How to Avoid Sabotaging Yourself at Work

AKA 10 Tips for Being the World’s Best Employee


I did not turn into a good employee until the year before I stopped being an employee and started being a boss. Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing more valuable to a company than a good employee (other than a good boss, but I need another ten years to even dream of writing about that). But y’all, when I talk about being an employee, I am in no way talking down to you as someone who’s lived a cushy life of management. I started working at thirteen (um, obviously not super legally), and have had all kinds of jobs, from pumping gas, to filing medical records, to frosting cupcakes for minimum wage, to working in offices where my bosses screamed at people till they cried, to navigating the particular hell of the super-corporate investment bank.

By the time I quit working for other people, I’d learned the basics of being a good staffer: be diligent, be responsible, ask questions when you have them, own your mistakes, and keep your emotions out of the workplace when you can. I’ve spent the six years since then managing my own employees, and what I’ve learned is that people walk into the same self-destructive traps over and over in their jobs. So to save you two decades of employee practice, plus half a decade of management experience, we’ve partnered with Squarespace and written up ten rules for being a good employee. Please add yours in the comments.

(And before you worry, it was my staff’s idea that I write this, so don’t pity them too much—even as I let you learn from all of our mistakes.)

Do the work. Last summer, the press was full of articles wondering about the American worker’s drop in productivity. I kept wondering if the articles were a joke, because I’m pretty sure we all know what’s hurting productivity at work, and it’s the Internet. (Shhhh, we won’t tell your boss you’re here.) Once you get settled into a desk job, it can be easy to start feeling like your salary is the thing that’s owed to you, and in return you show up and do the basics. While there are jobs you can survive on that way, it’s rare that you’ll earn your way into your boss’s heart (or get a promotion) by feeling like the world owes you a living.

So by all means, surf the Internet when you have down time. Sneak into APW Happy Hour on your lunch break. Check in on the fun when you need a break. But think about it this way: somewhere, someone put your salary down in a budget line, and said, “I really hope this person will be worth the money, because we need them to be.” Be worth the money.

Know what you’re accountable for. Many of the mistakes that I see come down to one fundamental problem. The employee in question thought the buck stopped with someone else, didn’t check on that assumption, and dropped the ball. There is nothing worse as a boss than asking where the project is only to find out… the project never happened. So if you’re not sure who’s in charge of something, check. You don’t want to find out it was you… way too late.

“Yes, and” not “No, but.” Back when I was twenty-six, someone pulled me aside to explain that I needed to stop telling my boss his ideas were bad, and try to figure out how to solve his problems. The boss in question had a lot of awful ideas, so I rolled my eyes and then quit the job. And while quitting that particular job was definitely the right call, years later I realize that the advice was also spot on. When I ask an employee to solve a problem for me, I need ideas (plural) on how to solve it. Often the problem is difficult (or I would have solved it myself), but still has to be solved. So having an employee say “No, but that’s not going to work,” makes me want to slam my head into the wall. What I need to hear is, “Yes, and we can think of a few ways to approach solving that.”

Own your mistakes. Once, back in my days of secretarial work, I managed to totally screw up an important trip for my boss. I thought I’d booked his hotel well in advance of a major conference, but I hadn’t. And at that point, the only option was to make a man who spent four nights a week on the road away from his kids stay in a godforsaken airport hotel miles from where he needed to be. I was mortified, but it was too late to fix it. So I got up, marched into my boss’s office, told him exactly how I’d screwed up, the best options I had, and that I was profoundly sorry and would try not to make that mistake again. I stopped talking and stood there bracing for the worst.

My boss blinked, thought for a second, and said, “Thanks. I guess that’s what we’ll do. No problem.” What I realized in that moment is that this is all any decent boss wants. Mistakes happen to all of us. When they happen to people we manage, we want them to own them, apologize, do everything in their power to fix them… and probably most importantly, leave their emotions at the door.

If you screwed up, your boss has every right to be (appropriately) upset. Don’t make them manage your emotions too. Which brings me to…

Be very careful how you bring your personal life into work, otherwise known as the “don’t cry at work” rule. If you’re lucky enough to have a great job and a great boss, you may well be friends with your boss outside of work. Maybe you guys get together over drinks and bitch and cry about your life. That’s fantastic. However, no matter how lovely your boss is, be very careful how you bring that behavior into the office. When you become a boss, your ultimate responsibility shifts to the organization, not the individual. That may sound heartless, but it’s the company that writes the checks that supports people’s families—often many people’s families, not just yours. And that means that your boss needs to be able to act objectively, without worrying about whatever personal drama you just dragged in the door.

TL;DR: If you’re going to have a conversation at work that involves crying, it’s probably a conversation you shouldn’t be having in the office. In fact, it’s probably a conversation you shouldn’t be having with anyone even close to their boss hat.

Communicate clearly with your boss. (Otherwise known as: don’t let your superiors be surprised, and if you have a problem, let your team know right away.) This one speaks for itself, but seems to be broken on a daily basis. If you’re having a problem, anything from feeling unmotivated by your work to seeing a mistake happening in a key part of a project—let your boss know. That said, it’s important to figure out how and when to communicate to your manager. Is it an emergency? Tell them right then. Is it something they need to know sooner rather than later? Maybe bring it up at your weekly staff meeting. Is it super big picture? Make an appointment to sit down with them when they have time. But word to the wise: your boss can’t read your mind. You have to tell them what’s on it.

If you don’t want to be there, leave. (And if you can’t leave, don’t bring that mess to work.) Who among us hasn’t been stuck at a job we didn’t want to be at? (If you haven’t been, light a candle and say a prayer of thanks). The one thing that I have learned (over and over) as a boss and as an employee is that if you don’t want to be at a job, you need to do everything in your power to GET OUT. Yes, some part of your brain will say things like, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” and, “You’ve only been here six months, what will that look like on your resume?” but the truth is that life is too short to make yourself (and everyone around you) miserable. That said, there are times you just can’t leave a job… God knows I’ve lived through those moments (I’m looking at you, recession). If that is the case, suck it up. Bitch at home. Sob into your drink. Punch your pillow. Do what you need to do. But when you show up at work, have the integrity to do the very best that you can. At the very least, you’ll have your dignity (and a paycheck).

Don’t self-sabotage. It was only when I became a boss that I realized how self-destructive humans can be. The bizarre thing that I’ve noted is that self-sabotage often happens when things are going well (not just when an employee really wants out of their position, see above). But when I have a staff member killing the game, and ready for a promotion, it’s very likely that they’ll start to demonstrate self-sabotaging behavior. They’ll turn down increased responsibility, they’ll start causing drama, they’ll miscommunicate, they’ll make huge mistakes. In fact, the list of damaging behavior is literally endless. Why? I can only guess that they’re scared of moving on up. Worse? I don’t think they have a clue that they’re doing it.

Keep an open mind. You might be hired for one job and get moved into another one. Your team might decide that a strategy that seems strange to you is the one to pursue. You boss might decide you’re gifted at something you never even thought to try (and are not sure you’ll even like). Best advice? Keep an open mind, and give it a try. Worst-case scenario? You hate it or decide you were right in the first place… at which point you can try to backtrack. Most common outcome? Someone else saw something in you or in a project that you didn’t… and you’re about to be delightfully surprised.

Be open to feedback. I know, I know. Feedback is a bitch. Take it from me, since I lived through investment bank performance reviews that resulted in people being fired. Pretty much nobody likes hearing what they’re doing wrong. But learning how to accept—and give—constructive feedback is one of the most important parts of continuing to improve in your job. If this is something you struggle with (waves!) try to come up with less threatening ways to practice getting feedback.

Maybe set up a time to sit down with a trusted colleague, and tell them all the things you think you could improve on, and then have them respond. First, it’s always easier to go hard on yourself than to hear it from someone else (and we generally all know what our real weaknesses are). Second, it can be nice to hear that X way that you thought you were totally underperforming is actually just a story you made up to torture yourself. (Flashback to me thinking everyone thought I was the laziest intern at the theatre development office… only to find out that every other intern was in awe of my 24/7 chipper conversations with high-level donors, and wondered why they didn’t have as much work as I did. Whoopsy, with the self-flagellation.)

what would you add to this list? what’s one thing you’ve seen people do over and over again (Or whoops, done yourself)—and what’s your best advice for being an A+ employee?


This post was sponsored by Squarespace. This year we are partnering with Squarespace to bring you a series of career conversations about what it means to be a woman with hustle in 2016. If you’re in the market for a new job or looking to explore your options, one of the best things you can do for yourself is create a home online where you can show off your work in the form of a portfolio site, an online resume, or another hub where you can display just how awesome you are. Squarespace provides the creative tools that make it easy to build your online home beautifully, even if you’ve never made a website before and have no idea where to start. In conjunction with our career series this year, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on your first purchase when you use the code APW16 at checkout. Click here to get your website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.

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