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Bottom 10 Habits of Productive Employees

2005-10-01 14 min read Essays marco
If you haven’t managed people before, management looks like a mystery to you. You don’t quite understand why your manager – or managers in general – choose to do and say the things that emanate from them. Management as a whole may look arbitrary, capricious, incompetent to you, as if there is a secret plot to take the hard work you do and turn it to dust. In particular, you may wonder how rewards are meted out, be it bonuses, salary increases, promotions. Sometimes it just seems that management has favorites, and that it’s always the favorites that get rewarded, while your contribution is ignored just because your manager doesn’t like you.

Well, I’ve got news for you: while there certainly are managers that are arbitrary and capricious, the vast majority of them has real logical reasons for doing as they do – you are just utterly unaware of them. Read on if you want to read one manager’s experience…

What sounds like a suggestion from a business magazine is actually a core mantra that is easily learned.

Nobody likes to be embarrassed, and a person that isn’t mean doesn’t like to embarrass others. Your manager, likewise, doesn’t like to be embarrassed, and unless you have a good reason to leave, doesn’t want to embarrass you, either.

If you challenge your manager in public (i.e. at a meeting), (s)he is going to be embarrassed no matter what you say. You may not be aware of it, but the fact itself you have challenged her/him is an embarrassement. If you said something correct, then (s)he will look stupid. If you said something wrong, then (s)he will have to fish for a way to correct you without making you look stupid. No real win scenario here.

Worse still: imagine accusing your neighbor of having farted at a large gathering. That’s very embarrassing for that person, regardless of whether (s)he actually farted, or it was you who did. Same thing, just about thoughts. Get it?

What would an employee do that actually wants to get something done, or done right? Go private, don’t go public first. Wait for the meeting to be over, then walk to your manager’s office, and make your point. Your manager will react one of the following ways:

- Say: "Why didn’t you say so at the meeting?" Of course, you’ll explain how considerate you were, and everybody’s happy. Your manager will probably say you should speak up at the next meeting. Do so and check the reaction. - Say: "It’s too late now, we already made a decision." A weak manager, be cautious! - Say: "Sorry, but I don’t think you are right. Here are my reasons…" You may be right, you may not be right, but you surely avoided a rant at the meeting - Say: "Oh, you know, I really didn’t think about it! That’s a great idea/suggestion!" Next thing is you’ll see an announcement of the change, and you may or may not be credited with it. Contrary to popular belief, the idea thief owes you more than the honest reporter
My father used to tell me this story of when he was in college: a friend of his would detect some injustice, immediately go and rally the students, and they would all march to the dean’s hall, accusing some professor or another of having done wrong. He would get punished for sedition, and the accused would haughtily continue doing as before. One day my father caught his friend in a combative mood, and locked him up in the room (remember, no cell phones back then!). He then went to the dean and presented a case. He may are may not have mentioned the rabble-rouser in the closet… The two struck a compromise, and everybody went home happy. The rabble-rouser was upset, but for all the wrong reasons.

Going public before going private is a good idea only if you prefer limelight to getting things done. Bear that in mind, because it’s your vanity that stands in the way of your accomplishment. And you are paid for accomplishment, not for vanity.

You know those cherished little moments when you sneak in late to work, or have a nice 2 hour lunch, or declare yourself deadly sick? When you believe nobody noticed? Well, guess what, someone just did.

Ok, not every little single time you did. But what you don’t know is that you probably disappear on average frequently enough that your performance goes down, and that someone is bound to notice you at some point. The problem is that if you disappear once without reason and are detected, there is a reasonable suspicion that you do that all the time.

And you know what, when you then come back and really are sick, or are really distracted by something, there will be no mercy, because of all the times you have not been sick, not distracted by a breakup or a death in the family.

Trust me, it’s not worth it. You may think your cloak of invisibility works, but I’ll leave it up to the divine Annie Lennox to represent what other managers and I usually think:

Some things are better left unsaid But they still turn me inside out
I’ve had a few employees over the course of the years talk about Management as an abstract term. They wouldn’t say: "Marco has no plan," or "Jill doesn’t know what he is doing." Instead, the phrasing went: "Management has no plan," and "Management doesn’t know what they are doing."

You sometimes hear this said between peers, usually with a negative tone. I admit, I still have to meet the person without management experience that finds anything valuable about management, so it’s not surprisingly negative. Still, now that you have read about Habit 1 (Go Public Without Going Private) and Habit 2 (Believe in the Cloak of Invisibility), you know that your management is bound to hear this chatter at some point.

How do you feel about a sentence like: “Our engineers are all lazy?” Dehumanizing. If you hear that, you know you’ve got bad management. Good management is made of treating everybody according to their personality and to get the most out of everyone and everything.

But if you expect your managers to know this – don’t you think they’ll react just like you when you do the same to them?

You may be shy, you may not trust your manager, you may just be busy. But as soon as you encounter a problem, as soon as you have an unexpected success – go and tell your manager. One thing you may not know is that most managers are blind to what you do, and they depend on your telling them what’s going on.

Here is one for you: I hear stories of employees too embarrassed to tell their managers they are late on a deadline. They prefer pushing the bad news out until the last moment, in hope they can fix things at the eleventh hour. Guess what: the damage you do to your project is immense, because if you had warned ahead of time, your manager could have pulled in other resources, could have announced a delay. But if (s)he doesn’t deliver when expected – that’s a real problem.

Even if your manager is really busy – (s)he will love status updates. Even if you don’t have a formal requirement, it’s in your best interest to say once a week or even better every day where you are with your tasks.

Once in a while your manager will talk with you about something that is not working right. Usually this will be at a one-on-one meeting (beware of managers that talk you down in public!). Sometimes it’s about working hours, sometimes it’s about quality of work, sometimes it’s about interpersonal skills. Whatever it is, you are probably inclined to go on the defensive and deny everything.

I can tell you for sure, there aren’t many good managers that like giving negative feedback. It hurts any person to tell something bad, and your manager add to that generic feeling the realization you are probably going to feel hurt and try to hurt her/him in return.

Guess what: there is an easy way out that helps everyone. Try not to say: “That’s not true!” Try just to listen for a while, take notes and wait until your manager wants you to talk. Try to look into your manager’s eyes at all times – you don’t want to admit guilt, and you don’t want to turn this into a dressing down. Your behavior should communicate that you are processing feedback.

When your manager is done think for a minute (and say that you are thinking about what (s)he said). Then say something that states how you feel about what you heard. This will prepare your manager for the kind of conversation that is going to follow. Putting your manager at ease from a tense situation will make it easier for both of you.

Once you reached agreement about how you two feel, go ahead and explain your point of view. Focus on data here, focus on going forward. If you are accused of coming late to work and you think that’s not ok, ask about when you came late. If your manager has data points, then say that you understand, and that you will improve. If you are accused of shoddy work, ask for samples. Regardless of whether there are samples or not, simply state that you will make a conscious effort to monitor yourself more closely from now on.

And one very important thing: ask for help, and ask for more feedback. Put the burden on your manager – it is her/his duty to help you succeed!

Part of the attempt to mount a defense can be a strategy of blame. Blame is something that works quite readily and pacifies a lot of managers, but it’s really a bad strategy in the long term. Unfortunately, since it’s mostly bad in the aggregate, it’s something that is not readily visible.

The reasoning goes like this: just like you blame someone else (or something else) for your mistakes, that other person will blame you as soon as (s)he makes a mistake. Your manager, of course, is highly unlikely to (a) know who’s right, and (b) even knowing, to confront either of you. As a result, you get the blame for something that is not your fault. The end result is that everyone thinks (a) management is incompetent, and (b) people are rewarded for their mistakes. Looking at it correctly, if you stood up to your own mistakes (and your manager rewarded you for honesty), you’d be better off.

Even worse than blaming someone else is blaming something abstract. Beware of anyone ever blaming communication issues. Sure, there are communication issues; here, though, we are talking about an excuse as frequently abused as the proverbial dog who ate the homework.

Remember: even if there was miscommunication, someone is responsible for good communication. It’s usually your manager, or her/his manager.

Most people are not cruel and unusual, and most managers have actually your productivity in mind before anything else. Don’t forget that it’s your productivity that determines their productivity!

If your manager talks with you about doing things differently, or has suggestions about how to perform a task, you may be tempted to think you know better and brush the suggestions off. After all, (s)he doesn’t know what (s)he is talking about – you are the expert in the field.

Realize that when your manager is concerned about something and tells you as much, it’s usually because there is something that is visibly not working. You are probably right: the suggestion that came from your manager is not likely to be the best way to do things. But try to discern what the original concern was, and make up your own mind as to how you need to fix the root cause of the issue.

Even if you know better, you should acknowledge that you understood the concern and have tried to take care of it. If you feel in a wise mood, explain to your manager why her/his way wasn’t likely to succeed, and why you chose your way. You are liable to gain respect.

Believe it or not, ignoring your manager is always bad. There is absolutely nothing to gain from doing it, and you stand a lot to lose if you don’t do as told and things don’t work out. Remember: your failure is automatically your manager’s failure!

Nope, this is not at all about dress codes and the like. This is about a very famous wardrobe malfunction and the real problem with it: inappropriate communication.

Understand this: your manager is responsible for communication between your group and other groups. It’s an essential part of a manager’s job to regulate and concentrate the flow of information, for a set of very compelling reasons:

  • focal point: the manager is presumed to know everything about a project, and hence is the logical point where people deposit and withdraw information.
  • training: truth is one thing, perception another. It can make a huge difference to your project when, how, and what is presented. Managers make a living in part by defining how your project translates to the rest of the world, and they must have learned it or they won’t be managers for long.
  • relationships: your manager is likely to know how information flow is going to affect your project and will have built relationships to soften the blow of bad news, or get things done in adverse circumstances.
  • overview: your manager has information that you don’t have. Sometimes that’s because you are not allowed to know it (such as HR related information about others), sometimes because you need to focus more than your manager (who needs to be more interrupt driven).

Now, you can cause enormous damage if you break the flow of information by saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

Does that mean you need to keep your mouth shut at all times? Does it mean you should walk around feeling muzzled?

Not at all! There are a few good guidelines you should remember, and otherwise you can say whatever you feel like and not cause a wardrobe malfunction.

  1. Never mention timing outside your group. It may take you a week to do something, but it may take QA 2 to test it. If you say “one week” to some passing big-wig, but then it takes 3 total with QA … you got it, big wardrobe malfunction!
  2. Never commit to anything without having your manager know. “Sure, I can do that." Sounds really great, you are trying to help. But your manager doesn’t know, and you (a) won’t get credit for helping out, and (b) might just not get stuff done on time, especially if your manager thinks you can handle more, but you already committed.
  3. Be careful about money. Talking about your compensation at work is a right. Yes, your management hates it, but you can do it (and should). But be careful. In particular, if you are highly compensated, your co-workers are going to hate hearing they make less than you and could cause a huge hubbub, at whose center you sit. And you may just end up making less in the end.
  4. Don’t chat idly with the Big Wolf. Every company has a grey eminence that can disrupt anything and everything just by showing up. It may be a founder, or the security person, or Catbert, the HR director. These people need to be talked to with care, because saying the wrong thing can cause grief.

Have you been to one of those birthday parties at work where nobody was talking, everyone anxiously staring at the cake, taking a slice, then running back to their cubes? Well, I have, and I can tell you it drives me nuts.

Managers worth their money will want a cohesive team, and that’s quite hard to do if you guys don’t like each other. You are less likely to help each other out (saving time), you are less likely to be considerate of the impact of your mistakes, you are much less likely to care about the results of the overall project.

So, if you want to help yourself, try being nice to those around you, and try to make friends. Will not always work, but where it works, you will enjoy yourself much more.

I have worked in the business for years, and I am still surprised at how many people think of themselves first when they build a product. Since most people that do build a product are more computer savvy than their average user, but less business savvy, you end up with a bunch of products that are more technologically advanced than useful.

Of course, that might not be entirely your fault, and managers are frequently bad at explaining why users want things done differently. But you know, there is a good chance you could learn a lot just by looking over someone’s shoulders. Someone that is the average Joe/Jane that will actually use what you are building.

Look at Microsoft Office: a gargantuan piece of software, with 90 percent of the menu items never used on a regular basis. On the other hand, it can be dauntingly difficult to do simple things, or entirely non-intuitive.

And this is with something that is easily studied in real life. If you write software for accountants, create hardware for ship builders, or the like: unless you witness a day of usage of your product, you’ll never know what their pain is and how they use what you created.

And if you don’t, you are not likely to spend time where it will make the most difference.