The Seasoned Employee Skill Set: 10 Things Experienced Employees Know That Make Life So Much Better

Being a great employee isn't just about doing the work. It's about doing the work and navigating the minefield of leader, coworker and patient needs. Ironically, for most people this all comes together about the time you retire. Wouldn't it have been nice to have that information at the beginning of your career instead?

In my latest book, The Great Employee Handbook: Making Work and Life Better (Fire Starter Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9828503-3-6, $28.00), I share some of the wisdom I've learned from working with thousands of employees at every level. I find the issues most people struggle with have little to do with their ability to do the work. It's all the things that happen around the work.

Whether we work in healthcare or some other industry, how successful we are in the workplace is about how good we are at keeping projects moving. It's about whether we make life easier for our coworkers or more difficult. It's about how well we can read and respond to patients' or customers’ unspoken needs.

When we're more effective at work, everything changes. Leaders value us and set us up for success. Coworkers like us and want to help us. Patients and their families like us, cooperate with us, and tell others that we’re outstanding care providers. All of these conditions work together to make us happy on the job — and when we're happy on the job, we're happy at home.

Here are ten secrets seasoned employees know — secrets that anyone of any experience level can use to their advantage, to improve their performance and contribute to the overall performance of their organization.

1. In the leader's mind, the ball is always in your court. Once the leader gives you an assignment, she may mentally mark it off her to-do list. She may even forget about it. It's up to you to do what you need to do to move it forward quickly. Never let yourself be the hold-up. Check in with the leader regularly on the project so that she doesn't have to bring it up. If you hit a roadblock and can’t proceed until you get more information, let her know — just be sure you’re not procrastinating.

Sometimes people let a few missing details hold an entire project hostage. I find it's always better to complete chunks of work and fill in the missing details later. This is good for your workflow but it also reassures the leader that you're doing the best you can to keep the project moving. It relieves a lot of anxiety for her.

2. Park Ranger Leadership is exhausting and ineffective. When you bring a leader a problem, always bring a solution. Leaders are like the rest of us: overloaded and overwhelmed. Yet, despite your leader’s already massive to-do list, employees habitually add their problems to his pile. This "the-boss-will-figure-it-all-out" mentality is Park Ranger Leadership — and it's the least effective way to get things done.

Think about it this way: If every time you got lost in the woods, a park ranger showed up to lead you out, you'd never learn to find the way out yourself. That's what many leaders do, and it creates a situation where employees stop trying to solve problems. They think: Someone up there has always figured it out before, so they will this time, too. But that's hard on the leaders and it’s limiting for the company.

3. There is one thing your leader cares about more than anything else. Figure it out and act on it. When you know what matters most to the leader — what her what is — then you can laser-focus on meeting her needs in this area. Let's say you’ve noticed negativity drives her crazy. She just can't stand griping and complaining. It puts her in a bad mood and makes her want to hide out in her office. Once you realize this, you can make an effort to frame your communications with her in a positive way.
This is not sucking up, and it's not a self-serving exercise. It's just being aware of your own behavior and tweaking it to create a productive working relationship with the leader.

4. Knowing the why makes all the difference. If you're not sure what it is, ask. Let's say your organization implements a major change in the way you capture and process customer feedback. No one likes the new system. It's harder and more time consuming than the old way, and you've noticed your coworkers seem resentful. The problem is that no one told them why the system changed.
When organizations implement change, there's almost always a reason why. But leaders may not always explain that reason, and people almost always assume the worst. Instead of getting behind what seems like an arbitrary new rule, they resist it.
If this happens at your company, ask about the why. You can tell others what you find out. Not every company understands the value of transparency, but sometimes one employee taking the initiative to ask why can change that.

5. There's no substitute for being liked.
Do you greet people with a smile each morning? Do you bring breakfast for everyone once in a while? Do you say happy birthday? Do you offer to take their trash when you're taking yours out? Do you congratulate coworkers when they have a big win?

Go out of your way to make people happy when you can and they'll forgive you when you make a mistake. These things are not that hard to do; it's just that we don’t always think to do them. When you start looking for ways to be a positive force in your coworkers' lives, you'll be amazed by how many there are — and what a difference they make.

6. Last-minute requests can derail your day. Retrain chronic offenders. Being a great employee means executing well, meeting deadlines, and, in general, protecting your own "brand." Yet, it also means stepping in and helping others when they need your expertise. It's not always easy to walk the tightrope between these two realities — especially when coworkers are constantly asking you for "five minutes of your time" (which really means 30 minutes or even longer).

When you're good at what you do, everyone wants a piece of you. That's good, but it can also lead others to take advantage of you, even if they don't mean to. If you don't stop last-minute requesters, your own work will eventually suffer.

Hold up the mirror and recognize your role in the problem. What we permit we promote. Usually, people find they need to be more open with coworkers about how long a task takes and how much notice is needed to get it done. When you educate others, you not only relieve your own burden; you help them do their work better.

7. It's best to resolve coworker issues one-on-one. (Just like in kindergarten, no one respects a tattletale!) This is a tough one for many employees, because we tend to avoid confrontation. Yet taking a conflict to a leader, who then must discuss it with her leader, who may then have to get an HR rep involved, is time consuming and unproductive.

I'm not saying there aren't times when it’s best to go through official channels and involve Human Resources. Certainly, there are. Yet many times an issue with a coworker can be solved with a face-to-face adult conversation. Confronting others may not always be easy, but it's a necessary part of clear and productive communication. It builds healthy work relationships and shows a true sense of ownership.

8. "I'm sorry" are two of the most powerful words in the English language. We all make mistakes. It's what we do afterward — after we’ve dropped the ball or missed a deadline or got caught in the act of gossiping about a coworker — that truly determines our character as employees and coworkers. And it’s what ultimately determines whether the people we work with want to help us out…or want to help us out the door.

Apologizing shows one's vulnerability, and vulnerability is a powerful trait. People fear they'll be rejected if they show weakness or admit that they failed. The opposite is true. It actually makes people like us. It shows we’re human, just like them.

9. “A little bit extra” goes a long way with patients. Often, it's the little things that keep us coming back to our favorite stores, restaurants, physicians, or other businesses. The best employees know that doing a little bit extra for customers gets powerful results. They take it upon themselves to go the extra mile, without being asked to do so or without worrying that it’s not in their job description.

I used to work at a hospital where the cafeteria cashier, a woman named Sig Jones, would actually take ER patients' clothes home with her and wash them and return them the next day. She got real joy and fulfillment from serving others. Patients loved her, and they associated her kindness with the hospital she worked for.

10. Complaints are gifts.
Handle them right and patient loyalty will skyrocket. Great employees don't get defensive when patients complain. They know they're hearing valuable feedback that can help the organization improve its service. They listen, they sincerely apologize, and they take action to make things right. Most patients are quite forgiving in the face of such a response — and they're usually so impressed that they not only return, they recommend it to others.

I’ve worked with all kinds of employees at all levels of leadership over the years, and I’ve realized most people sincerely want to do a great job. It’s just that they don’t always know how.

If organizations say to people, “Here’s how you can do the best job possible and be a lot happier in the workplace,” they’ll see amazing progress. Most people already have the will. Once they have the skill also, they’ll be unstoppable.

Quint Studer is the founder of Studer Group. A recipient of the 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, Studer Group implements evidence-based leadership systems that help clients attain and sustain outstanding results. The Great Employee Handbook is Studer’s sixth book. Others include Wall Street Journal bestseller Results That Last and BusinessWeek bestseller Hardwiring Excellence.

More Articles Featuring Studer Group:

Bridging the Gap Between Fee-for-Service and Value-Based Care Starts With Physician Feedback
EMR Implementation: An Opportunity To Strengthen Physician Relationships
Assessing Leadership in the New Era of Healthcare Delivery: 5 Key Questions to Ask

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