Today’s blog post is an adaptation of a talk I gave at PuppetConf 2014 in San Francisco.
We all want to get credit for our hard work.
Have you ever worked really hard on a project and felt like you didn’t get the recognition you deserved?
It has happened to all of us before…
What ever happened to merit?
When I first started my career, I worked on a project with 4 other people – and I wanted to knock the ball out of the park in my first job. I worked nights and weekends, and put everything I could into contributing as much as possible. I wanted to shine. And when we finally shipped our feature, I was proud. I had done an awesome job.
So you can imagine my surprise that at our launch party, the GM stood up and said “I would like to recognize Josh, and his team for their hard work.”
I stood there stunned, thinking WTF?! How was it that the GM was so out of touch with the team? Didn’t our manager look at the checkins and the bugs being resolved? How did Josh, who had probably contributed the second least amount to the project, end up being the only person singled out from the group? Not me who had written the most lines of code and implemented the most functionality; not the most senior person on the project; but the guy who seemed to spend a lot of time talking to my boss and going to meetings.
This was the first time in my career when I realized that hard work and effort doesn’t always correlate to recognition and success.
Every time I tell this story, people nod their heads. So many of us have been there.
We work hard, doing our very best to get things done on time, but somehow we get passed over – in favor of someone else whom we honestly believe didn’t contribute as much.
What happened to merit and being recognized for a job well done?
Why don’t managers know?
Fast forward to the future, and after 10 years managing software teams I finally understand what happened to merit. When you manage a team of smart people (which you are), there is no scalable way to judge their performance without resorting to micromanagement.
And even micromanagement doesn’t really work.
You can’t judge people by the amount of hours they are in the office. You can’t judge them by how many lines of code they write. And you can’t even judge them on the tasks they complete (would you ever want to penalize a great employee because they made a mistake or got stuck on a problem?).
Even if you decided to judge them on raw output, how would you take into account the many factors that make great employees so great, like that they help other people, interview candidates, bring the great ideas and innovative solutions, or just have the best attitude? You can’t measure that or put it on a spreadsheet.
The reality is, performance at work is subjective because there is no scalable, measurable way for it to be otherwise. When it comes to doing work like coding, operations, or other knowledge work, every day is different. Some days you get a lot done, and some days you get less done. Some days you have an amazing, innovative idea to lead the team to greatness, and other days you are just cranking through your to-do list.
And so to give people autonomy without micromanaging the details, you give them the freedom to be awesome overall without you watching over their shoulder all day every day trying to add up the good and bad things that they do.
But this autonomy comes at a price.
The better you are at your job, the more autonomy you have. But that also means your manager knows even less about what you do all day.
How do you get your contributions noticed if there is no good managerial way to measure your performance?
It all comes down to TRUST.
Trust is like money – it is your currency at work. Your manager trusts you and in return you get more responsibility, more independence, and more influence. They know that they can give you a job and it will get done. They can trust that if there is a problem you will proactively communicate it. Your manager is investing their money in you, and when they see returns on that investment, they are quite pleased.
Of course all of this trust and success is contingent on building a great relationship with your boss based on authenticity, consistency, and hard work, so they know you’ll spend their money wisely.
Would you give money to someone who you’d never met? No. You’re much more likely to invest in someone who has a proven track record of not just paying back the investment, but making the people who invest in them rich. And so is your boss.
So ask yourself, are you a worthwhile investment?
Does your boss trust you?
Does your team and your peers trust you?
Have you done a good job to earn their trust?
If you want to be successful and you want to get noticed, you have to build trust.
How do you build trust?
Trust is made up of 3 components: your contribution, your reputation, and your relationship architecture.
This is what you do. Do you work hard? What are you bringing to the table?
If you aren’t adding value to your team, it won’t matter how much people like you because they won’t see you as important.
This facet of trust is easy to understand. Just think about your teammates – if you really needed to get something done, who would you ask? Your answer is the person you trust, the person who always comes through and makes solid contributions. They are responsible, dependable, and valuable.
How can you contribute more?
There are lots of ways you can level up your contribution. You can make sure you do work that matters. You can look for opportunities to do more.
This was an important lesson for me. When I got my first performance review I expected an exceptional rating – and I was shocked when I didn’t get it. I had done everything that was asked of me; my work was always done ahead of time and it was top notch.
When we were discussing my review my manager told me that it wasn’t enough. He said, “Doing a great job is why we pay you. If you want to be exceptional, you have to do more than what is asked. You need to look for gaps and figure out how to fill them. And the more important the gap, the greater impact it has on the team, product or company, well, the more successful you can become.”
That was great advice and I pretty much had nothing but exceptional ratings since I implemented that strategy.
If you want to do more, you can. And if you aren’t sure where you can do more, ask.
If you are doing the work well, then the next most important part of trust is how people feel about you. When you come to work, are you someone people want to work alongside? Or are you someone that is “a challenge”? The way people perceive you will impact your relationships, and therefore it will also affect how much you are trusted.
Just think about your favorite coworker.
What makes them great?
What do they do differently than everyone else?
When you go to them with a problem, how do they make you feel?
Are there things you could be doing differently to be a better teammate?
You want your reputation to be as someone great who is collaborating, who makes everyone else smarter when they are around. You want to be a person that is fun and pleasant.
How are you showing up to work each day? Are you bringing positivity or are you always stressed out?
Being a great teammate also means being open to new ideas. As technologists, we are taught to focus on bottlenecks, flaws, and risks. The better we are at identifying these challenges, the better we do our jobs. However, that same approach applied to new ideas isn’t very effective.
I used to be the person who could tell you all the problems with your great idea. I could point out all the risks, the steep costs, and the potential roadblocks. Instead of people thanking me for my great insights, though, it just made people not want to share their thoughts when I was around.
Ideas are very precious, and you need to be a “Yes, and…” person. Help people make things happen.
Your relationship architecture
This is the samurai part of trust. This is where you get intentional about your relationships, because they aren’t all created equal.
Trust isn’t just based on the relationship between two people. Trust is like a graph, and every relationship you have at work is part of the graph. And each relationship matters. Just think about it … as a manager if I am very fond of you, but other people I trust hold negative opinions about you, it doesn’t matter how much I like you – I am going to assume these people know something I don’t and it is going to affect my opinion of you.
And of course the more I know that person and the more I trust them, the more their opinion is going to affect my relationship with you.
How do the people that you work with — and the people that *they* work with — this of you?
All of your relationships at work make up your relationship architecture.
To think about yours, I want you to make 2 lists.
In the first list, I want you to put the most important people at work. The ones that get promoted, are constantly recognized by others, or have risen up the corporate ladder.
In the second list, write down the people you have the closest relationships with – the ones you eat lunch with, and the ones you ask to go to coffee.
Are they the same people? If they aren’t, then your relationships architecture could be improved.
The important people at your work are going places. They are going to be the really successful ones 5 or 10 years in the future. And if they are important now, chances are they are only going to become more important as time goes on. Wouldn’t you want them in your corner if they were asked for a reference for you?
Get deliberate about your relationships and align yourself with the superstars. You are the average of your five closest friends, so make sure they are amazing.
Trust can make you amazing. Will you cultivate it?
Relationships, your reputation, and what you contribute all factor in to trust, and trust is the key to your success. If you want to be recognized and to get credit for all you do, focus on building trust.
As I learned, way back at the beginning of this talk, success isn’t just about who writes the most lines of code or who spends the longest hours working in the office. It’s also about who understands the power of trust and how to operate successfully within the framework that exists in every team and company.
I want you to get credit for all the amazing work for you. And I know you do too. But when you pursue trust — instead of chasing public credit or exceptional performance review ratings — you’ll find that credit and exceptional ratings come along with trust. And the more trust you build, the more you get.