The art of being indispensable at work with a post-pandemic caution (review)

There’s a right way and wrong ways to build relationships at work.

Playing politics and making it personal would be the wrong ways. These are your colleagues who try to win you over by tearing others down or who are forever lobbying for bigger budgets and more people with promises of returning favours. And then there are the coworkers who either make the rounds each day to say a superficial hello and shoot the breeze or who really want to be your best friend and genuinely believe we should be one big happy family at work.

The problem with these relationships is that they don’t hold up when times get tough and hard decisions must be made.

“Workplace politicking and personal rapport are not good business reasons for making decisions or taking actions in the workplace,” says Bruce Tulgan, author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. “They are complications at best and, at worst, can lead you to make the wrong decisions or take the wrong actions. In the real world, the best politics in the workplace – and the best way to protect personal relationships with coworkers – is to stay focused on the work.”

To build strong relationships, make yourself indispensable. Build a reputation for making smart decisions, doing important work very well and very fast and finishing what you start.

Tulgan’s studied “go-to” people for decades and has cracked their code. So what’s their secret? Serve others.

“Stop focusing on what other people can do for you and focus instead on what you can do for other people. Make yourself super valuable to others. The more value you add, the more truly invested others will become in your success.”

Go-to people are also big on maintaining what Tulgan calls vertical alignment. Stay perfectly in step with the priorities, ground rules and marching orders set by your boss. Respect the chain of command. “How you align yourself in terms of decision making and support – and with whom – is the first core mechanism of becoming indispensable at work. Get in the habit of going over your own head at every step and align with your boss through regular structured dialogue.”

A word of caution as we dig ourselves out from the pandemic and make the long slog back to business as usual. Learn when to say no, not yet and yes to all the urgent requests that’ll come your way.

“In the postpandemic era, the would-be go-to person is at greater risk than ever before of succumbing to overcommitment syndrome,” says Tulgan. “Fight it. If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody. Now more than ever, it will take extra savvy and skill to manage yourself, your many work relationships and all the competing demands on your time and talent.”

While avoiding overcommitment will be a constant challenge, the alternative – being notably dispensable – will be a far bigger and career-limiting problem.

This review first ran in the June 5 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Review: Bridging the Soft Skills Gap by Bruce Tulgan

gapThis review first ran in the Nov. 9 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent

By Bruce Tulgan

Wiley

$31.95

It’s not entirely your fault that you frustrate some of your older co-workers.

After all, you were raised by helicopter parents on steroids.

You went to schools that treated you more like a customer than a student.

You grew up a digital native, with smart phones and social media changing how you think and communicate.

And with all these Baby Boomers retiring and young talent in short supply, you were wined, dined and signed for your technical skills with no questions asked about your soft skills.

So we shouldn’t be shocked if you sometimes confuse your boss with a surrogate parent whose prime directive is to serve, praise, shelter, amuse and spare you from thankless tasks and daily grinds.

Gen Zers are the ultimate non-conformists in an age of non-conformism, says author Bruce Tulgan about the 20-somethings now joining the workforce.

“Trying to make the adjustment to ‘fitting in’ in the very real, truly high-stakes, mostly adult world of the workplace is a whole new game for them,” says Tulgan, the founder and CEO of a management research and training firm who’s interviewed thousands of managers about young employees. “And it’s not really their kind of game. They are less inclined to try to ‘fit in’ at work, and more inclined to try to make this ‘whole work thing’ fit in with them.”

Good luck with that.  Ignoring the soft skills gap does no favours for Gen Zers or their employers. Failing to close the gap can derail careers and cripple organizations.

“When employees have significant gaps in their soft skills, there are significant negative consequences,” warns Tulgan. “Potentially good hires are overlooked. Good hires go bad. Bad hires go worse. Misunderstandings abound. People become distracted. Productivity goes down. Mistakes are made. Customer service suffers. Workplace conflicts occur more frequently. Good people leave when they might have otherwise stayed longer.”

Tulgan slots soft skills into three categories.

  • Professionalism, which includes soft skills like self-evaluation, personal responsibility, a positive attitude, good work habits and people skills.
  • Critical thinking, with the essential soft skills of proactive learning, problem solving and decision-making.
  • Followership, built on key behaviors of respect for context, citizenship, service and teamwork.

“Show me an organization with a strong, positive corporate culture and I will show you an organization that is very clear about exactly which soft skill behaviors are high priority and sings about those high priority behaviors from the rooftops often.”

So how do organizations with a default-defined culture close the growing gap in soft skills?

Employers need to clearly define their mission-critical soft skills and then walk the talk, says Tulgan. “What are the high priority behaviors that are most important? Crucial to success? Or jet fuel for competitive differentiation? Make them the foundation of your culture. Focus on them relentlessly and systematically drive those behaviors in all your human capital management practices.”

That means hiring for soft skills. Developing those skills in both your new hires and veterans. Promoting and rewarding employees who exhibit those skills and cutting loose those who don’t.

“The fastest way to turn a mediocre performer into a low performer is to leave that person alone without any guidance, direction, support or coaching,” says Tulgan. “Your job is to lift up all those employees and help them do more work – faster and better every step of the way. Not just because that’s good for business but also because continuous improvement is the key to keeping Gen Zers focused and motivated.”

Drawing from best practices at employers that value and know how to develop soft skills, Tulgan offers up lesson plans for teaching the missing basics of professionalism, critical thinking and followership.

“Just imagine the impact you could have if you were to spend time every week systematically building up the soft skills of your team,” says Tulgan. “You would send a powerful message, week by week. You would make them aware. You would make them care. You would help them learn the missing basics one by one – one exercise at a time. You would build them up and make them so much better.”