How to Get Unstuck at Work

In 2010, a rather surprising research finding was uncovered at the Change Anything Labs. A whopping 87 percent of the folks we surveyed said they had bosses who’ve prevented them from getting the pay, promotions, or other opportunities they wanted because of a concern they’ve had about their performance.1

From within this same population, close to half of the respondents also believed they were in the top 10 percent of performers in their company. So it’s easy to understand why more than two‑thirds of these employees have been surprised by the negative things their managers have said about them in a performance review. They believe in themselves and their accomplishments, but their bosses have a far less rosy view.

Now, if the fact that your boss doesn’t always think you’re among the tip‑top performers were merely a statistic without consequences, then the idea that your boss undervalues you would just be annoying.

But if as a result of that view, your boss doesn’t give you, say, the 2 percent raise that is being offered to a select few employees—and if you’re thirty years old, earning $60,000 per year, this loss of a 2 per­cent raise adds up over your career to $59,780. And if, heaven forbid, you were denied a promotion you deserved, over your career this could cost you more than $250,000.

The performance impact

In addition to taking a financial hit, what happens to morale and work effort when people who think they are solid performers feel they’re underappreciated and under-rewarded? According to sociologist Daniel Yankelovich, discretionary effort takes a real hit. That is, the gap between how much energy, effort, and creativity an employee is offering today and how much the employee could give your firm if he or she so desired is surprisingly large. More than two-thirds of employees report that they have much more discretionary contribution than they currently give.2 In one study we conducted at the Change Anything Labs, more than half of the employees we surveyed suggested that when it came to effort at work, they did the least amount possible without getting fired.3

So, what’s a person to do? You think you’re doing well; your boss holds a less enthusiastic opinion. Or you think you’re a top 5 percent performer and your boss puts you in the top 30 percent. Either way, this gap in appreciation is costing you money, it can be a real drain on your morale, and both you and the company are suffering. What will it take to get others thinking what you think and get your career back on track?

To see what it takes to turn a career around, we’ll follow the story of one of our Changers, Melanie R. Like many hardworking people, she was always able to figure out how to get ahead. She waited tables to put herself through college and took night bookkeeping jobs to pay for her MBA. But now, six years into her career, she’s stuck. She’s just learned she’s been passed over for a key job assignment—for the second time.

Melanie knows she’s one of the smartest and most productive people on her team. But in spite of her tireless effort, she seems to be spinning her wheels. In fact, if she can’t get her career on track, she’ll be at risk of being pushed out of the firm. What does she need to do to get her career back on track?

To answer this oft-asked question, we’ll look at research into the common behaviors of top-ranked performers. These are the folks out there who are getting the bonuses, plush assignments, and promotions. What are they doing that others aren’t?

What separates the best from the rest?

Over the past couple of decades we’ve studied the most influential and respected employees in more than fifty companies and dozens of industries. We entered organizations and asked thousands of employees (including the bosses) to give us the names of the three people whose opinions, work, and abilities they most admired. We wanted to find the go-to people—and we did.

When we looked closely at these highly valued individuals, we soon learned that they hadn’t been singled out because of a popularity contest. Rather, they had won a productivity contest. They weren’t politicians; they were valued resources.

Next came the real work. We had to uncover what these high performers did that made them so valued—by peers and bosses alike. Here is what we found. Across organizations as different as sawmills, government agencies, tech start-ups, and charitable non-profits, top performers practice the same three vital behaviors.

1. Know your stuff. Okay, we admit, this sounds a bit vague, so let’s clarify what we mean by “stuff.” Top performers put regular effort into ensuring that they are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. If their job is to sort lumber, they fall asleep at night pondering sorting strategies. If they’re in marketing, then they voraciously acquire the best marketing knowledge available. You get the picture. They work hard at honing their craft.

2. Focus on the right stuff. In addition to performing their craft well, top performers contribute to tasks that are essential to the organization’s success. This is important to grasp. Not all contributions are equal. Highly valued employees help manage what Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer calls the company’s “critical uncertainties.”4 If a company is having trouble manufacturing its product, top performers find a way to help resolve that problem. If the firm is fighting legal challenges, top performers apply their specific expertise to that issue. If nobody has figured out how to market the product, top performers are hip deep in solving that problem.

And how do top performers get these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding where the organization is going (with emphasis on the key challenges). They study their own company. Next (and this is their true genius) they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to the core elements of where their company is going. Top performers work on their skill set and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a reputation for being helpful. But doing your job well and ensuring that you’re helping deal with the company’s most important challenges isn’t enough. It’s necessary but insufficient.

Individuals who are singled out by their colleagues as the go-to folks in the company are also widely known across their teams and sometimes even their entire organizations. They are far more likely than average to be recognized by name, and, more importantly, people describe them as experts who are generous with their time.

Taking time to help their co-workers puts top performers at the hub of important networks. Take note: This is not your typical networking observation. Top performers don’t get to know people simply to build an impressive collection of business cards. Theirs is not primarily a self-serving motivation. Top people are widely known and respected by others not because of their frequent contact, charm, or likability, but because they help others solve their problems.

 

References

1 Change Anything Labs, Lake Wobegon at Work survey (February 2010).

2 Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr, Putting the Work Ethic to Work: A Public Agenda’s Report on Restoring America’s Competitive Vitality, Public Agenda Foundation, 1983.

3 This finding is from a 2002 study of fifteen hundred software engineers at a client organization.

4 Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing with Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 1994, 154.

 

This is an excerpt from CHANGE ANYTHING by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Copyright © 2011 by VitalSmarts, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Business Plus, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

 

Learn more about authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ph.D., Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.