Positioning: Play the person you want to be

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Not Aristotle

One of the issues people run into when doing self-improvement is they’re afraid they aren’t being true to themselves. We should, of course, be careful about trying to suddenly becoming a new person because that can both confuse the people around us and make them skeptical when old patterns reassert. I wrote about that earlier. However, the person we often have the hardest time convincing is our own self. This requires a shift in mindset. People like to say “fake it until you make it,” but the problem is you feel fake and that comes through.

When you are working on something like your communication style, it is essential to recognize that while who you become will evolve out of your past, it doesn’t have to mirror it. The thing is, you have to decide who you want to be. You are who you are because that’s where life brought you when you went along with it. You can stay that course, which seems easier, but in the long run it might truly be easier to let some more inconvenient life patterns drop.

When it comes to work communication, the thing you need to change most often is an extreme: too direct, too timid, too cynical, too emotional… When people decide to work on these things, or their bosses decide for them, the first challenge is that you have to take the focus off of what you were doing before and put it on what you are going to do now. A word of advice: Being true to yourself means taking care of yourself, not staying true to patterns that weren’t necessarily helpful. What you want to do is to reflect to the world a person who is able to get the things the person inside you wants. That means positioning.

Above, I cited the Aristotle quote about excellence. The problem is that actually, pretty much everything is a habit. You can’t just become excellent, then. You have to stop doing what you were doing before. This is best done gradually, as I noted in my earlier essay. For today, pick one thing that isn’t working for you, then look at somebody who seems to handle that issue the way you wish you could. Steal one or two of their patterns, the ones you think will work best for you, and work on becoming more like them. Then pray that they’re successful since what their strategies bring them they will probably bring you too! But in the mean time, play with it. By moving gradually, you can reorient. This is not about becoming a new person, but about changing the position you are in with respect to events and other people.

Remember: being true to yourself is not about sticking to habits, but about positioning yourself to present, then by habit become, the person you need to be to enjoy the life you want.

How can they miss you when you won’t go away?

(With apologies to Dan Hicks)

Have you ever worked with one of those people who’s always on? You can call at 2PM… or 2AM… and they’re right there on alert and ready to help. Maybe you’ve been that person. It’s a funny thing: Over time, gratitude turns into being taken for granted. Eventually, someone is mad that you didn’t answer the phone at 2AM. And let’s face it, it’s the always-on person’s fault… your fault… because the expectation has been set.

In the past, there were people who had work-life boundaries, and people who didn’t. But today, when the distance between home in bed and in the office is as little as clicking “Accept Call” instead of “Decline,” it’s getting harder to be one of those people with boundaries. You no longer have those visual cues that you’re in one place or the other. This is a dangerous time, and the greatest risk to your long-term health may not be COVID, but overwork and burnout. At the same time, the greatest risk to your career may be being taken for granted.

In the past few months, we’ve all seen the articles about taking a vacation, even a staycation, just to keep your sanity and pretend the world is still normal. And that’s important. But there’s another thing to think about, as I note in my title. Right now, roles are shifting and expectations are changing. Some people are going the extra mile because they’re scared and want to hang onto their jobs. Others, though, are just doing it because they don’t have anything better to do. When life returns to normal and people start wanting their lives back, how do you plan to position yourself? Are you setting people up to be grateful to you? Or to take you for granted?

There was a time when the best career advice was to be indispensable, that way they could never let you go. But let’s be honest: If anything ever happens to you, you will be replaced and people will figure out how to get on without you. But if you’re indispensable in your current role, it’s not convenient for you to be moved somewhere else, even up! And as I said, roles are shifting right now. You need to be careful what role you find yourself in.

One of the great things about vacation is that people start catching on to all those things you take care of. When you get back, they’re glad, even relieved, to see you. But if they’re just cranky about all the problems that came up without you there, you’re in the taken-for-granted zone. Time to look for someplace that will appreciate you. But, how do you get that appreciation?

Did I mention that right now, with all the work-at-home, roles are shifting? If you want to come out of this in a better place, there are three things you need to do:

  1. Take your vacations. Even staycations. Let them miss you and realize life is easier when you’re there. You can recharge and everyone else can reflect.
  2. Learn something new! Do not… repeat… do not… become even better at your current job than you ever were before while working from home. Instead, learn something that complements your current skills but gives you room to pivot.
  3. Make yourself a little more replaceable. When half the country is still working from home, this is the time to squeeze in conversations where you help your colleagues learn to handle some of the little things you do when you’re not there. Show one person your tracking sheets, another short cuts to rework the brochure from marketing… This is an especially great time to help someone else learn to do those mundane tasks you’d like to get rid of. If someone below you can do it, that will give you extra cycles to take on new challenges.

Key takeaway: With much of the country still working from home, this is a critical time to make sure that you’re setting work-life boundaries that protect you while using the uncertainty to shift your role to something better for you. Learn something new, then take that vacation. Let them miss you a little, but set yourself up to return to something better.

Don’t change, evolve!

If you have had issues with communication – or anything else – there may come a point when you learn something new that changes everything for how you were thinking. A word to the wise: When you’re ready to make a change, you should show, not tell.

Have you ever worked for a manager who said “just this once” at least twice a week? A colleague who was always going to have the data for you next week for sure? A friend who is reliably ten minutes late? We’ve all met these people. Many of us have been one or more of them. But then something happens and they – we – realize something has to give. Here’s the thing: old habits die hard, and telling people you’ll change when you’re not going to is a habit that surrounds all the other habits.

This blog is about career communication, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. Imagine you are the sort who never speaks up in a meeting. Your manager has questioned whether you’re having an impact within the team. That’s a danger sign, and you know you need to do something different. But if you come in tomorrow pounding the table and telling everybody what’s what, not only will you have stirred up people who weren’t ready for it. You will have burned through social capital with people who appreciated your low-key approach more than your manager. So the key is to speak up gradually.

If you’ve been low-key in meetings before, but you really need to make something happen, research the hell out of it. Make sure you have your points nailed down. And choose what you’re going to say to insert yourself into the conversation… not the idea, the actual words. This is a speech you’re preparing for a very short, impromptu presentation. Make sure you pay attention in the meeting and lead with your two or three sentences. Then shut up and allow for questions. (If you’re nervous, feed a colleague you trust a question to ask.) This is it for the first meeting.

Over the next couple weeks, you can try to insert yourself two or three times on one or two issues. Stick to a few issues so the impression given is that you’ve started to speak up because this is something you care about and just couldn’t sit still and listen about it any longer. In this way, you’ll be starting to make an impact, but without making such a dramatic change that your old friends are taken aback but those you’re speaking up toward don’t believe it. From there, you have to keep living the change. In time, it will be real and you’ll have made it happen.

The same thing goes with another common issue: chronic lateness. Do not announce that from now on you’ll always be on time. Just be on time. If you don’t make it every time, no one will be more judgemental than they were before but if you’ve made a fuss, people will be keeping score. When you stop having people joke that you’re early because you were on time, you’ll know that your change is complete and you’ll notice people stop secretly making side plans to cover for your inevitable lateness and the issues it causes. This is how you make a change.

So, to recap: When you’re making a change, take it slow and steady. Allow a little room for backsliding by making the change instead of talking about it and getting people watching for you to fail. In time, you’ll be living in a different and better world for you and what you were trying to change will have been forgotten by most.