I believe in the value of sharing mistakes I’ve made in the hope that others may benefit from my experience and avoid making those same mistakes. To that end, I thought it might be good to reflect on poor choices I’ve made in various roles across multiple companies and post about them here. The list below isn’t an exhaustive list of everything I can imagine others might do that is detrimental to their career or work relationships. It is merely a description of some things I wish I had not done along the way.
Failing to speak up. I despise conflict, so I too often avoid the hard conversations that may be confrontational. I want to get along with people. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I want to keep the peace and just do my best work in a calm environment without any drama. As one who has always tested on the introvert side of personality inventories and who is never going to be the life of the party, being quiet comes more naturally than speaking up, but that isn’t always helpful.
The down side of this otherwise admirable quality is that issues which need to be addressed may not be dealt with in a timely manner. Problems persist and the potential negative consequences include less than optimal team performance and dynamics, poorer business decisions due to lack of input, not to mention the inner turmoil that comes from remaining silent when something is bugging me. It took me a while to realize that the actual negative consequences of failing to speak up are worse than the imagined consequences of speaking up. That is, the difficulty of hard conversations is rarely (if ever) as bad as you imagine it might be, especially if you approach such conversations with genuineness and kindness.
Seeing some coworkers as enemies. It’s no secret that in an organization of any size there will be some strained relationships. Different personalities, values and agendas practically guarantee that people will occasionally be at odds with one another. What must not happen, though, is reaching a point where you always think negatively of certain coworkers and, consequently, treat them in a manner that perpetuates the negative relationship. I may not like the way some people act. I may believe rightly that they would throw me under the bus in a heartbeat if they had the chance and if they thought it would somehow make them look good or help them climb the ladder or advance their personal agenda. But I am first and foremost an employee of my company who is hired to help the business accomplish its objectives, and that sometimes means working cooperatively with others in order to advance the cause of the business, even when every fiber of my being would just like to tell the other person where to go. Be the bigger person and focus on the business goals and objectives, not the interpersonal difficulties.
Leaving too soon. I’m coming up on my tenth anniversary this year at my company, so this isn’t a current issue with me, but if I take a close look at my resume going back 30+ years of full-time work, I can see some times where I took the easy way out to go to a different company or organization rather than stay and overcome a difficult situation. Maybe those were the right decisions, maybe not. I’m sure I had no problem justifying them at the time, and once I had mentally checked out of the roles, it was just a matter of time before I officially left. However, when I look over someone’s resume today when looking to fill a role and I see a lot of short-term gigs of two years or less, it raises a huge red flag and makes me wonder what kind of staying power the person has. I want to be someone who loves what he does (as I do) and who cares enough to change a “flight” instinct to one of confronting issues and overcoming them. I suppose this mistake is related to the first one above in that it can be a way to avoid conflict.
Responding in anger. It is never a good idea to fire off an email when you’re angry. It is rarely the wise choice to spout off with what you want to come back with in a heated meeting, phone call, or face-to-face encounter. In situations where you have the opportunity to hit the pause button before responding, do so. I recently had this happen when I received some unwelcome news via email at work that made me a very unhappy camper. My every instinct was to fire off a sharp reply to some people much higher in the org chart than I am or ever expect to be. Fortunately, I just vented my frustration with my understanding teammates sitting nearby and announced that I was taking a walk. On that walk I stopped by the desks of some people I hadn’t seen in a while to catch up with them and to have some friendly conversation which put me in a very different mood. By the time I was back at my desk, I was able to respond to the email in a rational, professional manner.
Another practice I have used countless times to avoid responding in anger and to avoid rash decisions of many types is to sleep on a matter overnight. It is amazing how different some things appear in the light of day compared to how they looked at the end of a long day or evening when you were tired and not at your best. It may seem silly, but a general rule of thumb I have lived by for decades is that I don’t make major, life-changing decisions when it’s dark outside (whether anger is involved or not). The world won’t end and most substantive opportunities won’t pass you by if you sleep on some decisions overnight.
So there you have four big mistakes I know I’ve made more than once in my career and with which I still occasionally struggle. Surely people I have worked with could easily think of additional mistakes I’ve made.
If you’re willing, I’d love to hear in your comments about some of the lessons you’ve learned the hard way in your career.
Coming soon in a post will be the flip side of this topic – some of the things I’ve done in various roles that proved to be good choices and very helpful for my employers and for me. I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m rotten to the core.