All that hard work has finally paid off. You’ve got a new job lined up! Now all you have to do is show up and collect paychecks, right? If only it were that simple.
Just as it took some time to navigate the world of professors, papers, and parties in college, you can expect a period of adjustment when you start a new job—but you don’t have to go into it totally clueless.
We chatted with experienced Career Counselor Toni Littlestone and got the scoop on some of the strategies you need to succeed at a new job.
What are some common mistakes people make when they start a new job?
- Not understanding how important it is to figure out your boss and what your boss wants.
People try to succeed at the content of whatever they’ve been assigned and think, ‘I’m doing a good job at what I’ve been assigned,’ but they might be missing political cues. It’s important to remember that 50% of work is about relationships and politics.
In order to learn what your boss wants, you’ll need to become a really good observer and detective. Notice what makes your boss smile or agitated. What are the things that your boss expects and responds positively to? Does your boss give you information or expect you to independently figure out the resources?
It’s important to observe how your boss acts with you and with other people. You get a lot more material that way. Does your boss prefer to communicate in person? By phone? By email? If your boss mentions it once, it’s a clue. Every boss will be different and it’s your most important first job to learn how that person ticks and deliver.
- Trying to impress people too fast.
A lot of recent graduates try to let people know ‘I’m really an achiever’ instead of showing that they’re working hard and hunkering down. Take some time to observe the environment and learn everything you can first. Don’t try to steal other people’s thunder.
- Approaching your work just like you did in college.
It’s not that you have bad intentions, it’s just that you’re so used to being in college where as long as you can get your work done, you can choose how to do it. The structure of the work world may be much more established than you’re used to, and it won’t work to approach it like college.
Even if you realize it intellectually, you may need to adjust your expectations and way of working (e.g. pulling an all-nighter may no longer be an option). Part of that is also adjusting to being around different ages and stages of people (unlike college where you’re used to just professors and other college students).
- Being too self-effacing and thinking someone will promote you just because you’re working hard.
What are some tips for adjusting to a new work environment (especially for students who may not have much work experience)?
Notice and learn the new structure. A lot of it will soften over time, but get it at first. Be aware of the halo effect—when you start out in a new environment, you either get a halo or you don’t. In general, you get a halo if you showed up, you were adaptable, you got your assignments done, etc. If you missed some of those things and you didn’t get a halo and start off on the right foot, it’s much harder to catch up later.
For example, one of my clients started a new job just after breaking up with her boyfriend. People would invite her out to lunch and she said no because she was depressed. When she decided that she did want to get to know her coworkers, it took a lot more effort afterward because she had started off on the wrong foot.
Show up on time, get to know everybody, go to lunch when people ask you, try to get the halo effect in place. Every workplace has rules that are a little more flexible with softer edges. After you’ve started off strong, then you can get to learn the flexibilities.
What are some aspects of the working world that may be especially challenging for recent grads and how can they overcome them?
To learn a whole different environment for proving yourself. In school, you know the rules and in the work world, you’re re-learning the formal and informal rules. A huge number of the rules are informal. And if you’re not paying attention to the informal rules, you can’t succeed.
The informal rules might be that you don’t speak up in a meeting until you’ve been there for a while, you never take a long lunch, you don’t intrude on someone’s territory or special project, or, on the other hand to be successful, you do need to speak up and engage and quiet people are not rewarded.
The informal rules are a huge part—you know what they were in elementary school, junior high, and high school. You learned how to socialize with different groups of friends, how to interact with different professors, how to blur the edges of when a paper was due. It’s just not second nature yet in the work world.
The best way to learn the informal rules is to be a detective. Don’t assume that things work in any way. They even vary from workplace to workplace. Just be aware of this and take time to observe.
How would you define “success” in the early stages of a job?
1. Is your boss happy with you?
Is your boss saying either overtly or by their manner, ‘You are doing a good job’? Or is your boss giving you feedback that you’re not succeeding? Hearing the same feedback several times (e.g. ‘You need to read through your email before responding’) is NOT succeeding. Also, learn to read their body language.
2. Are you delivering the content of the job?
You might not know everything you need to know when you start a new job, and that’s okay. But are you on the right learning curve where you will be able to do it? Can you see every day that you’re moving closer? Are you able to adjust your pace to what’s expected of you?
3. Are you fitting in to the office culture?
You can work on it, but sometimes you have to recognize that it’s just not your people. One client of mine works for a start-up and thought he was doing well but got feedback that they were considering not keeping him. He’s a young guy, just out of college, and after speaking with him for a while, I was able to discern that what he was doing was paying attention to what he thought was important. If given an assignment, he’d keep working on it diligently. As a start-up culture, it was very fluid and he needed to pay attention to changing priorities. He also had two bosses, and he had to be flexible. After analyzing what is going on, you can correct your own behavior and get on board with how the organization really works. The best way to do this is by talking with friends, your partner, or a career counselor.
You should also be aware that other times, the culture is just not right. I work with one man who works in a conventional, conservative environment and he’s much more of a progressive, young guy and he feels like his soul is withering. In that case, you don’t need to change yourself. You need to work on succeeding in that environment until you can find a place that’s a better fit for you.
What are some strategies for coping with criticism or negative feedback on your work?
Learn to be non-defensive. Listen to the feedback and really understand how being defensive inwardly and outwardly is not going to help. We’re all innately defensive to physical attack and we respond the same way when we’re getting criticized, so it’s hard to say ‘Bring it on, tell me more.’
Even though you might not agree with all of the criticism, you can still learn from it. It’s important to listen to content, not style. Someone might have a sharp, snappish style, but you can train yourself to listen to what they’re saying rather than how they sound. If someone says, ‘You did a terrible job and this and this and this were wrong,’ be analytical and take your own emotion out of it; it makes you sturdier. If you don’t get hooked on the ‘I’m terrible’ part, you can learn from your mistakes.
Toni Littlestone, owner of Workvision, has been a career counselor for 25 years and has advised college students, recent grads, and people in the early stages of their careers in hundreds of professions. She has an MA in Career Development and a BA in Organizational Behavior and her own professional background is in art and business.