Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Is Mindfulness the Real Secret to Career Success?

If there's one trend that has continued to grow in popularity in the business world it's mindfulness.

I've written on the subject many times, and interviewed many experts, including Deepak Chopra. CEOs and entrepreneurs swear that mindfulness -- living in the moment -- is doing wonders for their careers. They report they are less stressed, are able to make better decisions and are more open to new ideas because they exist in a non-judgmental state.

These leaders are encouraging rank-and-file employees to adopt the practice, and I've heard from many such workers that they are trying to do just that. (Some say they love it, others think it's a waste of time).

Whatever your personal opinion of mindfulness, it's not going away. Studies are showing the impact mindfulness has on our brains and on our decision-making. Companies such as SAP and Aetna are training thousands of employees in mindfulness practices, and even open meetings with short meditations.

If you've never given meditation a try -- or halfheartedly tried and failed --  the Mindful folks have some words of advice on how to get started: 

  1. Set aside some time. You don’t need a meditation cushion or bench, or any sort of special equipment to access your mindfulness skills—but you do need to set aside some time and space.
  2. Observe the present moment as it is. The aim of mindfulness is not quieting the mind, or attempting to achieve a state of eternal calm. The goal is simple: we’re aiming to pay attention to the present moment, without judgement. Easier said than done, we know.
  3. Let your judgments roll by. When we notice judgments arise during our practice, we can make a mental note of them, and let them pass.
  4. Return to observing the present moment as it is. Our minds often get carried away in thought. That’s why mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
  5. Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself for whatever thoughts crop up, just practice recognizing when your mind has wandered off, and gently bring it back.
The one thing that practitioners of mindfulness say over and over is that it takes practice. They advise that this is something you're going to have to adopt as part of your personal and professional development if you want to experience its benefits.

Do you use mindfulness? Has it helped your career?

Monday, April 23, 2018

5 Ways to Fix Workplace Drama

If you feel like your workplace has more drama than an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," it may be time to think about how such turmoil affects your career and whether you need to make some changes in your own behavior.

Workplace drama can come in many different forms, from the gossiping colleague to the co-worker who yells (or cries) when under stress. Such an environment hurts productivity, teamwork and creativity, and can eventually lead to employees leaving.

While you can't control what others do, there are ways you can eliminate the impact of drama on your performance -- and possibly influence others to improve their behavior.

If workplace drama is becoming an issue in your organization, then it's time to:

  • Stop jumping to conclusions.  When workplace drama begins to escalate, it's usually because we assume that the other person is doing something to hurt someone else. For example, you believe that Jim is talking to Sheila's customer about a solution not because he wants to help, but because he wants to steal away that customer. First, it's none of your business what Jim is doing and second, how would you feel is someone automatically assumed your intentions were always underhanded? 
  • Walk away from gossip. In any workplace, there are gossips who love to have listeners. Don't be one of them, even if the gossiper is using a fun-loving "Wait until you hear this!" attitude. A simple, "Sorry! I've got to get this report done in the next hour!" or "Just on my way to the bathroom!" will force the gossiper to look for another listener (and hopefully he or she won't find one).
  • Spend time with people you don't like. I know, I know. You hate this advice. Why spend time with obnoxious John or giggly Susan? But when you spend time -- I'm talking 5 minutes asking about the weekend or mentioning that a new coffee shop has opened -- then you're saying that you want to get along with everyone. Then, build on that by asking John and Susan what they think about a new project or their opinion on a new industry trend. Then, listen
  • Agree to disagree. The dramatic brawls on reality TV, the Twitter wars and the venomous tirades in online blogs have bled into the workplace. Do you really have to try and annihilate someone in a meeting simply because he or she disagrees with you? Do you really have to fire off a group email using a snarky tone just to make your point that you don't like the new printer? Really? 
  • Take a deep breath. We spend a lot of time with people from work, and sometimes the relationships can take on the feel of battling siblings or high school mean girls. Just stop. Before you make that childish face, offer a sarcastic reply or post something mean online, take a deep breath and do something else. Walk away if you can. If you can't, ask the person if you can continue the conversation later. Behave in a way that would make your children or your mother proud.
Workplace drama is often a bad habit that we fall into, but it is one that can be broken. Even if you lapse one day, start over. The more you work to break the habit, the more others will begin to follow your behavior and you'll soon have a much more productive, happy and civilized workplace.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

This is Why Your Co-Workers Don't Trust You

We all have those people at work who we don't quite trust. Maybe we can cite specific reasons behind such feelings, or maybe we can't. But what if you heard from others that the person they don't trust is you? Would you be offended? Confused? Hurt?
Most of us don't want to think of ourselves as being untrustworthy. Not only can it hurt personally, but professionally it can cause problems. Colleagues who don't trust you won't stick up for you when you need it, won't include you in big projects and may even do what they can to get you transferred -- or fired.
To avoid falling into the "untrustworthy" category, here are some things to avoid:
1. Big talk. If you make big promises and then don't deliver, your co-workers won't want to take what you say seriously.
2. Being too bossy. Dictating to others and micromanaging shows you don't trust others to do what needs to be done. Your lack of trust in them will be reciprocated.
3. Wimping out.  Don't make excuses or blame others. Step up and apologize when necessary. At the same time, stop trying to cover your behind all the time by "cc-ing" the boss on everything. It shows you don't trust your teammates and care only about protecting yourself.
5. Taking all the credit. Chances are good that even if you did great work, you were helped along the way with advice, encouragement or ideas from others. It won't diminish you to give them some kudos.
Remember that if you break someone's trust, you're going to have to work hard to regain it. Wouldn't it just be easier not to lose it in the first place?

A version of this post ran earlier.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Why Workplace Friendships Go Wrong -- and How to Deal With It

Most of us develop friendships at work, but sometimes these relationships go off the rails.

When that happens, it's often a slippery slope because having a disagreement with a friend at work can cause you professional problems, as well.

Andrea Bonior, a licensed psychologist, offers some potential friendship pitfalls and how to deal with them in her book, "Friendship Fix." Among her tips:

1. Your friend is using something in your personal life against you at work. "Privately convey to your 'friend' that you would appreciate it if she refrained from spreading around your personal business, and if push comes to shove, declare to whoever else is involved that you think the discussion to be inappropriate," Bonior suggests. At the same, be prepared to stand up for yourself and prove the colleague wrong by turning in a top-notch performance every day. "There's a good chance that your coworker might end up looking petty and untrustworthy if their information is irrelevant to your professional image," she adds.

2.  Your friend gets fired or laid off, and is now royally ticked at the company. This is certainly tricky because you still have a job and want to keep it, but you also want to be a supportive friend. "Keep in contact with him through lunches or phone calls outside of work, but try not to let his venom give you survivor's guilt: you can feel sorry for him as a friend, but you still need a paycheck," Bonior counsels. "Be patient listening to his woes without letting him force you to berate your company."

3. Your friend is trying to get you to join her crusade against something at work. The breakroom kitchen needs a new microwave! The boss is unfair and should be reported to HR! Whatever the cause, your friend is leading the charge and she wants you to get involved -- but you don't want to do it. Bonior advises you to gently tell your colleague/friend that you're not comfortable signing on, and "I know my unease with it would do more harm than good."

4. Your friend never met a charity she didn't like. It's a fact of life that you're going to get hit up for a charitable cause at work, but it can get to be a problem when it's your friend who is always coming to you for a contribution. Say "no, thank you," with a smile and a "graceful change of subject" as many times as necessary, Bonior says.

This post ran earlier.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

4 References for Inexperienced Job Seekers

It's the time of year when those looking for internships or their first professional gig are madly churning out resumes, answering online ads and trying to figure out who the heck can be a reference for them.

It can be a bit difficult to think of someone who can vouch for you when you don't have a lot of work experience. Still, employers understand that Bill Gates or Jimmy Fallon probably won't provide a reference and that you're just starting out.

Here are some people who might be able to help:

  • A teacher. This teacher might be from high school or college, or even grammar school if Miss Evans from fourth grade has kept up with you. Make sure the teacher remembers you -- it will be a bit embarrassing if you select someone who doesn't know your name. Also, choose someone who will for sure give you a good recommendation. The only way to know this with certainty is to contact the teacher and ask if he or she is comfortable vouching for your character and work ethic.
  • A religious leader. If your rabbi or pastor knows you, then he or she can provide some evidence as to your good character, your contributions to the community, etc. Employers are often looking for those who have shown teamwork, so a religious leader can address how you helped with various missions or ministries.
  • Volunteer coordinators. If you've put in time at a local food bank, helped clean up trash by the side of the road or volunteered with a literacy program, ask the coordinator for a reference. Again, employers want to talk to those who have seen your work ethic and teamwork firsthand.
  • Family member. No, Nana can't talk about what a good boy you've always been. But if you spent one summer helping Uncle Fred clear the back 40 or pitched in with your cousin Bill to design a new app, then that's fair game. When using a family member, make sure he or she can talk specifically about work you have done since any employer is going to take a personal reference with a grain of salt.
Finally, remember that any of the above references should be contacted first by you, to ask them to be a reference and to make them aware of the qualifications they need to discuss. After they've talked to your potential employer, make sure you send a thank-you note or follow up with an appreciative phone call.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Why Networking is So Exhausting -- and What to Do About It

Professional conferences or networking events are great ways to learn new things about your industry and make important contacts for your career.

They also can be exhausting.

Even the most outgoing person can find hours of "small talk" a bit draining. If you say "Hello, how are you?" one more time, you think you might go crazy.

The key to getting through such events is doing some planning beforehand. Believe it or not, chatting with strangers takes some effort, and poor planning can lead to inane conversations and fruitless contacts that go nowhere.

Before you go to your next event, here are some things to think about:

  • Stay away from controversial subjects. Politics, racism and sexism are important subjects, but they shouldn't be used as small talk. Those are pretty weighty subjects that deserve serious consideration, and you run the risk of making an offhand comment that could be taken the wrong way. If someone tries to solicit your opinion, change the subject. "How do I feel about the president? You know, I think that's a subject that will take much longer to discuss. But I would really like to know more about your job."
  • Show interest. "I see that your name tag says you are from Detroit. I've never been there, but would like to visit. Do you have some recommendations about where to visit?" Asking questions makes others feel like you are interested in them. You can ask about where they went to school, where they grew up, their favorite sports teams or what they like to do in their spare time. Once you've broken the ice a bit, then you can move to more inquiries about the person's job, their greatest challenges, what they think about latest industry trends, etc.
  • Be enjoyable. Nobody wants to talk to someone who can only drone on about a job or an industry. Be sure that you're up on the latest pop culture stories or the movie that is breaking box office records. You'll be more memorable if you can join in such fun topics and be seen as more approachable to others.
Finally, remember that talking to a bunch of strangers can be difficult for anyone. Once you realize that everyone is going through the same thing, you'll realize you have something in common before you offer your first handshake and it won't seem so difficult.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

This is How to Have a Happy Career

No matter how much you like your job, there are some days you feel as if you could walk out the door and never return. That's pretty common, especially when you have the kind of day when everything seems to go wrong.

But if you start to realize that your feeling of boredom or frustration or stress is becoming a common theme, then you need to take action. If you don't, those feelings may affect your performance to the point that you get fired or the boss passes you over for a big opportunity. Neither of those outcomes is good for your career, so it's important that you be the one to manage a career turning sour.

First, don't take this situation too lightly or too seriously. While this may sound ridiculous, only you can make an internal assessment of the situation and know a) that you're prone to drama and you could be making this situation much worse than it really is or b) you tend to avoid your feelings, and your career is about to go off a cliff.

Second, take a breather. If possible, try to get away from your career for a while. If you can't get away for a quick vacation, at least try to use your weekend to detach. This means letting everyone at work know that you're going to unplug (you can make up a creative reason here, or give no reason at all) and then really do it. Set up an auto respond to emails, turn off notifications of the latest basketball score and get away from screens. Period.

Third, occupy yourself with something completely unrelated to work. Buy a paint by numbers kit and do it. Go dig in the dirt and plant something. Buy a kite and fly it. Repaint your bedroom. Bake a batch of cookies.

If you want this to be beneficial, then you can't cheat. You can't fly a kite while checking your email. You can't bake cookies while reading an industry news website.

Once you've had this time away (a week is ideal, but a solid two days away may do the trick) then it's time to take your internal temperature again. Do you feel better about your job? Are you starting to remember how much you like what you do? Have new ideas been popping into your head while you were planting a new elm tree?

If so, then you know that your career crisis isn't serious, and just needs some tweaking. Would you like to talk to your boss about training in a new department? Is it time to talk to your team about better ways to communicate? Do you want to attend a few seminars to learn some new skills or come up with new ideas?

On the other hand, if you find after having some time away that you would still like hide under your bed at the thought of returning to work, then things are more serious. You need to really dig deep and find the root cause of your unhappiness and whether it can be fixed. If you have a mentor, now is the time to talk to him or her. If not, try writing down the pros and cons of your job and doing an assessment of what can be changed and what cannot.

Ultimately, no matter how many career coaches or mentors you have, you still are the one who must do the work and figure out whether your job is working for you or not. By knowing how to make an internal assessment, you're more likely to handle career bumps before they become a full-blown crisis.

Monday, April 2, 2018

How to Answer "Tell Me About Yourself"

Chances are pretty good that in your next job interview, you're going to hear: "So! Tell me about yourself."

Interviewers love to ask this question because a) they're hoping you might slip up and tell them something really interesting, such as the fact that you've been fired from your last five jobs b) they don't really remember who you are, and this gives them time to come up with questions to ask and c) they want to see how you present yourself.

Also, don't be surprised if you hear this question several times in the interviewing process, whether it's in your first interview with human resources, or your third interview with a senior vice president. That's why you can't wing it when it comes to describing yourself -- it's really important that you seize this opportunity to sell yourself and your skills.

No matter who asks you this question, there is one key thing you must remember: Describe yourself and your skills in such a way that helps the other person see you in the job. Oh -- and do it in about 75 words.

This means that you can't waste your words talking about how you have six cats and four dogs and you love comic books and you recently returned from a vacation and blah, blah, blah.

Your 75 words need to focus on your professional abilities (although you don't want to sound like you're reading your resume after not sleeping for four days). Instead, your voice -- the same one you use to describe your love of pets and comic books -- should show your enthusiasm for what you've done and what you want to do in the future.

Something like this: "I've been in IT for the last five years, and really love the challenge of an industry that is evolving so quickly. I've worked collaboratively with various departments, and find that such experiences have helped me think more strategically. That's why I'm so excited about this opportunity, because I think that my IT and collaboration experience can help this company. In my last job, our innovations led to a 30% increase in customer satisfaction."

It doesn't matter if you're applying for an administrative assistant role or as a mechanical engineer. The keys to focus on include:

  • Relevant experience. If you've been volunteering for years at community marathon events, then you can certainly reveal that if you're applying to a running shoe company. But stick with the facts that will help the company see you've got the right skills. Look at the job ad carefully, and try to use some of the key words revealed in that posting, whether it's "team work," "self-starter" or specific work experience.
  • Examples. Once you've given your little spiel, then you may be asked to elaborate. "So, tell me more about the 30% increase in customer satisfaction," the interviewer may say. Instead of droning on about the system you helped set up, try telling a short story about how there was a customer you had met who talked about a particular frustration with her inventory system during the summer months when more workers were on vacation, leading to poor inventory tracking. That prompted you to go back to your team and start designing a better software program to handle the problem. It so thrilled the customer, she signed a long-term contract and recommended your company to three other businesses.
  • The fit. No one wants to be your second or third choice. They want to believe that you can't see yourself working anywhere else, because the job and the company are such a good fit. That's why you need to always mention it: "I know that your culture really focuses on innovation, and that's just what I feel can help me deliver better IT solutions."
Finally, remember to practice what you plan to say. Write it out and then practice it until it feels natural. You're going to be a bit nervous in your job interview, so having it clear in your mind will ensure that you don't forget your priorities and start talking about how Captain America is better than Ant Man.