The top 9 lessons I’ve learned at work

A personal guide to approaching the workplace and its relationships

Throughout my professional life, I’ve kept notes of things that bothered me or gave me some eurekas. I’ve worked in different roles from very technical ones to advisory/consultancy, and all of them have one thing in common: the real challenges were always centred around people. A few weeks back, I had a chat with Omar about leadership and management in technical environments, which triggered me into gathering my notes into the following list.

Image credits: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Your win is my win

There will always be someone doing almost the same thing as you, especially in large organisations. Digital teams and analytical teams often have this issue. “Who owns ‘data’?” was a question asked in each of my past three jobs. The way to overcome this challenge is to turn it around: go from competition to collaboration. Make sure that your win is their win; their win is yours too. I appreciate that we are often obsessed with ownership — our professional language is full of it: product owners, service owners, etc. Sometimes, this language descends from the nature of the accountability that these roles require. In reality, you don’t need to own a success to claim it. Give others ownership and care about delivery. Become an enabler of others: all things aside, it’s a more sustainable path to success. And investing time in enabling others to succeed is way more rewarding than fighting ownership battles.

Adapt your language to those you are speaking to

Projects fail and cross-boundary teams fall out whenever the two sides are stuck on using their own language. “Be ready to adapt your language to your audience” is the mantra of public speakers; it doesn’t just apply to structured communication — it also applies to any form of professional dialogue. In Government, your policy colleagues might not have an immediate understanding of what ‘doing a discovery’ means. When you work with people from a different function or profession, spend time with them, get used to the way they describe their work, try and map the two vocabularies, and learn to use their language.

Conflict is best surfaced and navigated

Sometimes, conflict cannot be resolved by the people involved in that instance of conflict. The best way to deal with it is not to avoid it or to get into a fight; it is to take it, acknowledge it, make it surface, talk about it explicitly, deactivate the negative emotions everyone feels around it, and move on together. This can be done at all levels. I remember two groups of academics writing a paper together but disagreeing on basic definitions, because they came from two branches of the same subject — they ended up in a deadlock that was only resolved by acknowledging the difference in the paper’s abstract and using it as the premise for the rest of the paper’s approach.

Openness is not risky

In a world dominated by concerns of reputational damage, being open is a value many pay lip service to, but is often frowned upon. The reality is that if you’re open, you will be safer. And that means at all stages: in official communications as much as in your daily engagements with colleagues. Being open means being clear about your agenda; but, most importantly, it means communicating the journey rather than just the final outcome. Ultimately, the openness pre-empts unexpected reactions (and that old comms departments’ fear of exposés). Sure, some people will try and exploit your openness. But you can be ready to deal with this risk with smaller and incremental steps. Big bang style pieces of sterilised comms carry more unexpected risk. Embrace the dialogue, and navigate any emerging difficulty with the same openness.

“How can I…” is a better question than “Can I…”

We’ve all had stories of overbearing communications department that wanted to stop us from socialising our work, recruitment teams that seemed intent to preventing us from hiring, procurement teams that put a lot of hurdles to our purchases. In many of these cases the problem was that we asked whether we could instead of asking how. Their default approach to such questions might feel defensive; but often that’s jut because you asked the wrong question. Also, don’t forget that asking for forgiveness is better than asking for permission (if you act with tact, empathy, and propriety). And Be Bold, as Janet famously wrote.

No matter what you do, some people will not like you

Get over it. We’ve all had our own “haters”. I have a little list… some of mine might sound familiar to you:

  • people who thought I wasn’t doing something well enough
  • people who thought my job/project/task was useless
  • people who simply misunderstood what I was doing and obviously hadn’t checked
  • people who thought I was wasting precious resources that should instead be spent on X/Y/Z (a classic false dichotomy)
  • people who thought that my job/team/organisation should not exist at all
  • people who thought I was simply stupid and saw evidence of this in every action I took

Be aware of your own privilege

You might have had to get past plenty of hurdles in your life to get where you are, and that’s something to be proud of. But others might have had to face different hurdles that you might not even be able to recognise; these might be challenges that you would have never been faced with in the first place because of who you are, where you are, what you look like, what your physical ability is — that’s what privilege is: something available to you that is not available to others, for whatever reason that might be. This will impact the way people interact with you, and awareness of this is vital. There are many version of privilege: you might have been white in a majority-white context; you might have been a man in a country according more rights to men than women; you might have grown up closer to good schools than others; you might have had parents encouraging you to take up sports at a young age and helped you be healthier later in life. Recognising your own privilege will make you more sympathetic with the struggles and life experiences of those around you, and will make you better at working with others.

Sustainable success is a marathon

We all like to deliver and get that sudden rush of emotions that success brings. But, in reality, success takes a lot of plumbing to be sustainable — conflicts, difficulties, money. Things will be rarely in the right place at the right time. Don’t be discouraged and be relentless. If you get a no, ask why not (as Marcus Rashford suggests here). If you manage teams, do your best to hire people who are better than you, and invest time in motivating them and spend time more on giving them a vision of why they are there in the first place than on the how they should be delivering. Coach your teams. This list of skills that engineers need beyond engineering is a good starting point for reflection.

Agile is a way of life

Agile is about moving in sprints, setting up your MVP and moving through iterative improvements. This applies to projects, but you can apply it more broadly to every endeavour: building teams, making business cases, advancing your career, etc. What matters is that you expand your knowledge at every iteration (Matt Edgar put this very well about digital products: “code is cheap, ignorance is costly”).

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