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Oh, The Humanity!: Working with Your Colleagues During the COVID Pandemic

Working with your colleagues and coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic brings up communication challenges that we’ve (thankfully) never dealt with before. I’m sharing tips for how to minimize conflicts and enhance your communications during the coronavirus emergency. This information is directed at those of us who are not on the front lines. Most likely you are able to work from home or in an office while social distancing and taking safety precautions.

We’ve already covered the dangers of assuming you know what is going on with your coworkers. The next tip builds on this. It’s about allowing time to be social, and well, human. 

While riding the current wave of urgency and stress, we’re in triage mode and adopting a “cut to the chase” mindset. This is a normal reaction in an emergency. In this case the emergency is continuing for months and months. Goodbye to the small, friendly exchanges that used to pepper our days. We’re missing out on discussions of the weekend, shared dreams about vacation plans, and awkward chatter at forced office parties. Previously you may have thought these were unavoidable time wasters. Yet now we are lacking the messy social ‘glue’ that reminds us of our similarities, differences, and shared experiences. 

Allowing space for social interaction with your colleagues and coworkers is important. This responsibility doesn’t rest solely with managers and leaders (who in some cases seem to have missed the message). You can do this by briefly and occasionally chatting with people when possible. This could be as simple as building time into a meeting to ask “How are you?” and “How is your family?” Perhaps in a text message you can check in with a coworker before you launch into your work request or question.  Your boss will likely be pleasantly surprised if you say, “I’m checking in to see how you are holding up. How are you doing with all this craziness?” If you're missing chats with a particular work buddy, suggest having 10-minute virtual coffee breaks where you can just catch up.

You can also take this opportunity to contact colleagues you've lost touch with. It can simply be an email, a text, and or a message through LinkedIn or some other form of social media. It needn't be complicated. Try a short note saying, "I know it's been awhile, but I was thinking of you and hope you and your family are doing well."

Admittedly, it's frustrating to have to initiate friendliness. It feels even worse if it is not reciprocated, which will happen. I’ve been surprised, and honestly saddened, but the cold, sterile (no pun intended) exchanges I’ve had with people when reaching out to set up meetings and discuss projects. Despite this, I’ve been writing back asking how they are doing and how things are going. About half of the time I receive responses showing they are happily surprised and relieved by the question. The other half return robotic, cold, "I'm fine" responses. I can try, can’t I?  Just the process of thinking about others helps remove me from the self-pitying quagmire that is so easy to get stuck in right now. 

By taking some small steps to check in with people and socialize, you are rebuilding trust and teamwork, while helping yourself get centered and connected. We’re allowed to be human and treat others as humans. 

It Must Be Nice: Working with Your Colleagues During the COVID Pandemic

Communicating with colleagues and coworkers during a pandemic is, thankfully, something you probably haven’t done before.  It seems that whatever was happening before the pandemic is now heightened. The people that usually irritated you before may now make you outright furious. Perhaps your clueless coworker has checked out even more than usual.

Assuming you are one of the fortunate people who still has a job, you are now navigating a bizarre new world of work. We’re all grasping with this situation and realigning our jobs and our daily lives while we are in survival mode. 

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing tips for how to effectively work with your coworkers in this current COVID pandemic. While the information can apply to anyone, it is directed at those of us who are not on the front lines. Most likely you are able to work from home or in an office while social distancing and taking safety precautions.

Right now you are going through the stress of maintaining a job while protecting yourself and others from illness, getting the food and supplies you need, and having your work life blur with your homelife. You may be worried about sick or recovering loved ones, or, even worse,  grieving the loss of someone. You may have children at home without daycare or a traditional school day. Family members or roommates are unexpected office mates. On top of this, we are isolated from our communities and support systems. 

Naturally, you may find yourself comparing your situation to others. This is something we do even when things are going well. But, right now, this comparison can bring up deep resentment and frustration if you feel others are benefiting in ways you can’t. I’ve heard comments from people who feel their coworkers have it “easier.” Some people say that their coworkers who are home with children are getting more leeway and granted excused absences “just to spend time with their kids.” On the other hand, I’ve heard some say that their single colleagues or coworkers who don’t have children are getting a “vacation” and can just cruise through their day. I’m sick of hearing people respond with “It must be nice” to what another person is experiencing. 

This toxic thinking can lead to assumptions of favoritism and preferential treatment. It’s easy to assume why certain people are being given desirable projects, about who is receiving technology upgrades or other perceived perks, and why coworkers don’t answer the phone on the first ring. This stirs up envy and resentment towards anyone who appears to have a more positive situation than you.  

Judgment is exhausting. This is particularly true now, when we’re already exhausted and vulnerable. Here is my first and fundamental tip. Don’t allow your fear and frustration to lead you to criticize and vilify others. Beware of making assumptions about what anyone else is dealing with despite how many happy pictures of freshly baked bread they post on social media. We are all struggling. Each person is struggling in a different way. 

You will feel a mental burden being released if you stop forcing your coworkers and colleagues to justify their situation to you. Once you assume the best of people, and create a different dialogue in your head about their situation, you’ll look at them with more empathy and less anger. They will notice the change in your interactions with them and you’ll stop adding to the pile of anger already on your back. You’ll be the better for it.

Avoid Unexpected Reactions at Work: Watch for Red Flags

We’ve all been there. You are blindsided by an explosively negative reaction to a random comment you made, a business decision, or what you thought was a harmless email. It’s communication gone wrong. Why does this happen? And, most importantly is there a way to avoid it?

Sleuthing Out Clues

What if you could anticipate hot-button issues and avoid unknowingly ticking someone off, losing the deal, losing credibility, or losing respect?  You can monitor for and pick up clues about the interests, values, and motivations of different people at work. 

Here’s an example of when this happened to me. We decided to remove a certain type of information from a project I was working on. Our reasons were solid.  My immediate supervisors and the key people being impacted reviewed and supported the decision. It was a no-brainer. But, after we made our announcement, we learned that a senior leader at the company was upset about the decision. This negative reaction shocked us and sent us scrambling for additional justifications and to brainstorm possible replacements. We had no idea he would care about this. Also, there was no reason to think we needed to run this choice by him. I should have known though. How?

Thinking back, months earlier he had sent me an “FYI” article focusing on this particular type of information. Since he emails me rarely, this must have been something very important to him. His email was a red flag waving in my face. If I had remembered that, coupled with some other references he made in previous years, I could have saved us a lot of trouble. We would have made the same decision. But, we'd have planned to communicate the decision with senior leadership and proactively addressed concerns.

Red Flag File

To prevent unexpected communication blowups, you can create a “Red Flag File”  

Turn your observation meter up a bit and start documenting the clues that are being thrown at you each day. Create a file. It could be in a notebook, a spreadsheet, on your phone, whatever. All that matters is that you have a dedicated (and private) space in which you can easily make interesting observations about certain people as you observe them. In my example above, I would have noted that this senior leader cared about this particular type of content.

Jot down things as you notice them. They can be anything you find unusual, interesting, or noteworthy. For example, maybe your boss rolls her eyes at the words "leverage" and "strategize." It's best to avoid those words with her. Maybe you noticed that another person referenced the importance of some new technology on your industry. Even if talking about that technology puts you to sleep, it's a good idea to make note of it and consider how that information might impact future interactions (and projects) with that person. 

Then, review your file on a regular basis. Just schedule a 10 minute meeting with yourself once a month or on whatever regular schedule you would find to be helpful. Your handy-dandy Red Flag File is your reminder. It’s your secret weapon to remembering what is on each person’s list so you can sidestep problems and anticipate questions. 

Signs You May be Fired

Getting fired or laid off feels like a slap to the face. If it hasn’t happened to you, you probably know someone who has been through it.

It usually feels like it happens without any notice. Is there anyway to anticipate it and prepare?

Here are some signs that you may be at risk of losing your job:

Itemizing 

Your manager may ask you for a detailed list of everything you do. Certainly, they may want to assess the workload of everyone in the office, plan for a reorganization, figure out what to outsource, or get a better sense of how to improve efficiency for the whole department. But, it is possible that they are planning for how to cover your work after you are fired. Also, the company may be trying to decide how essential your job is and and what can be cut in your absence.

If the reason behind the request isn't clear, or if they're not asking this of your coworkers, you should be on guard.

Documenting 

On the same note, you may be asked to document the steps you take when doing certain processes. This alone isn't a bad thing. I'm a huge advocate of documenting procedures and also how you, as the employee, can look proactive and prepared by documenting your core duties. There are many reasons why it is smart to have this in place anyway. It helps If you are unexpectedly out sick, assists when training, and is crucial for knowledge management so that best practices are not living solely in someone’s head. But, it can also be a sign that the company wants to ensure ongoing operations once you are asked to leave. You should be on alert if you are the only one asked to do this or if there is unexplained urgency for the request. 

Unusual Behavior

Are your managers, human resources staff, or the IT department acting unusual? When I was laid off, I felt totally blindsided. But thinking back to that day there were some signs that it was about to happen. I noticed one manager going through a pile of business cards and spreading them out on his desk. This was weird behavior for him. Based on what he said to me after the whole department was laid off, it was clear he was putting together contacts to help us network and find new jobs. (That never materialized, but that's another story.)

Also, before we were summoned into the meeting where they delivered the glum news, the head of the IT department kept hovering around our office. I should have realized that something was up by the smirk on his face as he scanned the room while avoiding eye contact. He was hovering to know when to shut our computers off before being escorted out.

Being Excluded

Are you not invited to meetings which you've previously attended ? Maybe someone else is assigned a new project that you would have expected to come to you. Or, when you ask about upcoming work, you are told "Don't worry about it." If you feel like you are being given the cold shoulder, and they haven't explained any shift in your duties or expectations, then you should be wary. 

Warnings and Paper Trails

The most obvious sign that your job is in jeopardy is that you've been told. This may be subtle or very direct, but usually involves being put on a performance improvement plan or warned that there will be consequences if your performance or behavior doesn't change. If this happens, it's in your best interest to keep checking in with your manager about your progress and gauge how well they think you've turned it around. 

Usually a warning like this will be accompanied by formal documentation. If your manager feels you are not complying to the request, that will be put in writing as well. For example, let's say that you have been warned not miss anymore deadlines. If you do miss another deadline, your boss might send you an email saying, "The report was due yesterday at 5pm. However, you did not turn it in until 11am today." This will be added to the information your boss is putting together to justify action taken against you. 

I’m not sharing these points to make you paranoid about your work situation. But, I’m encouraging you to keep your eyes open and pick up on signs that something may be up. 

The reality is that no job is guaranteed and you should have a contingency plan ready to go. Contact me if you’re interested in bulletproofing your job or career. 

Addressing Your Cover Letter

You’ve written a great cover letter and then get stuck on how to address it. Sound familiar? 


Conventional advice is to search for the actual name of the person who will be reviewing or receiving your letter. I disagree with this and think taking that effort is a waste of time and adds extra stress to an already nerve-wracking process. My advice is very simple and will let you spend your time on perfecting your resume and the content of your cover letter.

If the name of specific person is given in a job listing, obviously that is the name you should use. But, if no name is given you should address your note to the hiring manager. Yes, that means saying “Dear Hiring Manager” in the letter’s salutation. This is preferable to the stilted “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” 

There. You just saved hours of searching and worry about how to address your cover letter. You're welcome. 

Let me know if you’re interested in other information about what to put in cover letters, how to address an unsolicited job application, or effective approaches for cover letters. Just reach out if I can help you update your resume and target a resume or cover letter to a specific job. 

The Myth of The Dream Job

“We only have one soulmate in this world,” she said while looking sadly at me and thinking of her recent breakup. She truly believed that there is just one person she was destined to be with. What if the person who just broke her heart was “the one?” She might as well give up on any hope of finding love and happiness. This type of thinking can tear you apart.

The same is true when you think of work.

Do you think there is only one “perfect job” where you will be handed copious amounts of money for doing what you love? I’m sorry to shatter the dream, but this isn’t true. If you are unhappy in your current job and/or looking for a new job, It’s important that you be realistic as you consider your options. Yes, you deserve to be happy at work! But, there is not one perfect job where you enjoy 100% of everything you do.

Getting Realigned

Your goal is to find the job that best aligns with your values and what is most important to you. Also, when debating your next career step, you should consider how taking a job will help you get closer to reaching your goals. In other words, does moving to a new job get you closer to where you eventually want to be?

It’s also important to be realistic. Of course you shouldn’t stop dreaming or give up on your strategy for landing an amazing job. But, if you want to be a surgeon, you can’t just will it to happen. You need to start by going to medical school and then work on it from there. Know what foundation you need to lay down and build from there.

A job hunt is stressful enough without dismissing opportunities as not being perfect. You want to get as close to perfect as you can, but don’t dismiss opportunities that will help you get there. Wondering how to reframe your concept of a “perfect job” without settling? I’m here to help. 

Fear of Failure: Take the Shot!

basketball hoop

While at my son’s basketball practice, I overheard a conversation between the coach and one of the players. The coach asked the boy why he didn’t take a shot even though he was wide open. The boy shrugged and looked away. He’s not one of the hot shots on the team and clearly was worried about landing the ball in the basket.

The coach put an arm on his shoulder, looked him directly in the eyes, and said, “When you are wide open like that, you need to take the shot. I won’t get mad at you if you miss. You just need to try.”

I was blown away by how these words sum up the fear-based decisions we all make. How often do you avoiding taking the shot, even though you are standing on the court unchallenged? 

Get Out of Your Head

Fear of failure can be paralyzing. Failure is different for each of us and different in each situation. Perhaps it means you’ll feel stupid, be ridiculed, embarrassed, or ashamed?

We can apply much more dramatic consequences to something not working out. The fear of failure builds upon itself itself and intensifies to dramatic heights. You don’t just miss the shot, but you are humiliated as the worst player of all time and you get kicked off the team. You don’t just miss out on the job you applied for, but you're doomed to an eternity in a miserable job and will be shunned by those who work at your dream company. Hoping to protect ourselves, we give into the fear and rationalize our inaction.

I’m here to remind you to take the shot. Acknowledge your negative fear-filled thoughts, but then dig deep so you can follow through. Stop the horror movie you are playing in your mind with the worst possible outcome, and consider the true risk. Most likely the fears are much more dire than anything that will happen. And, quite honestly, no one will really care about it except you. Days later, people won’t be saying “Did you see that person who tried to make the shot on the basketball court and failed?” Nope! Everyone is worried about their own fears and won’t spend much time on yours.

Stop Making Fear-Based Decisions


Give yourself permission to try and to break through your fears. Turn off the negative thoughts in your head and congratulate yourself on giving yourself a chance. 

How is fear holding you back? Are you not making a phone call, applying for a better job, asking for a promotion, or even extending a friendly greeting to someone you want to meet? On your daily ‘to-do” list, write down “Stop making fear-based decisions.” Catch yourself when you do.

Take the shot.

A Long Time Ago, In An Office Far Far Away: The Last Jedi Leadership Lessons

****Spoiler Alert****
Beware, This article has spoilers about the Last Jedi

Last Jedi New Boss

Beware the New Boss

The Last Jedi  continues the story of what happens in the epic Star Wars tale. Who would have thought it has leadership and workplace communication lessons as well? 

The Last Jedi opens to a scene where the impulsive, driven, and stubborn Resistance pilot Poe Dameron goes rogue on General Leia Organa. He ignores her order to return to the ship and takes a rare opportunity to attack an enormous and deadly First Order battleship. They bring it down, but pay dearly by losing all of their bombers and a talented and dedicated team of pilots. General Organa greets Dameron with a slap and a demotion, telling him that “there were no leaders” on that mission. His victory came at too great a cost. But the punishment doesn’t seem to have an impact on him. Later on he shrugs off the demotion and appears unmoved.

Dameron, at least at the beginning of the film, is too wrapped up in himself to see how his actions are part of the rebellion’s larger mission. He goes for immediate gratification, while General Organa understands the power of strategy and playing for the end game.

Then, General Organa is "out of the office" while recovering from, let’s call it an unexpected space flight, and replaced by Vice Admiral Holdo. Dameron is doubtful of Holdo’s abilities and immediately asks to know her plans. He acts as if he should have special access to the command. She reacts strongly, and negatively, by putting the cocky pilot in his place and telling him to back off and wait for his orders. This results in misplaced efforts, secrets, and mutiny.

Sound familiar? Ok, you may not be fighting the First Order at work (even though it can feel that way), but you’ve probably dealt with some of the following:

Workers Who Think They Know Better Than Their Bosses

We’ve all had times when we incredulously ask “What?!” when given a new task. But, you don’t want to come across as arrogant. Once I asked someone who worked for me to help with an urgent project and she responded, “I can do it, but this is taking me away from my important work.” I had to calmly explain that this new project was important work and went into more detail about the backstory of how it came up and why we needed to do it. She followed through, but her response raised some red flags for me. She sincerely believed she was being a team-player by voicing her concern about not working on what she thought was most important. She unknowingly came off as selfish and dismissive of my request. Not the team player I could trust.

Dameron had similar thoughts at the beginning of the movie. He assumes his leaders are too narrow-minded to appreciate his vision. He literally turns off all communications so he doesn’t have to hear Organa’s orders.

Later on, Dameron secretly assumes authority, builds up his own coalition of colleagues, and leads a mutiny, with disastrous results, when vetting his ideas with his leaders could have saved lives.

Impulsive Workers Who Don't See How Their Actions Impact the Company's Long-Term Goals

This one's a doozy. It’s easy to justify doing something that you think will have a payoff even though it may not fit into your boss’ or company’s long-term plan. Yet, a good leader will know to hold back and cut losses and can see how small actions fit into the larger plan. Steve Jobs said that “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” The person who famously decided to release “New Coke” went for the immediate result instead of considering how it would fit in with the values and mission of the company.

The key is finding the right balance between creativity and long-term thinking. The way to achieve that balance is with communication. It goes both ways, with leadership needing to instill the long-term vision while encouraging innovation. Employees need to feel comfortable asking questions and encouraged to offer their ideas, but respect lines of authority.  

Dameron’s impulsiveness doesn’t fit in with the the long term plans for the rebellion. He might have taken down a huge battleship, but the rebellion force was decimated in the process.

Supervisors Who Let Employees Get Away With Things That Shouldn't be Tolerated

Princess Leia fans might be angry at me for this one, but I was disappointed with how she handled Dameron. Even though she gave him a demotion, her explanation of his poor decisions didn’t make it through to him. (I mean, many people died because of it!) She could have used different language to explain how this was catastrophic. Or, maybe said he was grounded from flying until further notice. If anyone else had ignored her orders, perhaps someone she didn’t like as much, would they have been treated the same way?

Consider if General Organa came down harder on Dameron and didn’t tolerate Dameron’s impulsive antics.  Even though she gives him a demotion, he almost laughs it off. Beneath her anger she almost seems to wink at him like a mother exasperated with her mischievous but charming kid.  

A lack of fairness from their bosses is a complaint I hear over and over from clients. It creates a toxic work environment and leads to job dissatisfaction and concerns about favoritism.

A New Boss Who Doesn't Try to Understand or Listen to the Staff 

I once was part of a team that had the chance to meet with prospective new managers for our group. When asked “How would you describe your management style?” one candidate said, “I rule with an iron fist in a velvet glove.” She likely thought this response showed her strength and leadership, instead it terrified all of us and suggested that she would keep us all in place. There was no way we wanted to work for her. 

In the Last Jedi, Holdo should have assumed the best of the crew and heard Dameron out instead of treating him with disdain. He did approach her immediately and ask for her plans but she silences him. Rather than cluing in the staff on what she is up to, she gives no glimpse into her strategy and demands them to blindly follow. He has no reason to think he can share his ideas with her.

A lack of trust, contempt, and poor communication are a lethal combination in any workplace, and it’s a two-way street. Moving past our own egos and trusting your colleagues and bosses almost always results in a better outcome.

In the end, Dameron finally learns his lesson. He orders troops to pull back from a battle where the immediate victory wouldn’t be worth the long-term consequences. He becomes a true leader. But, it was a painful, costly lesson.

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Take Action One Step At A Time

Celebrate taking action

I met with a new client who’s trying to figure out her next steps and is unsure of how to take action. She wants to discover the best career fit for her, and hopes that by next Spring she will be happily situated in a fabulous, just-right-for-her job that supports her career strategy and life.

We discussed the steps we could take together to work towards identifying her perfect career fit and launching a targeted job search. But, her days are jam-packed right now, both professionally and personally, and she’s worried about dedicating time to the self-reflective process of finding the right career fit. Instead, she suggested that we start by working on her resume and LinkedIn profile now, and then do the deep dive later.

Easiest Doesn't Mean Best

I cautioned against this approach. It's like building a house without a blueprint. The resume and LinkedIn profile revisions should come at the end of the process. They are tools to help her get to where she wants, and need to be targeted to her dream job. She has to know the desired end point before working on the tools that will help her get there.

We all have this tendency to do what seems “easiest” or most tangible, even though it usually yields the worst results. To get past this, don’t overwhelm yourself  by thinking of the everything you have to do. Make it manageable by taking it one step at a time. 

Many Steps = Taking Action

Break down the different steps you need to take. For example, one of the first things in finding the right career fit is to identify what you do and don't want. What makes you happy? What does an ideal day look like? What frustrates you the most at work and what do you love the best?

You may be putting pressure on yourself thinking this means that you have to just "know" all these answers immediately. That assumption is overwhelming! Instead, consider doable next steps to help identify what you do and don't want in a job.

Actions you can take may include: taking assessments such as the Myers Briggs or, my favorite, the CliftonStrengths assessment (previously called the StrengthsFinder), monitoring when you feel happiest or the most miserable at your current job, and answering questions about your ideal workday. Each of these steps gives you information that you can use to gain perspective about yourself and formulate a vision for the type of environment and job where you will be satisfied and happy.  By checking off one step at a time, you're calmly taking action and working towards your goal.

Just Start!

Break through the inertia and start! You’ll be much less stressed out just knowing that you are doing something instead of worrying and wondering what to do next.  It’s time to get excited about your next steps, make a plan, and move yourself forward. Start the New Year off with a bang and take action.

If you’d like someone to hold you accountable through this process, or aren't sure of how to start, just reach out to me or another career coach.

Get Excited About Your Future

Excited over Career Strategy

“I’m so excited about the future,” my friend said to me with such passion that I could feel the joy radiating from her. She was devising a career strategy to pivot down a new career path.

Are you excited about your future?

Or, do you feel trapped in your job and unsure of what to do?

You have more control than you think. Once you actively plan your career strategy, you’ll be amazed at how empowered and invigorated you feel. 

Goals

One of the first steps in making a career strategy is to identify your long-term and short-term goals. They can be as big or a modest as you like. They may range from changing careers, finding a job that will let you travel the globe, relocating to another city, gaining a promotion, working on different projects at your company, or becoming an expert in a particular subject. Once you envision your future and get clear on long-term goals, you can plan out short-term goals that will help you along the way.

Where Do You Want to Go?

A good starting point is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • When are you happiest at work?
  • How would you describe your perfect day?
  • When are you most unhappy at work?
  • If you are looking at your life a year into the future, what do you want to see?
  • What is holding you back right now from making any changes?

Yes, this type of introspection takes a great deal of work. Yet you owe it to yourself to do it.

Treat your future and happiness with the same kind of dedication that you show towards anything else that is important to you. If you’d like someone to hold you accountable through this process, just reach out to me or another career coach.

Take heart that you can do this. The key is to start!  Once you have a plan, just imagine how excited you will be about your future. 

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