Improve Your Work Habits

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How can you change a habit that’s holding you back in your career? Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith suggest you ask for help and actively engage your coworkers.

By Sally Helgesen

Women often ask me, "How can I change a habit that I recognize is holding me back?" After all, there's a difference between knowing that something gets in your way and actually changing a behavior that has become ingrained. Of course there is, but there’s also a foolproof method for making behavioral change: you need to ask for help and actively engage other people. This is why coaching is so effective—but you don't need a coach to start changing. In Chapter 18 of How Women Rise, my coauthor Marshall and I offer a great template for engaging support.

Let's say you have a tendency to minimize yourself in your work by pointlessly apologizing. How can you break this habit? You could begin by saying something like this to a trusted colleague: “Sharon, I’m wondering if you could help me out, I’m trying to be more effective in how I communicate, but I’ve realized I’m in the habit of apologizing even when I’ve done nothing wrong. Sometimes I hear myself starting a simple observation with ‘I’m sorry,’ but most of the time I don’t even notice. I’m wondering if you could let me know when you hear me say this since we’ll be working together a lot over the next month. If other people are around, you could just nod or raise your eyebrows to cue me. I’d be grateful since this habit isn’t helping me be my best.”

Or say you decide you need to draw more attention to your achievements. Maybe you’ve gotten feedback from your boss that you need to be more proactive in helping him reach his goals. You realize he thinks this because you haven’t kept him in the loop about what you’re doing. So you ask a colleague who also attends your boss’s weekly meetings to help you out.

You might say: “Jim, since we sit next to each other in Jake’s meetings, I’m wondering if I could enlist your help. I had a performance review last month, and one big takeaway was that I’m not letting Jake know all the things I’m doing to make our project more visible in the market. I’m guessing I need to be more assertive in meetings. Could you watch over the next few weeks and let me know if there’s a way I’m underselling my contributions? I’d really appreciate your input.”

Pulling others into your change efforts like this is not only more likely to make your new habits stick, it’s also a great way to strengthen and deepen your relationships at work. Who doesn’t like to be asked to share his opinions or observations? Who objects to being viewed as a trusted advisor whose insights and feedback are precisely what you need?

Enlisting the help of colleagues gives them a stake in your development. It demonstrates your confidence in their judgment. It positions you as serious about your work. It may even inspire others to take similar action, which could help your whole team get better at what they do.

Of course, asking for help requires you to make yourself a bit vulnerable. This can feel awkward because the default in most workplaces is to try to telegraph that you’re in total control and don’t need anyone’s support. Given this, here are a few tips drawn from our experience that can reduce the discomfort or confusion you may feel.

  1. Choose carefully. Ask for help from someone you trust, someone you have a good history with, and someone you know has a positive frame of mind. Since you’ll be asking the person to observe you and give you feedback about a behavior, you’ll also want to choose someone who sees you on a regular basis, either in meetings or as part of a team.
  2. Be specific. Generalized requests won’t get you the information you’re seeking. Vague queries such as, “Do you think I’m doing well?” will put the person you’re trying to enlist on the spot and leave too much room for subjective response. Instead, say precisely what you want her to notice, based on your start-with-one-thing template. This could be apologizing, oversharing, deflecting praise, underselling your achievements, minimizing body language, offering too much information, or trying to please too much—whatever behavior or habit you believe is getting in your way.
  3. Be concise. Show the person you enlist that you value his time by making your requests as brief as possible. Avoid sharing a lot of background, providing long introductions, or repeating the same thing in different ways. And remember that being succinct requires you to prepare in advance. So know how you’re going to phrase your request before you make it and think through how you can concisely respond to likely questions.
  4. Remember that disclosure is not the point. Don’t belabor why you want to change a habit or share your analysis of the reasons you behave as you do. It doesn’t matter all that much to others. Keep in mind that you’re seeking to change a behavior that limits your potential, not rehash the past or sign people up for a therapy session.
  5. Specify a time limit. Don’t ask for an open-ended commitment. Instead, request the person you engage to observe you at a specific event or for a bounded period of time, such as during a scheduled meeting or over the next few weeks.

How you ask for help is important. But it’s not all that matters. You’ll also want to be intentional about how you respond to the feedback you invite. You don’t want to be reactive or appear upset if you hear painful truths, as this will make the person you enlisted regret having signed on.

It’s also good to have an advance plan for responding in place, especially as feedback is notoriously difficult to hear. Nobody enjoys being propositioned by a colleague or friend with the dreaded phrase, “May I offer you some feedback?” You might smile, but you’re probably gritting your teeth inside and holding yourself back from responding, "No, you most certainly may not."

Unsolicited feedback feels like criticism, no matter how “helpfully” the observations are phrased, which is why it makes most people defensive. But when you enlist someone to offer their thoughts, you’re soliciting the feedback, so defensiveness is beside the point and self-defeating.

Your task is to respond graciously and take what you need.