Monday, February 13, 2017

How Even Obnoxious Colleagues Can Help Your Career

When you're on the job, you often engage in idle chitchat with your colleagues. "What's your favorite hobby?" "Is is supposed to rain today?" or "Do you have big plans this weekend?" are some common topics. Nothing earth-shattering -- just a way to be pleasant to co-workers.

Many years ago, a new co-worker of mine asked me in the first 10 minutes of meeting her:

  • "How much money do you make?"
  • "Is that guy across the hall gay?"
  • "Do you always wear your hair that way?"
I was a little taken aback. OK, that may be putting it mildly. At first, I thought she might be kidding. Then, when I realized she was serious, I was annoyed.

First, I could easily have shut her down. "None of your damn business," would have sufficed. But then I started thinking: Is this the way I want to start a new relationship with a co-worker? Would my response make me feel better -- but embarrass and humiliate her?

While I could have made a snarky comeback at this new co-worker, I decided to take a deep breath and avoid making judgments about someone I just met. Instead of offering a cutting remark, I decided to keep listening.

"Why do you ask?" I said.

The new colleague got a little red in the face.

It's then that I realized this wasn't the beginning of a rude conversation, but a chance for me to take my career to the next level. This colleague had gotten off on the wrong foot -- and she knew it (or at least had an inkling). If I didn't overreact, I could not only save her from herself, but demonstrate the kind of skills that are necessary to reach the higher levels of any career. Namely:

  • By listening. The majority of worker (86%) believe that poor communication  is responsible for workplace failures. By taking the time to listen more to this new co-worker, I learned that she was very nervous about the new job, afraid she wouldn't get up to speed fast enough. So, that caused her to ask overly-personal questions since she thought learning as much about someone as fast as she could would help her "fit in" right away.
  • By providing feedback. There is a big push in the workplace today to provide feedback, whether it's manager to employee or employee to employee. The belief is that by being more open, workplace collaboration will be improved and outcomes will be more innovative. Those who are able to provide constructive feedback will be seen as critical to moving teams forward. I took the time to listen, then offered: "Our culture is really focused on being results-driven and being supportive of one another. You'll find that a lot of people would rather talk about their work rather than personal details that they may feel uncomfortable discussing. Let me show you how to access our company intranet, and that will really help bring you up to speed on what we're working on now and then you can talk to others about their contributions."
  • By being honest. When 99.1% say they would rather work somewhere that is honest and transparent, then it's clear that it's important. I didn't try to lie to the co-worker by making up a salary or trying to be evasive. I simply told the truth: The company culture is focused around positive contributions and commitment to innovation and quality. That goal isn't going to be met by sitting around gossiping about the guy across the hall or how much I hate my hair.
It turns out that this colleague turned out to be a real asset. She benefited from me saving her from further embarrassment, and I benefited from practicing the kind of soft skills that are critical for career advancement. We've both gone on to do different things, but I consider her a valuable member of my network.

Never doubt that every day provides an opportunity for you to learn and grow your career skills. While it's often easier to react from your gut, it's much smarter to think of how you can turn even negative situations into positive ones for your career.

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