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Does this sound familiar? Your office has a hiring freeze and your workload triples. You show up to work one day and your boss has been let go, or your co-worker Melissa has taken credit for all of your hard work again.
As a workplace advice columnist, I hear a lot of bizarre office stories—from the boss who kept stealing people’s lunches to the receptionist who wouldn’t stop hugging people, but these are outliers; chances are good that you’re going to go your whole career without encountering them. What you almost certainly will encounter, though, are more typical challenges like receiving a bad performance review or being overworked to the point of burnout.
The good news? These common issues don’t have to lead to more misery. Often these obstacles can be minimized if you know how to address them. Here’s a look at eight of the most common problems people face at work and what you can do about them.
1. You’re Overwhelmed With Work
If your workload has gone up dramatically from what it used to be, you feel you need to pick between getting everything done or getting things done well, and even bathroom breaks stress you out, you probably need to talk with your manager about your workload.
What to Do
Pick a time when your manager isn’t rushed and ask to meet. Explain that your workload has become chronically unmanageable and why—for instance, that a particular account has doubled in size in the last year or that you’ve taken on the responsibilities of someone who left without anything being removed from your plate.
Explaining what’s behind the workload increase is helpful because your manager may not be as attuned to the context as you. Then, suggest some options. For instance, you might say, “I can do A and B, but not C. Or if C is really crucial, I’d want to move A off my plate to make room for it. Alternately, I can act as an adviser to Jenna on C, but I can’t do C myself if I’m also doing A and B.” And if your manager won’t help you prioritize, then come up with your own proposal for what you will and won’t prioritize and ask her to tweak it or approve it.
2. Your Boss Quits or is Fired
The boss who always sung your praises to higher-ups and made sure your projects were successful is leaving, and you’re worried that her replacement won’t share her (or your) vision—or that she just won’t be as pleasant to work with.
What to Do
Stay calm. The new boss could be just as good as your old boss, or even better. Or, yes, it might turn out that you don’t enjoy working with her—but you can’t know until you get to know her. So, while there’s nothing wrong with polishing up your resume and putting out feelers to your network, wait and see how things shake out before making any drastic moves.
In the interim, the best thing you can do is pitch in and help keep your department running smoothly, which can position you well in your organization and act as a reputation-enhancer. Try acting as a helpful resource to the new manager when she starts and try to reserve judgment on her style and competence until she’s had a chance to settle in. After all, few of us would like to be permanently judged based on our first few weeks in a job.
3. The Job You Have is Different From the One You Applied For
You were hired to manage sales, but you end up managing spreadsheets. Or your “marketing director” job turns out to be little more than making cold calls to prospects. It might not have been a deliberate bait-and-switch, but the work sure isn’t what you were told in the interview.
What to Do
Start by talking to your boss. Say something like, “When I was hired for this job, we talked about it being mostly client work, with some admin duties. But in my first three months, the job has been about 90% admin work without much client interaction. Can we talk about what changed and whether there’s a way to reshape my work to look more like what we initially talked about?”
Make sure your tone is calm and collaborative, not frustrated or angry. You’ll get better results if you make it clear that you’re in problem-solving mode, not complaint mode. You might hear that the job has simply changed and there’s nothing that can be done, but you might also nudge your manager into realizing she needs to adjust your work. Either way, you’ll leave this conversation with a better idea of what to expect from this job in the future and can make decisions accordingly.
4. You Keep Running Into Conflict With a Difficult Co-worker
You’ve tried to be nice, but every conversation with him devolves into disagreement and strife, which makes it hard to get shared projects done—and considering that we spend one-third of our waking time with co-workers, you’d like more harmonious relations.
What to Do
First, remove your ego from the equation. You don’t have to like your co-worker, and you certainly don’t have to “win” every interaction; you just need to be able to work together.
Being nice even when you don’t feel like it can thaw relations, so ask yourself: Is there anything your co-worker does that you genuinely admire and can compliment him on? Something you can seek his advice on (painful as it might be to do)? A month or so of concerted effort in this direction can sometimes make a difference.
But if not, well, sometimes simply realizing that difficult people’s behavior is about them, not you, can make them easier to deal with. And since you’re never going to be able to eliminate difficult people from your work life entirely, figuring out how to remain unflappable in the face of crazy-making personalities can be surprisingly satisfying.
5. Your Boss Doesn’t Notice the Work You Do
You’re churning out reams of work, winning over clients, and generally being an all-around bad-ass, but none of it has registered on your manager’s radar.
What to Do
It’s natural to want your boss to recognize your achievements on her own, but the reality is that few managers will be as attuned to your work as you are, and most will count on you to keep them up-to-date. So don’t sit around waiting for your work to be noticed—become your own advocate! You might feel awkward tooting your own horn, but your boss wants to know about what you’re doing well.
Start highlighting key victories when you talk, and don’t be shy about passing along praise. It’s not unseemly bragging to mention things like, “The client was really happy with the work we sent over last week and said the designs I showed them clinched their contract renewal for next year.” That’s just keeping your boss in the loop about what’s getting done and how it’s being received.
Do this in moderation, of course; it’s going to seem weird if you’re relaying every tiny compliment or trumpeting that you filed a report a half-day early. And related to that, keep in mind that you don’t need recognition for every single thing you do. The pattern is what you want to pay attention to here: Does your boss generally think you’re doing a great job and understand what your biggest contributions have been? If so, don’t get alarmed if she doesn’t take note of every individual triumph you have.
6. You’ve Made a Major Mistake That Truly Harmed Your Team
You’re human and you’ll make mistakes now and then, but when it’s high-profile (like a damaging quote in a news article) or costly (like losing a major account), it can be hard to know how to face your boss.
What to Do
The worst thing you can do here is to duck responsibility. Your boss will be far more alarmed that you’re not owning your actions than if you face up to them directly. So, tell your manager what happened, quickly. And make it clear that you understand what a big deal the mistake was. If you proactively show that you get that, there’s no need for your manager to underscore it for you. Try words like, “I realize how serious this is” and “I understand the impact this has.”
Then, explain how you’re planning to mitigate the damage and—crucially—how you’ll ensure it doesn’t happen again. And if there are larger lessons here, address those too. (For instance, “This has made me realize that I need to do site visits more frequently so I can spot problems before they take root.”) That will help your boss evaluate how well you learned from experience and how much trust she should put in you in the future.
7. Your Co-worker Takes Credit for Your Work
You just overheard your co-worker taking credit for a presentation you worked all night on or accepting praise for winning an account you spent months cultivating. You don’t know if she’s deceptive or just oblivious, but either way she’s hogging the limelight for work you did.
What to Do
Speak up! Be more proactive about claiming credit before she gets a chance to steal it, which means keeping your boss in the loop about what you’re working on, as well as your ideas and achievements. Then if your co-worker takes credit anyway, be forthright about correcting the record. For instance, if you wrote most of a report while your co-worker just contributed a page or two, but you hear her presenting it as her work, speak up and say, “Just to be clear on roles, I wrote the analysis and recommendations. Let me know if there’s anything I can clarify on those.” That last sentence gives you cover for speaking up; you’re just making sure questions go to the appropriate person, after all.
And if you’re worried you won’t seem like a good team player if you speak up, keep in mind that a good manager will want to understand what roles people played in a piece of work, and having clearly defined roles and appropriate recognition is part of what makes teams function well.
8. You Get a Bad Performance Review
You thought things were going okay, but now you’re staring at an evaluation that says “doesn’t meet expectations.” There were no signs indicating that your performance wasn’t up to snuff, and in fact your boss just sent an email last week praising you on a job well done on that last project. What gives?
What to Do
First, don’t panic and don’t get defensive. Too often in this situation, people become so focused on how to defend themselves that they forget to really listen to what they’re being told about what they need to do differently. Understanding your manager’s concerns will be crucial to a good outcome here, so listen and ask enough questions that you truly know what you’re being asked to change.
From there, show that you take the feedback seriously by using language like, “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I hadn’t realized this was a concern, and I’m glad to have the chance to work on it.” And tell your manager what you plan to do to address her feedback, even if it’s as simple as, “I’m going to take some time to think about this and figure out how to resolve these issues.”
It’s worth noting, too, that a good manager will work to ensure a bad performance review is never a surprise by giving regular feedback throughout the year. So if this is the first you’re hearing of these issues, your manager dropped the ball earlier and it’s reasonable for you to ask to hear about problems in real time in the future.
That said, no manager will ever be perfect, so while it would be nice if you could assume you’ll always hear about issues before they blow up, you should pay attention to signs that trouble might be brewing. For instance, if your boss suddenly starts to micromanage your work or begins sending you critical feedback in writing, she might have serious concerns about your performance. It’s worth asking to check in about how things are going so that you’re less likely to be blindsided by a critical review down the road.
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