t make sense to start working on a solution to a problem that is not understood. If you don’t know what the problem is, why it should be solved and why you are the right person to do it, then don’t work on it!

When someone asks for your help or advice your first question should be “What problem are you trying to solve?” Quite often with this open ended question or its short version “Why?” the other person may realize that the topic is not relevant or that there is a bigger topic behind.

Let me give you an example. Your subordinate comes to you and asks you for a new computer. Your response is “OK, let’s talk about it. Why do you want a new computer?” “Well, the one I have is old, it is slow, I have it for 5 years. I really want a new one.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Except, it doesn’t really provide the answer to the question asked. What is the “deep why” behind it? So far the answer just superficially described something that may or may not be relevant. It might be that there is new software that just doesn’t run fast enough on this computer. It might be that everyone else already got a new computer so this particular employee feels left out. It might be that there is actually something wrong with the computer he is using.

When you keep asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” the person needs to really think about it. “I believe I could be much more efficient if I got new computer.” “We just got new software for creating reports on some data and it runs for twenty minutes when I just sit and wait for it to finish.” Now, this brings completely new information into the picture: “Running reports takes twenty minutes when I just sit and do nothing.” It also opens other options on how to solve the problem. It might be that a faster computer wouldn’t help at all. Maybe we need better server that hosts the database, or we may need faster network connection, or everything is fine and we just need to utilize better the time being wasted by waiting.

So let’s come back to our question. For this simple question to work, it needs to be asked in a way that doesn’t convey implicit “No”. If someone comes to you with a request and you ask this question while already having in mind a picture of big red “No”, your body language, tone of voice and urgency with which you ask the question will send across a message that you are not really interested in the answer and you just don’t want to say “No” straight away. So what to do about it? It is all about openness, consistency and trust. It is vitally important that you behave consistently in these situations, that employees even anticipate this question and know based on their past experience, or experience of their team mates, that you are genuinely interested in the answer, that you ask because you want to help them and it is important to you what they think, what their problems are and to have a solution that will be the best for them and the company.

You may enhance this method by a bit annoying trick that can help to identify the root cause of the issue and find options is to continue to ask “Why”. You can do this as long as it takes to get to the bottom of the problem. You may want to ask the “Why question” in different ways so you don’t repeat endlessly the same word. Or you may be very upfront and explain that you will now ask “Why?” several times to get really to the core issue that needs to be solved. That way you will not be seen as someone who doesn’t listen or someone who doesn’t treat others respect.

Let’s get back to our example with the computer.

You (Why 1): “What problem are you trying to solve?”

Employee: “Well, I feel that I waste lots of time waiting for the reports.”

You (Why 2): “Why do you think you are wasting time?” Now, it will probably take more time to find out the answer. The employee needs to really think about it and you shouldn’t rush him. Use the tone of voice that indicates you have the time to listen to the answer and you expect your subordinate to think.

Employee: “It happens to me often that during the day I just sit and wait for the computer to get the data.”

You (Why 3): “Why do you just sit and wait for the data?”

Employee: “Well, because it is too slow… though I could probably do something else in the meantime.”

You (Why 4): “Why don’t you?”

Employee: “I guess I just need the rest every now and then. I can collect my thoughts, close my eyes for a second and relax a bit so I can continue the work. I’m just exhausted and my head aches from the constant looking at the screen.”

Now, this paints a completely different picture. Instead of the problem with slow computer, you have here overloaded employee who feels like there is too much to do, is nervous and blames his equipment for slowing him down. He might be even guilty about resting a bit even though he needs it. If he got faster computer as he originally wanted it could very well make the situation worse.

You may still look at the situation with computer and IT infrastructure (let’s delegate this to IT department) but the biggest thing is that we should look at our internal processes and set performance expectations right with this employee. And all this just because you repeatedly asked “Why?”

Twitter type summary: “If you don’t know what the problem is, why it should be solved and why you are the right person to do it, then don’t work on it!”

Have you ever had a situation when repeating asking of “Why” question helped you to figure out a problem behind problem?

Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂