Talking about your value at work

Talking about yourself at work isn’t easy, especially if you’re from a culture where this might be perceived as boasting, arrogant or self-involved. I’m looking at you, New Zealand!

Long ago, I heard the comedian Oscar Kightley tell a joke that perfectly captures New Zealand’s “tall poppy” culture. Apologies to Oscar if I mess up his joke but here goes…

“A distinguished professor is at a ceremony to accept an award for creating a pill that cures not only the common cold but all major diseases. In his speech he talks about his long career and the hard work he put in and he says how proud he is to have made so many people healthy and happy. The audience erupts in applause. A Kiwi turns to the guy next to him and says, ‘He’s a bit up himself, ay!'”

We laugh at the exaggerated story because it pokes fun at our tendency to expect people to be humble even when it’s perfectly justified for them to talk about their achievements. And we know that we don’t want to be the person seen as boastful or with an inflated sense of self-importance. It feels uncomfortable talking about our achievements and avoid it so that we don’t feel the sting of other people’s judgement.

But should this stop you from speaking up? You might think that if someone wants to know about you, they’ll ask. In reality, most people are probably too busy worrying about themselves to notice if you have done something amazing!

It’s up to you to share your story.

Don’t miss out on opportunities to promote and sell yourself, to grow and progress, to make your contribution.

You have value to offer your team, your employers, and your wider community. 

Stop for a second and think of your value – your talents and skills and contribution.

The gremlins that want you to stop you speaking up are strong, but you can outwit them. Here are a few ways to identify and celebrate your value:

  • Reflect on past achievements – big and small
  • Re-read references, testimonials and positive feedback
  • Make a list of everything you do that helps others
  • Think of the technical skills you’ve learnt, and the personal attributes and experience you bring to your team, your employer and the wider community

Your value is your currency. It buys you trust, respect, and confidence.

Being shy about your value won’t help you land that new opportunity, dream job or exciting promotion. If you want to be trusted with new responsibilities, you need to be able to share your strengths.

If you don’t speak up, someone else might. They might get that promotion or opportunity – simply because they were willing to speak about themselves. Let people know that you’re keen and willing, or you could risk being overlooked.

Tips for talking about yourself with clarity and confidence

  • If you’re anxious about appearing conceited or arrogant, this is a good sign that you’re not. The fact you don’t want to be seen as selfish shows you’re considering other people’s feelings and contribution.
  • Before speaking, ask yourself: “What’s my intent?” If you intend to make other people feel inferior or envious, then you are being arrogant.
  • Get evidence. Find someone who will be honest with you and ask them if you’re coming across as conceited. And also ask if they think you’re doing enough to let people know what you have to offer.
  • Check your facts. Don’t speak from opinion; be specific. Use facts and figures to draw attention to ways you’ve made a tangible difference.
  • If you don’t say something, people may not know. Talking about yourself is like advertising. If you have a wonderful product but people can only find out about it by chance, you won’t make many sales.
  • Be clear. Give other people the right words to use to advocate for you.
  • Be honest. You know what it’s like to listen to someone downplay their achievements. False modesty is irritating so own your worth.
  • Acknowledge other people in your team. Does this achievement only belong to you or were there people who helped you along the way?
  • Share your journey. Say why you’re proud. Most things that make us feel valued have required hard work. So talk about the challenges you overcame to get to where you are today. It’s the difference between: “I said I would win top salesperson and I did,” and “Getting to this point has been a goal of mine and even though it’s taken a lot of time and hard work I’m proud that I persevered.”
  • Describe your accomplishments in your boss’s words. Saying “the Delivery Manager said my suggestions made a big improvement,” comes across better than “I always come up with the best ideas”.
  • Boast! Sometimes we don’t know how something feels unless we actually do it, so try a full on bragging session – to someone you know, or to yourself. Say everything out loud, in the most arrogant way you can. Then reflect. How did that make you feel and how was it different to clearly and honestly stating your achievements? Taking an extreme view can help you find the right balance.

As with everything, talking about your value gets easier with practice. Over time, the voice in your head that says “what might people think of me?” will be replaced with “what do people need to know about me?”.

Don’t leave it to chance. If you have skills and strengths to offer, then you owe it to yourself (and others!) to share your story.

Ask for what you want

YesssIt’s often said that ‘good things come to those who wait’. Unfortunately, patience isn’t always a virtue in a corporate environment. Sometimes, to get the promotion, project, opportunity or work conditions you want, you have to ask for it.

I understand this is easier said than done. Asking for what you want often means stepping outside of what feels comfortable – especially if you’ve never voiced your ambitions or wishes before.

The good news is, this is a skill that can be learned. With the right preparation, you can find your voice.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Be kind to yourself
Don’t be your own enemy. Remind yourself that you have just as much right as others to state your preferences and desires. You may not always get the outcome you want but you are fully entitled to ask.

2. Draw strength from past success
Think of a time when you did something you were proud of. It’s likely that your achievement was a result of taking action even when you weren’t sure of the outcome. Just because you’re doubting yourself now doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Who knows what might happen?

3. Be specific in your requests
Make it easy for the person you’re asking to understand what it is you want. Other people can’t read your mind, so aim to make your request clear and specific. A good way to test this is to practice your request on a friend. Also, practising in a safe environment means you’ll be more relaxed when the real time comes.

4. Be prepared
Be prepared for the kind of questions that might be asked in reply to your request. What supporting details or outcomes might they want to know? And think of how you will respond if you get a “Yes” or a “No”. It’s always good to keep this simple, for example ‘I appreciate you giving me this chance’ or ‘Thank you for considering it’ . Sometimes it will work out, sometimes it won’t – but that’s okay. No one gets a yes every single time.

5. Feel the fear and do it anyway
No matter how carefully you prepare, you might still feel nervous. This is normal! Trust in your preparation, then go ahead and ask. Don’t wait and hope. Take action and give yourself a chance to get more of what you want.

“But what I can do …” Words that don’t disappoint.

I said no

Early in my career I worked in the customer support department of an internet service provider. I supervised a team of young tech assistants who helped customers with everything to do with their internet connection. If a customer demanded that their call be escalated, it would be transferred to me.

The person on the other end of the phone was frustrated, often angry, and they wanted their problem fixed now. They didn’t want to hear that I might not be able to give them what they wanted.

At first, taking the “grumpy customer” calls was nerve-wracking but over time I discovered it was a perfect opportunity to give great service. I’ve taken what I learnt there into many other roles and situations where I need to say “no”.

Sometimes on those customer calls I was lucky and a quick fix resolved everything but mostly it wasn’t that easy. The issues that really frustrate people are a result of complexity, ambiguity, and miscommunication, and often don’t have easy solutions. Those kinds of problems need to be investigated, and resolving it might take time. Sometimes what customers want isn’t in our control and sometimes it isn’t possible at all.

Even when I couldn’t give those customers what they wanted, I managed to help them feel better. How?

  1. The first thing was I cared about them. I treated them with respect and empathy. We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bad service … we just want someone to make things right.
  2. But I also discovered a technique that worked really well – I never said “no” or “we can’t do that” or “that’s not possible” without also saying what I could do.

“I’m sorry, I can’t  do that. But what I can do is …”.  

Being specific about what you can do helps when dealing with unhappy customers but is also useful in other situations, such as when you might need to disappoint someone at work. Maybe your workmate is asking for something that’s not possible, or your manager wants an answer you can’t give.

Here are a few examples of things you could say after “no …”.

– What I can do is set aside some time with you to talk through our options.
– What I can do is get the details for a proper investigation before I get back to you.
– What I can do is sit with you while you complete that task so I can help if you need it.
– What I can do is put you in touch with someone who will have the information you need.
– What I can do is make sure the Product team get your feedback.

We all have times when we don’t have the answers that people want, or we can’t do what they expect. By saying what you can do they’ll know that your intent is to help and they’ll be clear about next steps. Of course there are times that what you can do will seem insignificant, but offering even something small is going to be received better than just a “no”.

It works the other way around also – if someone is only telling you what isn’t possible then ask what can be done. Help them to focus on what is possible.

Try it the next time you need to say no … say what you can do, and notice how this changes the rest of the conversation.

Don’t follow your passion. Look for challenges.

I was sitting in a job interview and things were going pretty well, then the question: “So tell me what you’re passionate about?”

Hmm. I could say what it seems they want to hear – something about making customers happy, learning new skills or doing good work. Those are things I really enjoy and feel strongly about but … passionate? Do I really have intense and emotional feelings about those things?

I could say that what gives me the most intense and emotional happiness is spending time with people I love, reading bed-time stories to my niece, laughing with good friends. I don’t think those are the answers they’re after. I think they want to know what makes me come alive at work, what things I’ll be willing to stick at, what motivates me.

Feeling “passionate” means an deep enjoyment that comes easily. You can’t help feeling the way you do and you don’t have to put any effort into it. It’s like when you see someone you love after time apart – you can’t help how you feel. You don’t have to try to feel happy because you just do!

This is different to how I  feel about work. I thoroughly enjoy much of what I do but I feel the most satisfaction at work when it’s not easy, when I’ve had to push myself, or make sense of complicated things or when I’ve forced myself to be brave. Succeeding at a challenge (or at least attempting something difficult) … these are the things that make me feel happiest. Taking on challenges and overcoming obstacles – things that take effort and persistence.

You’ll often hear people say you should follow your passion. I believe the overuse of the word ‘passion’ (“follow your passion” or “do what you’re passionate about and you’ll never work a day in your life”) is misleading people into thinking that they should be doing work that doesn’t feel like any effort at all. The truth is that the most satisfying work won’t be easy. You will certainly do things that seem effortless but the reward will come from mastering the things that don’t come easily.

Do a quick experiment. Think of something you’ve done that you’re really proud of. Was it easy? Many of the most rewarding things in my life have been the things that at first seemed the most impossible.

If you want to find things that make you truly enjoy your work ask yourself:

  • Will this push me a little (or even a lot)? If you don’t feel some level of discomfort or uncertainty then you aren’t growing.
  • How would I feel if I succeeded at this?
  • Would I be willing to stick at this even if it was frustrating? (Persisting at difficult tasks is also rewarding).
  • Will I get to learn or practice something new?

Is there something in your current job that you find challenging? Think of the smallest step you could take to start overcoming that. Do that, then do the next smallest thing. Small, brave steps add up to giant leaps in how happy you feel about work and yourself. Each time you do this, you build trust in yourself and your ability to do hard things.

It’s knowing you’re stretching yourself that’s so deeply rewarding, and different to the feeling you have when you’re doing easy, fun stuff. You need both … too many challenges and you’ll feel burnt out, but only doing what comes easily and you’ll feel unfulfilled.

Look for challengesYou shouldn’t only take on things that are difficult, but it’s handy to know that much of your sense of achievement and your career development live in these challenges.