The biggest mistake you’re making at work right now

It’s been a few years since I consistently wrote about jobs and careers, but occasionally, people will still ask me for advice.

They’re almost always asking me about a problem at work, and it’s always a variation on one of these issues: They hate their job, their boss, or a coworker.

I’m always happy to listen and to share anything that I’ve learned, so I’ll ask them to tell me what happened. They’re always a breaking point – boundaries broken, too heavy of a workload, total breakdown of sanity in their environment.

In almost every situation, I’ve asked, “Why haven’t you said anything about this? Why aren’t you confronting the people who are making you feel this way, or letting your boss know how this makes you feel?”

And in almost every situation, my friends and acquaintances have said the same thing: I didn’t want to rock the boat, or make a fuss. These people are my friends. I want people at work to like me. If I had a nickel for every person who’s told me, “I wanted to be nice,” or “I want to be the nice guy at work,” I’d be buying a whole lot of Groupon or Facebook shares when they have their IPO’s.

This is, far and away, the biggest mistake you can make at work. Here’s why:

You can’t be critical with your friends. One of the best qualities about a friend is his/her support of you. That means they don’t rush to tell you that you made an unfortunate fashion choice, or that you really shouldn’t eat that piece of cake. If you want someone to criticize your dating choices, you’d just go visit your parents, right?

If you treat everyone as a “friend” at work, it hobbles your ability to speak openly and with urgency about what you may need to complete a project or succeed in that position. You’ll always be putting your friends first.

That may seem like a wise networking move – hey, I’m the one who works with everyone and delivers! – it may also lead to a lot of stress and, eventually, resentment of your boss or fellow teammates if the process isn’t working.

You can’t say no. Believe me, I know it’s a rough economy. All of us who are lucky enough to be working are stretching ourselves to do the work of two or three people.

But sometimes, a situation will call for honesty – you simply cannot accomplish a goal with the time and the resources you have. And yet so many of us promise we WILL accomplish that goal, because we can’t say no to our friends or our boss. Who wants to say no to a friend, right?

This is the most frequent thing I hear from my friends and acquaintances – they couldn’t say no. This is a recipe for massive stress and ultimate disaster at work. You end up having a very schizophrenic response to your coworker – wanting to maintain and sustain the friendship, but also getting increasingly stressed out or pissed off about what you feel they’ve cornered you into. Inevitably, you snap. The friendship takes a hit, and your reputation as a cool, calm professional does too.

The lines between work and home get blurry. If you’re spending a great deal of time outside of work with coworkers (as many of the people who have spoken to me do) or have a circle of friends made up almost completely of coworkers (ditto), then the lines between work and home get really, really blurry.

Yes, almost every survey and study says it’s a healthy thing to have at least one friend or ally at work. But it’s ultimately healthy to have some very specific, defined boundaries as well. If you have a bad day at work, you need to have a space where you can let work go, decompress, and escape. It’s much harder to do that if your coworkers are in your life outside of the 9 to 5.

I’m not suggesting that you can’t be pleasant and professional at work, or that you can’t socialize with your coworkers. It IS a balance that needs to be struck – be a part of the team, but leave your boundaries intact.

This balance is what all of the people who approached me were missing. And it completely wrecked their ability to say, “Hey, I need help here,” or “X person isn’t really making any progress on their piece of this project.” And that, in turn, gave them an ulcer and a really urgent desire to smack their coworker.

How do you fix this if it’s already happened? You do it as kindly but as clearly as possible. You talk to the person/people involved, and tell them, “Hey, I really need this to happen and it’s not happening. It’s making me feel very uncomfortable. Can you work with me to resolve this?” Nothing’s a truer test of friendship than asking someone to come through for you in your time of need, after all!

The important thing to remember is this: You are not being mean, or a pain in the ass, or a bad guy/woman, if you confront a problem or confront a person. Most managers will actually respect the fact that you’re bringing a problem to their attention, or trying to improve the process (or ensure your deliverables).

I’ve had friends and socialized with my bosses and co-workers at almost every job I’ve had in the last decade. But I’ve also been able to have those objective conversations when they’ve been needed.

Thankfully, I've never had THIS boss!

For example, there was the time I got a new boss. New Boss had been in their role for about a month, and during that month, our communications were not feeling very productive to me. New Boss would ask me about things I wasn’t responsible for – and didn’t have the answer for – and I started to get the sense that New Boss was doubting that I knew what I was doing.

I’d also been working on resolving some problems for Old Boss, but my productivity numbers took a minor hit. Old Boss understood I was cleaning up some issues, but New Boss only saw a slump in productivity, so the communication I was getting from New Boss started to take on the tone of “corrective action.”

So I asked New Boss for a meeting and said, as objectively as possible, “Hey, this is how I’m hearing your communication. It has this tone, and I am worried that the perception you have of me is substantially different than the perception Old Boss had of me, and different than what I’ve done and what I am capable of.”

And it was probably the best thing I’d done in that role, because it was incredibly beneficial. New Boss got a better sense of who I was and what I did for the team, and saw that I was resolving issues and working on The Big Picture. A few months after that discussion I was rewarded with an Employee of the Month award, so clearly, it was productive.

My point? That was a discussion that could have never happened with a friend or “buddy.”

Your career is YOURS, and you are the best and most eloquent advocate for YOU that there is. You can’t be honest, objective and, when needed, blunt when you’re worried about hurting the feelings of others (or worse yet, just being worried about “rocking the boat”).

Being the nice guy at work? Nah. Be pleasant, be efficient, be proactive, be dynamic. Those things will take you way farther than nodding your head and agreeing to everything ever will.

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