Just sitting and waiting to be picked? Stop being a career wallflower!

Photo Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“Don’t be upset by the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do.”

- Anonymous

An anonymous quote suggests that, “Your value does not decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth.” From a humanistic perspective this makes sense, but when it comes to career, this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. While a diligent boss will make an effort to understand your value, motivators and contributions, experience suggests this happens less often than we like to think, with the majority of bosses doing an inadequate job of this, and some not even doing it at all. Even well intended employers may miss the mark in recognizing your contributions due to lack of skill, information or time on their part. Even when your boss is engaged in these types of discussions, the onus is largely on you to identify and articulate your value to your boss and other key decision makers.

Many employees state that the only time they hear from their boss is when they have done a less than satisfactory job or when a problem with performance or some aspect of their work becomes apparent. Many employees say that they receive little recognition or praise for a job well done. In fact, the further away you are from the decision makers in an organization, it becomes more difficult and less likely for senior leaders to accurately articulate your specific contributions. Instead, it’s common for employees to be viewed by others as a function of their job description, which if poorly written, as most are, is probably not an accurate depiction of your strengths, abilities and achievements. And these job descriptions never say anything about your aspirations; this requires a conversation. 

Everyone has potential, but left unrecognized and untapped, potential can be wasted, or worse, never discovered. Think of all the lost opportunities for both you and the organization, and especially missed opportunities for satisfaction on your end. Part of good career ownership is making sure that you and others understand you, your skills, your contributions, your potential, and your career goals. By letting others decide what your talents are, how best to manage your career, or where your value lies as an employee, you can quickly become pigeonholed into a position that is less than satisfying and leaves you standing on the sidelines of your own career and relegated to wallflower status.

You could be a career wallflower if any of the below situations ring true for you.

You hope you will be noticed for your work and contributions, but you don’t take any action beyond hoping to actually realize this outcome.

You need to take ownership of the fact that if you can’t articulate your value and worth to yourself, you can’t expect others to know how to either. Don’t just say you’re valuable, explain why you’re valuable and give specific examples that support your claims (e.g., “My decision to switch suppliers saved the company $10,000, and it did not compromise quality or timelines”).  Describe and quantify the value you want others to see. Many successful salespeople attribute their success to the idea that they believe in what they sell. The same is true for selling yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, your sales pitch for you and your career likely won’t result in as many opportunities as you had hoped for.

You’ve missed out on career building opportunities at work because you found out about them after the fact.

Advocate for or initiate a career dialogue with your boss to discuss your career goals, opportunities you are interested in, your plan for working towards them, and what you need in terms of support. Many bosses inaccurately assume that a quiet employee is a satisfied employee. It is your responsibility to guide this conversation, so be prepared for it. Don’t focus this dialogue on complaining or blaming others; take a solutions focused approach to the future of your career by speaking about your goals or potential barriers and the solutions to address each. If you don’t know how to have a career conversation with your boss, Google it and stay tuned for upcoming posts!

And don’t overlook the importance of building relationships to advance your career. I’ve seen countless folks rely on their technical expertise to do the talking on their behalf. I can recall a 20+ year professional who lamented the fact that his specialized experience and brilliant ideas were never recognized, nor did colleagues seek his opinion as often as he thought they should. When I posed the question, “Why do you think bad ideas get approved?” the penny dropped. He was expecting the merits of his ideas to be sufficient and he overlooked the importance of relationships as the vehicle to realize his ideas. Building strategic alliances and relationships with one or two people is better than building half-assed relationships with everyone. Think quality over quantity here. Also, do you have a mentor that helps you grow your skills and reach your goals? Better yet, do you have a sponsor within the organization that is aware of your goals and advocates on your behalf for opportunities that are in line with your goals? Mentors and sponsors can be exceptionally beneficial for your career development. While you can enlist the support of others to help you develop your career, ultimately you are the CEO of your career, so own your career development.

Lastly, take a hard look at yourself. While many organizations operate in silos and have cultures that can leave you feeling more isolated than supported, if you are a downright negative person, this could be another reason why people are reluctant to reach out to you. Emotional contagion is real and you need to carefully consider what you are spreading in the workplace. Put some time into reflecting on how you show up to the workplace and how it impacts others.

You become frustrated when others fail to notice your obvious contributions and worth. This frustration turns into resentment and leads you to develop the “Why should I?” attitude. “Why should I work as hard as I can, it will just go unrecognized anyway?”  You feel your ideas and contributions are often hijacked by others. You don’t promote or claim your ideas and you harbour hostile feelings towards those that take your ideas and pass them off as their own. You now refrain from sharing your ideas and hold back your contributions in collaborative settings. Others begin to see you as disengaged and a poor team player. 

Great leaders give meaningful feedback and recognition, and while there are many great leaders, there are just as many not-so-great ones.  Are you letting someone else’s lack of leadership skill and workplace etiquette tank your attitude and consequently, your motivation and career? Remember, you teach people how to treat you, so if you have not said anything to those who take your ideas and pass them off as their own, it will more than likely keep happening. And let’s play devil’s advocate for a second here: they may not be taking your ideas with malicious intent. Instead, they may be taking your ideas and building off of them, because they too get excited about great ideas. If this is the case, you might be better positioned to understand how you can collaborate with these folks and create an alliance versus seeing them as working against you. Alternatively, they may be taking your ideas because they know you will do nothing with them.

You also need to understand if your contributions are indeed valued. Many employees work diligently on projects and tasks because the individual employee feels as though their work is important and valued, only to realize later, it is not valued elsewhere in the organization. In fact, many organization value jobs, skills, and contributions differently. If your work is not valued or valued in the way you would like, find out what work is valued within your organization and why it is valued. Do you want to do that type of work and if so, explore ways to get more of that work or at least closer to it. Create a business case outlining ideas you have about how to take advantage of your strengths, which if leveraged more effectively, could solve existing problems, increase productivity and profits, or engage your team more effectively. Or if you want to continue doing the work you are doing, find out what is valued and show how the work you do relates to that.  Failing that, you may need to consider finding an organization that values your work and contributions beyond the automatic and rote “you are an important part of the team” feedback. A “Why should I?” attitude only leads to half assed effort and poor results which may inadvertently reinforce the perceptions of others that you are not as valuable as you think and you really are just a career wallflower.