The most vivid memory of second hand embarrassment I have is from my high school Spanish class. We were taking our exam, so we were all a little nervous. Because exams were more heavily weighted than regular tests or quizzes, this could make or break your grade for the semester.
As our teacher, Mr. Wilson, walked around the room, we noticed him stop at Andrew’s desk. He slowly reached down and calmly pulled a tiny sheet of paper from under Andrew’s arm, examined it, and continued walking around the classroom.
Andrew’s face was bright red. He was visibly upset, and although it was, admittedly, slightly amusing to the rest of us in the class, we all knew what he was feeling.
Humiliation, disappointment … fear of what would happen to his grade.
In school, the rules were clear … this was cheating. He gave himself an unfair advantage. He wasn’t taking the test from memory, he had all the answers hidden under his arm. That’s just not allowed.
But you know what? You’re not in school any more. The rules are different at work.
We think the people responsible for our employment and promotions expect us to figure it all out ourselves, to have all the answers memorized like we did in school.
But that’s not true at all. At work, you get to “cheat”. As a matter of fact, you’re expected to.
Your Manager’s Perspective
One of my favorite questions to ask your manager is “what does it take to be a top performer in my position?” (from this book).
This concept blew my mind. It totally changed how I approached my job, my priorities, and my career.
It’s like walking up to the teacher and asking “what’s the answer to question 5 on this test?“, and most of us are just as uncomfortable asking our manager/supervisor this question as we would be asking a teacher in school for an answer.
The difference is, your manager is happy to just give you the answer. You get to “cheat”, and it’s totally fine.
The answer to that question, of course, will vary depending on your position, your manager, or the nature of your work. But there usually is an answer.
Once you have your answer, it’s up to you what to do with it. You can use it to agree to a later discussion about compensation or promotion, to build your resume, or to simply measure and track your progress toward your own goals.
Your colleagues’ perspectives
The single most impactful things you can do at work is to ask yourself, every single day, “What can I do today that would have the biggest positive impact on the business or the people I work with?”
I manage software engineers , so that’s the lens I view this question through right now, but I’ve had many jobs over the years: sales, bagging groceries, customer service, IT support, web developer.
But once again, it’s hard to know what will have the greatest impact, or who needs help, or how to prioritize your work.
And be direct, no need to be sneaky about it.
“Is there anything I can do today that would help you get your work done?”
Flip the script
Sometimes it’s you who needs help getting unstuck, figuring out a tough problem, or handling a workload that’s too big for you. What can you do then?
Ask for help! You’d be surprised how willing people are to trade a little knowledge from their experience for an ego boost, or even a simple “thank you, I was completely stuck, so I appreciate the assist“.
Always show gratitude, always give credit, and you’ll very likely always have someone willing to step up and help you.
Andrew is fine, by the way
I’m not sure what happened after class. I’m sure there were some consequence, maybe even a failing exam grade. And I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten about the incident in Spanish class all those years ago.
But, he’s married with kids now, working as an accountant, and seems to be doing pretty well for himself. And I’ll bet he’s probably still cheating, only now he’s allowed to, expected to.
The rules are different at work. Are you cheating enough?