Monday, July 27, 2009

How to Survive When You're Drowning in a New Job

I've had a lot of "first days" at work in my career, but none were like the summer when I was 19 and got a job as a bank teller.

My trainer, obviously overworked, said to me on the second day: "You know, normally we train someone at least a week or more. But I think you're doing so well I'm just going to let you handle it on your own. Let me know if you have any questions."

She disappeared, and I didn't see her again for two weeks.

You can imagine the outcome. I made lots of mistakes that cost money -- literally. (My cash drawer was always short at the end of the day). I was forced to bug my co-workers constantly with questions. I ended up detesting that job.

So when I got an e-mail from someone telling me how she had felt in over her head on a new job -- I knew it was a story that had to be told. Here's the story I did for my Gannett column:

Darcie Borden believed herself to be fortunate to land a job as an account executive for R&J Public Relations in Bridgewater, N.J. last September, especially when she had little experience in the arena.

It wasn’t long until Borden realized just what that lack of experience meant: insomnia, carb-loading and lots of shallow breathing.

“I was floundering,” she says. “I felt I was in over my head. I couldn’t sleep at night, and I found myself sometimes literally forgetting to breathe.”

While Borden knew there was a learning curve with any new job, she didn’t think her experience as a journalist was serving her well in her new job – despite the fact R&J had hired her after four interviews, fully aware of her background.

“I certainly did not want to admit to any uncertainty. There’s so much competition for jobs these days, and I just didn’t know if they were glad they hired me or not,” she says. “For the first month, I was pretty anxious. I ate lots of carbs.”

Finally, Borden, a self-admitted “perfectionist,” began achieving results. The company also paired her with a mentor, a senior employee who “really helped me calm down and gave me lots of private, non-judgmental feedback.”

Borden’s experience is not that unusual for a new employee, says
Phyllis Mufson, a Philadelphia-based career and business consultant and certified coach. The difference these days, she says, is that employees are terrified they have to learn a new job more quickly in order to avoid being booted back into the unemployment ranks.

“Many firms these days aren’t willing to pay for any training an employee might need,” Mufson says. “And the employee is afraid to ask.”

Another problem is that new employees have to be cautious when telling others they are have difficulty in a new position. “The politics of an organization can be hard to figure out in the beginning. You have to figure out how things work and who has your best interests at heart,” Mufson says.

Anyone faced with learning something quickly can feel overwhelmed and become disorganized, gelling into a mass of anxiety, Mufson says. Coupled with the knowledge that landing a job in this bad employment market is tough only ratchets up the stress for new workers, she adds.

In Borden’s case, she says she’s received lots of support from her employer, and has become more confident as she sees that she has valuable skills, and is now learning new ones. “I’m starting to get more comfortable,” she says. “I don’t think I oversold myself to them. They hired me for my brain and what I know.”

That kind of positive self-talk is important, Mufson says, for any employee who feels they are in over their head. Mufson also advises anyone in this situation should:

• Look for training. “If there are actual skills you need, then you can create a proposal asking for more training,” Mufson says. “But these days, it’s really more up to the worker to get the training they need. “ If that’s the case, then look for online classes, weekend seminars or even a local university student willing to tutor you at home, she says.
• Ask questions. “Be willing to look like a nerd and ask questions when you need to,” she says. “Don’t put yourself down when you do it. It’s much better to ask questions early on in a job rather than later.”
• Talk it up. “Remind yourself of when you’ve been in difficult situations before and you came out of it OK,” she says. “Tell yourself you’ve done it before and you can do it again.”
• Find support. A buddy or mentor who can listen to your concerns, help you come up with some problem-solving and “just let you vet” can help release some anxiety so that you can focus on the issues and not your fear. A career coach also can be a good option.
• Keep your body in tune. Exercise, take yoga or even go online to learn how to do deep breathing to stay calm during these stressful times.

Finally, Mufson says she advises that anyone can avoid feeling overwhelmed in a current career or a future one by making a regular “automatic professional development” deposit.

“It’s just like a Christmas fund. Only with this one you put away money regularly that is for you to do something that keeps your skills updated. It sort of helps take the heat off so you don’t have those ‘uh-oh, I’m in trouble” moments. Lifetime learning is the best strategy against that happening,” she says.

What are some other tips to cope with being overwhelmed at work?

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Procrastination Thriving in Stressful Workplace

I'm always impressed when I watch a movie like "Apollo 13" where people under enormous stress perform really well. That doesn't usually happen for me.

There have been a lot of frantic, stressful days in my life, and sometimes by the end of the day I realize I didn't get enough done and feel really frustrated, or angry or depressed. Sometimes I feel all three.

Dr. Neil Fiore says I'm not alone. A psychologist and productivity guru, he says that the increasing stress of our daily lives, combined with anxiety about the state of the economy, has contributed to our loss of motivation.

The author of "The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play," Fiore says people have gotten into the bad habit of saying "I have to get the project done" instead of "I'm going to get the project done."

“By saying, ‘I have to’ instead of ‘I choose to’ or ‘I’m going to,’ you really increase your stress levels,” he says. "Replace "I have to get this overwhelming project done" with 'I am choosing to START on one part for 15 minutes with plenty of guilt-free play on my schedule.' You then avoid both stress and anxiety. Anxiety is stuck energy trying to get into the imaginery 'future','done' or 'finished' place."

Fiore says that while we’ve all heard of the “flight or fight” response to stress, a third component is “freeze.” That means that people who are confronted with a possible layoff, or have already lost their jobs, may find that they’re shifting into a “wait and see” mode, procrastinating on doing anything about their careers.

“It’s part of our survival mechanism. When you have a broken leg, your body will tell you to lie still. That’s what is happening to a lot of people right now. They’re just staying still, trying to figure out what is going on,” he says.

Fiore offered some tips to those of us struggling with these issues:
  • Notice your immediate, "default" reactions -- your most frequent thoughts, feelings, and impulsive reactions -- to stress and pressure. Take a few days to identify which reactive habits you need to update to fit with your current vision, abilities, values and challenges.
  • Remember how you felt when you helped a friend cope with a stressful or heart-breaking event. You observed their problem from a distance and shifted to the role of a compassionate, wise counselor. Do this for yourself and experience the freedom of observing old habits and thoughts without having to identify with them.
  • Play and work consistently at your personal best by connecting to the rest of your brain and body -- when you feel like a Tiger Woods, a Danica Patrick or an Oprah Winfrey. Begin performing at levels far beyond what the ego knows how to do. Integrate all parts of you into the grander whole that is your strongest self.
  • Notice how self-criticism and telling yourself "you have to" lead to stress and anxiety. Get ride of self-threats.Tell yourself: "Regardless of what happens, I will not make myself feel bad. I will not let any event or person determine my worth."
  • Communicate to your mind and body a clear image of when, where, and on what to work, and you'll significantly improve your productivity. "Pour the foundation at 9 a.m. Wednesday at 322 Garfield Ave." is clearer than "You have to finish construction on this house by next month."
  • Change "I don't know" to "I wonder what will come to me." Watch for the surprise as the creative side of your brain starts working to bring you from "not knowing" to "knowing."

What are some ways you avoid procrastination or keep yourself motivated?

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Is Stress Making You Want to Kiss Your Job Goodbye?

For me, one of the great things about Twitter is that is allows me to learn more about what people experience at work every day. It's sort of like being an invisible Spiderman, without the goofy costume. I feel like I can jump from cubicle to cubicle across the world, being a fly, er, spider on the wall.

One of the things I know for sure -- from following people on Twitter and from interviewing them -- is that there is a lot of stress in the workplace. People are overwhelmed by the demands of their job, even though they try and put a positive spin on it: "Wow! Just got a new deadline! Anyone want two tickets to the big concert tonight?" goes a typical Tweet.

Heather Blume asked me if I was hearing that more people who already had jobs were actively looking for work. The stress in current jobs, she said, was really getting to them and she had several people a week asking her if she knew of other positions. That was pretty interesting considering the job market is so tough right now and not expected to improve for a couple of years.

So I called Wayne Hochwarter, a professor at Florida State University, who spends a lot of time studying the workplace. He was not surprised to hear how many people were willing to leave jobs -- even entire careers -- and join the job hunt.

“A lot of people just don’t have anything to look forward to anymore,” Hochwarter says.“They can’t even look forward to retirement, because they’re going to have to work longer now. Most people haven’t gotten a raise in years. They’re doing the work of five people now, and they just think: ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Blume hears a lot of personal despair every day as she does her job as a Seattle-based recruiter specializing in property management for Career Strategies Inc.

“In the last month or so, I’ve had three or four people a week tell me – on the down-low – that they’ve got to get out of their jobs. It used to be I heard this maybe once a month. Now people are asking me if I’ve got anything for them – they say they’ll take anything to get away from the stress of what they’re doing now,” she says.

While Blume says she doesn’t “poach” from other companies, that doesn’t mean she’s not sympathetic to their plight and will quietly put out “feelers” to try and help them make job contacts. One 20-year-veteran of property management recently told Blume that her job was “eating her soul.” Another said she was looking for contacts in “restaurant work” because she was so burned out and wanted to leave the industry where she had built a successful career.

She adds that those seeking work are at all levels. “I tell them to sit tight, or to think about going back to school,” she says. “But if you’re miserable, it’s hard.”

I decided to call David Benjamin, who often posts comments to this blog and someone else I follow on Twitter, and ask what he was experiencing as a recruiting manager for The Sales Matrix in Detroit. What levels of stress was he seeing?

He noted that while he hears the despair and frustration in the voices of salesmen who are out of work, he also notes that those who are still employed “just don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Salesmen hear ‘no' in this economy a lot more,” Benjamin says. “It just wears on you and beats you down. It ‘s such a grind, such a challenge.”

In a study by Hochwarter, he found that 55 percent of bosses have become more demanding of current workers and more than 70 percent of employees say the recession has increased stress levels at work.

“I’ve never been a big believer that we’ve got good managers, and now with this economy, they’ve lost whatever humanity they had,” Hochwarter says. “They know that they’ve got to meet goals or they start chopping heads. Managers really don’t know what to do during a time like this. We haven’t prepared them for anything like it.”

What do you think the impact of this economic downturn and current job market will have on workers?

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Are You Afraid to Just Say "No" at Work?

"Taylor, can you help me out with this report? I need some research done by tomorrow, or I'm really going to be in trouble."


"Taylor, we need someone to head up this new committee, and I think you'd be perfect. Can you put a team together by next Tuesday?"


"Taylor, we're really having trouble with this client and it would be so helpful if you could go there and sort of calm them down. It would be great if you could leave right away."


"Taylor, someone left a mess in the break room. On yourlunch hour, do you think you could use your great organizational skills and bring order to the chaos?"


Many of us hate to say "no." We say "sure" or "yes" to requests for many reasons, but few of them have to do with what is best for us and our careers. We don't say"no" because we don't want someone to be mad at us. We say "yes" because we feel guilty or we're afraid of what could happen if we don't agree to a request.

And, in this rotten job market, we are afraid to say "no" for fear it could cost us our job.

But I recently interviewed some psychologists for my Gannett News Service and column, and they made it crystal clear that not learning to say "no" may be terrible for your career -- and your life.

“When you’re scared about being the next one to be laid off, all kinds of dysfunctional things start to happen,” says Pat Pearson, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based clinical psychotherapist. “You start getting more paranoid, you do your work less well, and you start feeling as if you can’t say ‘no.’ So, you take on anything they throw at you.”

But the problem, Pearson says, is that such a move just makes a career “more and more dysfunctional.”

“You have to decide: Are you going to have a healthy work environment or not?”

Paula Bloom, an Atlanta-based clinical psychologist, says that every worker must realize they only have so much emotional capital to expend every day, and pushing the limits may cost them the very thing they’re hoping to protect.

“If there is too great an emotional cost, then you will become resentful and unpleasant, and not nice to be around. And people who are a pain in the butt are often the ones who are let go,” Bloom says.

Both Pearson and Bloom stress that the emotional and physical cost of never saying “no” – even in this stressful job market – can take a real toll on workers.

“If you don’t feel good about what you’re taking on, then you become negative and angry, and then you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting the company because you’re not going to be as productive,” Pearson says. “If you are doing things you don’t want to do, then you’re going to pay a price with your health. You’re going to get sick more often, and have a high stress level."

But how do you say “no” without being considered a poor team player or labeled with some other negative moniker at work? Both Bloom and Pearson says it’s a matter of understanding your boundaries and then being prepared to make the “no” sound positive. They advise:

Be willing to ask for what you need. "Maybe you’ve been asked to work late, and you can agree to it, except for on Thursdays, when you need to get home on time because your kids have soccer,” Person says. “You have to decide how much you can live with, and what you can’t do without."

Taking a deep breath. “Don’t freak out when someone makes a request. Just say, ‘I would love to be able to help you out, but it won’t work today. If you could give me a few days notice next time, I might be able to do it.’” Adds Pearson: “Act thoughtful and say something like, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ It gives you time to think about it and then make a decision when you’re not under pressure.”

Living with integrity. “If you’re screwing around on the Internet for an hour every day, or faking your time card, then you’ll try to compensate for your guilt and say ‘yes’ to everything. If you live with integrity, you’ll be able to say ‘no’ and not feel guilty,” Bloom says.

Understanding the difference between “can’t” and “don’t want to.” Bloom says that even when the boss makes a request, you can say “no” if you’ve made an honest assessment of your workload. “You can always say, ‘I’d like to do that, but can you help me figure out the priority of these nine other things I have to do?’ Put the issue back on the boss.”

How are some other ways people can be smarter about saying "no"?

Lijit Search

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Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Time for Managers to Get Weird

I feel for managers these days, I really do. Or, at least I feel for the good managers. The evil troll managers I don't really think about too much, because they're going to get theirs one day no matter what I think about them.

But the good managers -- those men and women who are trying to hold it together when it feels like the entire workplace is a huge Titanic without Leonardo DiCaprio to at least provide a distraction from the looming iceberg -- I feel for what they're going through.

I know they're losing sleep. They're worried about their job, sure, but they're worried about dozens or even hundreds of others. The good managers know their people really well. They know who has health problems and can't afford to lose insurance coverage. They know who is struggling to pay a mortgage with a kid in college and they know who is a single parent with no help.

So, they go into work every day trying to stay calm and rational and upbeat. They're trying to keep frightened and disillusioned employees on track, trying everything to keep employees feeling creative and productive.

That's why it's time managers got a little weird.

Let me explain. I once interviewed a restaurant manager who needed to make sure employees were cleaning the place thoroughly, but knew that constant nagging would not help. In fact, it would probably just make workers annoyed and angry, or perhaps apathetic. Not a good thing when a health inspector was on the way.

So instead he devised a system where he stuck small colored stickers in various places around the eatery. Employees who cleaned well would soon find these stickers. And, by turning these stickers over to management, they gained a prize — and the restaurant gained quality work and a top-notch health inspection.

While such a practice sounds simple, many managers wouldn't even think of such a different approach to work. They simply keeping nagging employees — and losing morale and motivation in the process.

But if managers these days want to keep their best workers -- and that is another huge worry -- they've got to quit caring what someone else will think of their methods and just focus on getting people to do what they do best.

In other words, give the employees a reason to get out of bed in the morning and not worry about what may be around the corner. Someone else might think your methods are a bit weird, but hey, you're just being a good manager.

So here are some ideas given by other managers as a way to make a job more interesting and fun for a worker, while gaining higher productivity and quality work:

* Let them play.
Everyone knows that employees play solitaire on the computer, or some other kind of game. In fact, studies show that a little “down” time is good for recharging the batteries. So, why not devise internal company games that get employees to solve crosswords or anagrams or puzzles that have to do with company products or history? That way, employees are being educated while having fun.

* Put mentors in reverse:
It’s not only the older employees who have something to teach younger employees. Many younger workers can help older employees master some technology dilemmas through interactive sessions where information is shared in a relaxed way.

* Use training theater.
I learned that one manager feared that some of his younger male employees were being a little too forward with female customers, so instead of lecturing them, the manager had several male managers dress as women (heels, lipstick, dresses) and role-play with other male employees. It soon became apparent after the laughter died down that some behavior was not appropriate, and it brought the message home without pointing fingers.

* Take a road trip.
Take employees to visit a competitor and find out what the other business “does right.” Or, visit businesses known for their customer service, even if it’s not your particular industry. Many retailers are known for top service — ask employees what they noticed about how employees in these stores behaved.

*Put out the welcome mat:
Every month have one department hold an “open house” for others in the company. Handouts should be given telling what the department does, as well as a tour and narrative that gives information about how the department functions, who works there, etc. (It’s always a good idea to offer a little food and beverage — one company found a cotton candy machine to be a big hit.)

What are some other ways managers can help ease the stress and engage employees?

Lijit Search

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Monday, August 4, 2008

Are You -- Or Someone You Know -- a "Perfect" Pain?

I've interviewed enough experts over the years to know what a can of worms you open anytime you mention perfectionism.

And perfectionism in the workplace? You're talking a whole caseload of worms.

Doesn't it seem kind of strange that we would complain about someone who wants things to be perfect at work? After all, we strive to do a great job in order to get raises and promotions and more stock options. So, if we moan and groan about a boss's perfectionist habits or bitch about a co-worker's perfectionist tendencies, isn't that out of balance with what we all seem to seek?

The truth is, there's a difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism on the job is anything but. It's disruptive and unproductive. For the perfectionist, it can lead to physical illness and depression. For those who must work with a perfectionist, it's annoying as hell.

The problem is that the perfectionist gets so caught up in minor details that they can't attain excellence. Instead, they become a bottleneck as they fuss, for example, with the binding of a project report instead of getting the report completed by deadline. The perfectionist boss hovers and nitpicks and agonizes over the smallest detail, preventing the staff from getting their work done.

And, perfectionists often are dangerous: Putting them in environments such as the cockpit of a jet fighter or a nuclear power plant may not be the best idea since they don't want to immediately report any mistakes they make -- and failing to report errors and then make adjustments right away can pose a risk to others.

Part of the problem with perfectionism in the workplace these days is that we are constantly being asked to measure ourselves not only for the tasks we perform every day (performance evaluations), but also how we measure up against others worldwide. We're told over and over it's a global economy, so employers compare workers to the competition -- and constantly demand better performance. This can be overwhelming for the employee or boss who already grapples with creating too many rigid rules and has difficulty not being hypercritical on every aspect of personal performance.

Instead of aiming for excellence, which can energize someone because they like what they're doing and enjoy reaching for the top, perfectionism seems to bog people down in realizing what they're missing, not what they're gaining.

Younger workers are especially vulnerable, I think, because they've grown up in a culture where they must get into the "best" schools, where they are given rewards and "good jobs" for everything from potty-training to soccer to spelling bees. When they enter the workforce, some who are used to being Polly or Peter Perfect find that attaining that ideal is much tougher. To not attain that perfect status must seem, to some of them, that they have failed. Not exactly the attitude that keeps creative juices flowing and productivity thriving.

At the same time, we burden ourselves with "rankings" that may have little to do with what we're really achieving. Immediate results gained through technology mean we can see right away if customers like a new product, if our online traffic is growing or even if we're gaining more contacts through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. I'm not putting down this technology, but I am saying that it can cause further stress for the perfectionist who doesn't enjoy the gaining of new relationships, but rather focuses on the fact that they aren't gaining contacts as fast as someone else. Again, they focus on what they believe they've failed to achieve.

Personally, I think it's time the perfectionists let themselves off the hook. I think it's time they learned to let go of their insecurities and join the rest of us in knowing that the picture might not be hanging exactly straight on the wall, but it's still a great picture and we can still enjoy it.

For all those perfectionists out there, try some of these ideas:

* Ask someone at work to give you a signal if they think you're showing perfectionist tendencies. Once you realize what you're doing, you can stop obsessing about a detail and instead think about how much you enjoyed working with the other people on your team, or remember a laugh you shared over the project. Is it worth annoying those people or adversely impacting their hard work just because you can't decide on the font size for your part of the report?

* Learn to enjoy the success of others. Just because someone else gets a promotion or nets a big client doesn't mean you failed. Make a list of all the things to enjoy about your life right now, from a great dog to favorite books.

* Ask for feedback. One of the most difficult things for perfectionists is taking the chance they will be criticized. It's why they try and cover up mistakes, or keep their actions under the radar so no one will comment. But soliciting opinions from mentors or fair-minded colleagues can help perfectionists learn that feedback is beneficial and will help them improve. It can, they will learn, help them attain what they're really after -- great performance.

Do you know someone who is a perfectionist? What kind of impact does this person have? Do you think perfectionism is a growing problem in the workplace?


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Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Worst Day of the Year: First Day Back on the Job After Vacation

Here's the biggest news flash of the day: The world did not fall apart while I was on vacation.

The birds are still singing in the trees, the Earth is still rotating and the weeds in my garden have continued to thrive. I received nearly 200 e-mails in my absence, and dozens of phone messages. None of them were critical. Well, at least to me. (Macy's really, really wants me to shop their online sale, and someone felt it was imperative that I was aware some woman is suing Victoria's Secret because of a thong injury.)

But, I can say with complete certainty that nothing was so important that it required me to take a laptop on vacation or check my phone messages.

Many of you urged me not to do it, and I listened to you -- and to myself.

So now I'm back at work, trying to tackle all the e-mails and phone messages and doing my best to ignore the tic starting at the corner of my eye. Still, I'm coming to quickly realized that this may be the worst day of the year.

I'm trying, really trying, to hang on to my vacation glow, but I can feel it starting to fade. My office looks like a cyclone went through it. I wrote things on my calendar for this week that I am now having difficulty understanding, such as: "Fri. a.m., call Dave for interview."

Who the hell is Dave??

OK, I think I've learned that while the vacation was everything I dreamed of and more, I may have sabotaged myself for my first day back at work. There's no reason this has to be so bad, is there? I used to have a boss that would always say to me: "You play, you pay" on my first day back from vacation. I always had the overwhelming urge to smack him.

Was he right?

What's the best way to handle the first day back from vacation? If you've got any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Before my tic gets any worse.


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Friday, May 9, 2008

Five People You Gotta Pay Attention To Today

"If you go down the hall to vent to an associate, that's okay. But if the next step is to go upstairs and vent to someone else, then you're holding onto the incident, and it can become very disruptive." -- Matt Grawitch, St. Louis University professor who studies workplace stress.

"Once a CEO is startled by seeing your cleavage, an image is set in his mind that is not going to disappear." -- Michele Royalty, a recently retired executive

"There are profound differences between acceptable work behavior and acceptable school behavior. You rated your professors 'hot or not' -- but you better not do that with your boss." -- Shanti Atkins, employment attorney

"It was just out of my heart, she (the toddler) was pointing and going 'ah, ah...' I should have gone to my purse and got the change, but it was busy." -- Nicole Lilliman, a restaurant clerk who was fired after giving a 16-cent bite-sized doughnut to an agitated child. She was later given back her job after widespread media attention.

"It's so personal, it's so emotional — I tell my artists all the time that I don't know how they do it, because I couldn't deal with the ongoing rejection that seems inherent to the job." -- Jen Bekman, New York City gallery owner, speaking about the life of an artist

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