799: The Unspoken Rules of High Performers and High Potentials with Gorick Ng

By September 12, 2022Podcasts

 

 

Gorick Ng lays out the unspoken rules and expectations of managers that explain why top performers get ahead.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three questions everyone is asking about you 
  2. The A+ way to ask for help
  3. The mentality that keeps professionals from progressing 

About Gorick

Gorick Ng is the Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a book published by Harvard Business Review Press. It is a guide to help professionals, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, take control of their careers, based on 500+ interviews with professionals across geographies, industries, and job types. Gorick is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students. He has worked in management consulting at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), investment banking at Credit Suisse, and research with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. He has been featured in The Today ShowThe New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalBuzzFeedNew York PostFast Company, and CNBC. He was named by Thinkers50 as one of 30 thinkers to watch in 2022. Gorick, a first-generation college student, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.

 Resources Mentioned

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Gorick Ng Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gorick, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Gorick Ng
Thanks so much for having me, Pete. Excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to chat with you and hear some insights from your book The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, but I think we also need to hear a little about your other career as a magician.

Gorick Ng
Well, I have the perfect storm of being awkward, shy, and introverted. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was in elementary and middle school, I picked up magic tricks after seeing David Copperfield levitate on stage on TV.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I watched that too and was sad that I couldn’t fly. My mom had to break the news to me, like, “No, it’s just an illusion. It’s not actually flying.”

Gorick Ng
I had to temper my expectations after realizing that magic tricks start off with playing cards and coins, not necessarily levitating in front of a big audience. So, it took some getting used to but I ended up spending summers upon summers at the local magic shop where I ended up interacting with strangers and often folks who were double my age, triple my age sometimes, and, in retrospect, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me because I got out of my shell.

I forced myself in a way that I actually wanted to force myself, to put myself out there, talk to strangers, and be vulnerable. I was deathly afraid of having folks see behind the tricks and know the secret. So, if you’re talking about putting yourself out there in front of an audience and having the imposter syndrome, I guess magicians face it all the time. I certainly did.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’re quite literally an imposter because you’re not actually doing the things that…

Gorick Ng
Exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
…you’re purporting to do. Well, tell me, was there a particular crowd favorite trick or illusion? I’m thinking of Gob from “Arrested Development” now. Was there a particular crowd-pleasing bit that you did frequently?

Gorick Ng
I would take a dollar bill and turn it into a 10-dollar bill.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Gorick Ng
And it’s actually one that my mom still tells people about when she pulls aside family members. She’ll say, “Well, what about that trick you showed us ten years ago?” and I thought to myself, “Oh, no, mom, let’s talk about this some other time.”

Pete Mockaitis
Are you still able to pull it off?

Gorick Ng
I’m a little rusty, I have to say. It’s been a while since I’ve picked it up but I still actually have a big cabinet full of equipment at home that I just haven’t been able to get myself to sell.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear that. Okay. Well, now let’s talk about increasing the value you can offer an employer or a business or nonprofit, etc. You have written a book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right and so I’m excited to get into some of those rules which I imagine will not be applicable only to people fresh in their careers but these rules probably apply, is it fair to say, to most professionals?

Gorick Ng
Definitely. Actually, it was a big, not debate, not argument, more of just a longstanding discussion between me and my publisher Harvard Business Review around what the subtitle of the book should even be. We had a Google Doc going, containing 20, 30, maybe 40, 50 different potential subtitles, one of which is “How to be a High Performer and High Potential at Work.” It’s a bit of a mouthful but we decided to hone in on the early-career audience.

But what I’ve realized since engaging with companies large and small, and becoming a consultant speaker at companies like GE, IBM, etc. is that what is a must for some is good for all. So, my audience now, yes, it consists of early-career professionals, but those who find my message to resonate most are actually in their mid-careers and above.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Perfect. Well, lay it on us, to start, is there a particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discovery you made while doing all these interviews to put together this book?

Gorick Ng
The biggest takeaway for me is actually a framework that I call the 3Cs, which stand for competence, commitment, and compatibility. And the idea is the minute you show up, whether it’s at a coffee chat, a client meeting, a one-on-one with your manager, etc., the people around you are sizing you up, and they’re asking themselves three questions.

Question one is, “Can you do this job well?” which is the question of, “Are you competent?” Question two is, “Are you excited to be here and to grow with us?” and that’s the question of “Are you committed?” And the third question, the final one, is, “Do we get along?” which is the question of “Are we compatible?” So, “Are you competent?” “Are you committed?” and “Are we compatible?” the 3Cs.

Your job, and frankly all of our jobs, and this includes the CEO, is to convince the people around us to answer yes to all three questions all the time. Demonstrate these 3Cs and you’ll build trust, you’ll unlock opportunity, and you’ll get closer to reaching your career goals.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that makes sense in terms of segmenting that into three handy categories. So, how do we go about demonstrating these things?

Gorick Ng
Well, the first thing is to look left, look right, and to understand the unspoken expectations around how people demonstrate these 3Cs, and it depends on the workplace. So, I’ll give you a few examples here. When it comes to demonstrating competence, for example, what I realized is there’s actually a certain song and dance that you’re expected to do in many workplaces when you have a question.

So, the C+ plus way of approaching an ambiguous situation is to, well, do what I did, which is to put my head down, put some extra effort into it, and just hope it’ll work itself out and not ask questions because I’m worried about coming across as incompetent or lazy. The B+ approach is to go to your manager or a coworker and to say, “I’m stuck. What do I do next?” which is an open-ended question.

An A+ approach is to say, “Pete, I’m struggling with this. I tried looking here and here. I couldn’t quite find the answer, so I approached my colleague Sally, and we couldn’t quite sort it out either. Shall I be taking approach A, approach B, or approach C? I’m leaning towards approach B but let me know if I’m not thinking about this the right way.”

So, what are you doing? You’re actually demonstrating a few unspoken rules, one of which is to bundle and escalate, so to do your own homework before approaching others. The next is to give others something to react to. So, instead of opening the conversation with a big broad question, you’re giving people options.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. And I remember, geez, I might’ve been in like fifth grade when I was a really judgmental fifth-grader. You’re bringing me back to my youth, Gorick, this conversation. And I remember, sometimes when they would ask the teacher for help, they just say, “I don’t get it,” and I can tell the teachers were frustrated by that too, even though teachers are often paragons of patience and they’re accustomed to having to go through something multiple times.

And I remember thinking, “You know, it just doesn’t seem like the best way to ask for help.” It feels a little bit like, I don’t know if I would use these words at the time, but almost like an abdication of responsibility. Like, “You, you fix this because it’s not working for me,” as opposed to getting a little bit more specific. It’s like, “I understand that…” I don’t even know what we’re learning in fifth grade. Igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks maybe, that’s what comes to mind.

“But what really is the difference between sedimentary and igneous?” the geologists are appalled right now, and I’m saying, “Because it would seem that they’re almost the same in that A, B, and C,” and say, ahh, that gives you a whole lot more direction, like, “Oh, yes, I can see where you’re coming from there, and I’m better able to help you given that context. And here’s the precise prescription for what your knowledge needs to be augmented with,” as opposed to, “Well, I guess I’ll just maybe say everything I said before again.”

Gorick Ng
Hundred percent. And it brings me back to a conversation that my manager had with me early on in my career. This was after I did exactly the C+ approach, which was put my head down and hide away for weeks and not show my face at all, only to come back and do the wrong work. My manager said, and I mean for those listening who…well, everyone has had that experience of going from school to work, and realizing that what we learned in school doesn’t exactly align with what we’re expected to know in the workplace.

And so, it’s part of this right of passage, my manager pulled me aside, actually slammed the conference room door behind him…

Pete Mockaitis
Dramatic.

Gorick Ng
…and said, “Look, we hired you to think. If we just hired you to blindly follow a set of instructions, your job could’ve been automated by now. There’s a reason why we hired a human being, a living breathing human being with a brain. It’s because you can solve problems. It’s because you can think critically, so think.”

It was a scary conversation. I’m chuckling at that in retrospect but it really did make a lot of sense, and it reminded me of this side of our brain that just gets turned off by school because, in school, we just have been conditioned to think that textbook has all the answers, there’s a right or wrong to everything, that professor knows best, and that just isn’t the case in the workplace where there’s very rarely a right or wrong answer. More often, there’s just a difference in values and perspectives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Cool. All right. Well, that’s a great approach right there from the get-go in terms of the A+ way of asking for help, bundle and escalate, make it clear. You tried some things, you have some options in mind, as opposed to, “I don’t get it. Fix this,” or toil away and hope that it hits the right thing. That’s high risk because it may very well not be the right thing. So, lay it on us some more unspoken rules and best practices for following them well.

Gorick Ng
A big one is to understand what matters to those who matter. So, put yourself in the shoes of the higher-ups in your team, in your department, in your organization, and ask yourself, “What goals are they trying to reach? And what pains are they trying to alleviate? What’s causing them stress? What’s wasting them time?” And look left, look right, find a swim lane. So, find something that hasn’t been done before, and occupy that swim lane because the more you understand what matters to those who matter, the more you’ll do work that matters. And the more that you do work that matters, the more you will matter.

And I have a story here, if I may, of someone who unexpectedly did this. And this is actually an individual who’s hired into a staffing company as an administrative assistant. So, the staffing company has a business model where they would place nurses into hospital jobs, and this individual was hired on a six-month contract, and her job was to simply process paperwork. And just like the dozens of people who had come before her, she would work for six months and she’d be off to something else.

She took a very different approach, and just approached her job with a different mindset, which was, “Wait a second. I didn’t just get hired to process paperwork. I got hired to help this company achieve its goals.” So, one day, after doing her work fully, accurately, and promptly, which is really the basis of competence and to show that you’re reliable, she found herself overhearing a conversation between some higher-ups, and they were complaining about how they couldn’t find enough nurses to place into these hospital jobs, at which point she thought, “Well, duh.”

This is a story from the Philippines, by the way, “The company I’m working at is relying on the telephone, on antiquated websites to hire people, when all of my friends are relying on social media to find their next jobs.” And so, she opened up her smartphone, went on to a few of these Facebook pages, and she discovered that actually many of her company’s competitors were quietly lurking in these groups, posting job opportunities, getting the word out.

And she then approached her managers and said, “Hey, maybe this is something you’ve already thought about, but I couldn’t help but notice that, actually, a lot of my friends who were coming out of nursing school are actually finding about job opportunities on social media, something that it doesn’t seem like we’re trying right now. Is this something we’ve considered?”

At which point, her manager thought, “No, this didn’t even occur to us at all. Well, why don’t you go ahead and lurk a little bit.” Fast-forward several months, and she ended up creating a social media presence for her company, ended up providing market intelligence to senior leaders, multiple layers up in the organization.

And so, one day, her manager’s manager came up to her, and said, “I know your contract is due to end. I hope you’re not going anywhere because we want you to lead marketing for our company.” And, just like that, she ended up becoming the youngest manager in her company, leading a division that hadn’t even existed before. And that was all from just seeing her job as more than just a set of tasks but rather as a set of goals to be achieved for the broader team.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And it’s so easy to let those opportunities just float away. Like, you overhear a conversation, and you’re like, “Not my problem.” You just move along, or you just say, “Duh,” and you don’t say anything, or you feel kind of nervous, it’s like, “You know, I got an idea here but I don’t know if it’s my place to say. I’m just an administrative assistant. This is a temporary contract. I’m sure they probably thought of it before.” And you can just talk yourself out of it in seconds instead of pursuing an opportunity which can be game-changing.

Gorick Ng
Oh, yeah. It’s like we’re all walking down an art gallery on a daily basis in our lives, and we’re looking at the same painting but coming to different conclusions around what this painting depicts. So, someone else in this very same situation might look at the scenario that this individual was in, and think, “Yeah, this is someone else’s problem. I’m just an administrative assistant,” to your point. But even the slightest tweak in how we see ourselves and how we fit into the big picture can make a big difference.

So, one of the things that I observe a lot, and I’m guilty of this, is I still have to remind myself to not use the word just, “So, I’m just a planning analyst” which is one way of looking at your job. But another way is to think, “Yeah, sure, I’m a planning analyst but my job is really to get stuff to the right place at the right time. And as a result of my broader mandate, I understand market demand at my company better than anybody.”

Or, if you’re working in manufacturing, for example, “I’m just a machine operator,” versus, “I create the product that makes my company’s products the best. And as a result of having this broader mandate, I know what it takes to be more lean, to be less wasteful, and to be more efficient better than anybody, including the CEO because I’m operating this machine on a daily basis.”

Or, finally, “I’m just a quality manager,” versus, “I ensure that our company’s world-class standards are upheld. And as a result of this broader mandate, I know how to identify when something is wrong and how to fix these problems better than anybody, and this, again, includes the CEO because they’re not looking at these problems on a day-to-day basis. They’re not in these spreadsheets day in, day out. I know more about this topic than anybody, and there is something that is trapped inside of my head that deserves the light of day. I’m just not giving myself credit for what I know and what could be useful.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really powerful, that notion of “I know this better than anybody” is true of perhaps the majority of workers. Like, there is a domain of knowledge that, because you’ve spent more time on it than anybody else, you’re closer to it, day after day, have thought about it than anybody else. And that creates power and opportunity which is really cool.

Gorick Ng
And it creates something that leaders want, which is an ownership mindset. I’ve spoken to over 500 professionals across geographies, industries, and job types to write this book, and the one word that I hear time and time again from leaders is, “I wish that my employees could be owners, could think like an owner, to have this ownership mindset.”

And everyone is capable of doing this. Of course, it’s a matter of self-help so it’s a matter of reframing the way that we exist in the world, but it’s also about all of us needing to help. So, we need leaders and managers to create spaces where people are rewarded for going above and beyond but it can be super simple.

So, one example that I had heard about but that, unfortunately, didn’t make it into the book because I was 40,000 words over the word limit, is of a customer service representative who worked at a quick service restaurant. So, this person was equivalent to the person who scoops up the guacamole in that assembly line.

Pete Mockaitis
Hmm, tasty.

Gorick Ng
Indeed. And this individual looked around the store and noticed that it was total mayhem outside because customers didn’t know where to line up. And so, he approached his manager and said, “Hey, maybe you’ve already thought about this but I couldn’t just help but notice that when people walk into the store, they don’t know if they’re supposed to be lining up on the left-hand side or the right-hand side, and so people are bumping into each other and getting confused and frustrated that they can’t seem to find the beginning of the line.”

“Have we thought about maybe hanging up a sign that says, ‘Start here. Pay here,’ and maybe just drawing some lines on the floor so that people know where to go?” And, just like that, the entire operations of this store ended up being improved, and, of course, this person ended up being rewarded as a result as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And you’ve used this phrase a couple times, and it’s really growing on me “Maybe you’ve already thought about this,” which says…it gives you sort of blanket absolution for any potential perception of presumption. That’s a lot of words. But you cover yourself. It’s not like, “I’m not saying you’re an idiot. I noticed this and you may have thought about it, too, and I’m just kind of curious what your thoughts here.” So, I like that.

Gorick Ng
I appreciate you picking that up because it comes back to the 3Cs framework, where it’s not a binary. It’s not a matter of “Are you competent?” versus “Are you not?” It’s actually a spectrum where it’s possible to overshoot and it’s possible to undershoot. So, overshoot this zone of competence and you come across, potentially, as a know-it-all.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “I’ve taken the liberty of getting an architectural blueprint set right up for precisely the most optimized flow.” Yeah, you’re right. In a way, it’s like, “Okay, that’s super proactive and ambitious but I’m a little weirded out and think you probably should’ve consulted me before, I don’t know, spending company money on an architect,” for example.

Gorick Ng
That’s exactly right. And one of the phrases I use a lot in my sessions is the importance of stepping up without overstepping. And that really speaks to just how delicate this balance is between showing just the right dose of competence, commitment, and compatibility without overshooting the mark and coming across as threatening or wanting to make others look bad.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, while we’re talking about specific words, and phrases, and verbiage, any other gems you’d like to share?

Gorick Ng
Well, this one will be likely familiar to those especially in the management position or in an HR function, which is the nine-box matrix. And it’s nine boxes, along the bottom are the labels low performance, medium performance, high performance. And along the edge is low potential, medium potential, high potential.

Now, folks are thinking, “Well, that’s not an unspoken rule. That’s a performance-management framework.” What I didn’t appreciate until I started doing these interviews is that it’s actually not common sense that doing your job is only part of your job. The rest is about showing that you can be trusted with more important responsibilities.

So, what does it mean to show high performance? Well, you’re reliable, you’re doing what you say you will do, you are being responsive, you are showing detail orientation, all of these basics. But what people don’t appreciate is that it’s not enough to simply put your head down, do the hard work, and hope that someone will give you credit for your hard work. You also need to show that you have potential.

So, you need to show that you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you have to have an answer and a point of view, you have to address issues ideally before they come up, you have to offer ways to make things better, and you have to be seen and heard by leadership. And so, these are the unspoken rules of getting promoted. It’s just that how we’re evaluating employees and how employees think they’re being evaluated are often night and day.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, let’s dig into committed, how you show it. And, first, I just want to…we’re talking about commitment, and I’ve just recently been reading a number of articles about quiet quitting, as it’s called, and I guess there’s multiple interpretations or definitions of this. It’s sort of like you haven’t quit but you’re sort of coasting and you’re going to do the bare minimum, and you’ve sort of quit in your heart, if you will.

And so, that’s creating a buzz in some conversations. But I’d love it if we could address the mindset or the attitude in terms of, “Well, okay, yeah, an ownership mindset would be great but I’m not an owner. I don’t have equity or stock options or performance compensation of any kind. So, yeah, I bet you’d like it if I had an ownership mindset but I don’t because I’m, in fact, not an owner, and that even seems potentially unfair for me to go above and beyond when the rewards are not in play.” I just want to let you respond to that kind of attitude or mindset.

Gorick Ng
Well, this is a good example of where leaders and employees are really talking past each other. And, actually, if I may return to the 3Cs framework because the way that we often, at least when I approach the workplace, I thought that it was all about just doing my job. And, actually, I have a quote from someone, an accountant who was new to corporate America and who thought that, “Well, is it my job just a simple matter of showing up, doing my work, and then going home? That’s what a job is, right?”

And I thought to myself, “Well, yeah.” If I think about my single mother who worked in a sewing machine factory, that was her job. You show up, you do your work, you put your head down, and you leave.” But in this increasingly knowledge-based economy in which we live, it’s hard to evaluate your outputs on a daily basis. So, you can’t just walk up to someone and see how many garments they sewed and the quality of the zipper they sewed onto that garment.

So, in the absence of, clearly, discernible outputs, we start relying on inputs. We rely on, “Well, how responsive are you in emails? How confident are you coming across in conversations? How much are you coming to the table with solutions rather than just problems? How much are you showing excitement?” I have a story of someone who worked in a cinema who thought that his job was simply to, well, collect change and give tickets to people. But he was labeled as “not a team player” because, during his breaks, he wasn’t socializing with his colleagues, and that was, in retrospect, dinging this individual’s commitment and compatibility.

And so, while he wanted to make it to be a general manager, folks didn’t see his leadership material. So, I want to come back to this idea of competence and commitment because when I speak to leaders, they care about competence and commitment. Whereas, when I speak to employees, the misnomer is that, “Well, it’s all just about competence. If I’m just doing my work, why am I not getting rewarded?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there’s a mismatch, folks talking past each other. Understood. So, in a way, there’s simply a misunderstanding on the part of the employee, that commitment is necessary. Whereas, leadership says, “Well, of course, that’s a given to us. We recognize it.” I’m thinking about more about the employees’ attitude or perspective or mindset that, “That’s just not fair or just or right or appropriate.”

Gorick Ng
Yeah, that’s a big one, and this is where we move from self-help to all of us needing to help. So, it’s one thing to lay bare these unspoken rules. It’s another to make sure that you have the structures and incentives in place to make sure that people are actually motivated to perform at this higher level. And so, when it comes to compensation, yeah, it’s hard to ask your employees to go above and beyond if you’re paying below market rates.

It’s hard to ask your sales and marketing team to make more money if all that money is going to the folks high up and they don’t see a penny of it. So, the fairness thing, I think we need to be talking more about because it’s one thing, it’s necessary but not sufficient to have expectations. You also need to make sure that folks feel excited, folks feel supported, and folks feel valued. Those are really the three essential ingredients to motivating your team versus just having a conversation with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, attitude point addressed. Now, share with us, how do we demonstrate that we’re committed?

Gorick Ng
Well, I spoke to the importance, for example, of being responsive. And, here, we rub up against also an area where folks may talk past each other, which is some organizations have this always-on culture, or this hidden expectation that if someone higher-up emails you, no matter what time of day it is, that you’d be jumping at that email and responding right away.

And if you speak to leaders, they’ll say, “Well, yeah, of course. If I asked for something, I expect you to be there.” And then if you talked to employees, they’ll say, “Well, I’m not getting paid at this hour. And just because you want to empty your inbox at 11:00 p.m. doesn’t mean that I want to be up at 11:00 p.m. answering your emails.”

So, here, there is the self-help piece and there’s also the all-of-us-need-to-help piece. So, I interviewed, for example, a superintendent at a school district who had this habit of emptying her inbox on Saturday evenings. And from her perspective, it was, “Well, I’m just trying to empty my inbox, trying to get ahead of the following week,” but in doing so, she had established the unspoken rule in her team that everyone needs to be up at that hour.

So, my message to leaders is to be mindful of your intent which I assume is positive, but, moreover, to be mindful of your impact because you know that your intent is positive but how your actions may be perceived on the other side may not be so positive, in the case of the superintendent.

When it comes to employees, it’s important, and here we come back to this idea of quiet quitting, for example, which is drawing boundaries, to use a synonym here. Often, when I speak to leaders, and why they have these requests and why they tend to micromanage, it’s not because anyone wakes up in the morning, thinking, “How can I be the worst micromanager that has walked the face of the earth?” It’s that they’re nervous. It’s that they’re anxious.

And so, as an employee, you can get ahead of this commitment C if you apply the unspoken rule of why, what, how, by when; where, whenever you’re delegated a task, it’s important to be in alignment with your manager about, “Why is this being asked of me? What’s the broader purpose behind this work? What do I need to do? What’s the deliverable exactly? Is this an email? Is this a presentation? Is this a phone call? How am I supposed to do this? So, am I supposed to find it with my friends? Am I supposed to go on Google? Am I supposed to look at our internal knowledge management system?’

And, moreover, and this is the real one, is by when. So, if my manager asks me to do something by, let’s say…well, actually, let me be clear. Most managers will just say, “Can you please look into this?” So, they won’t even give you a deadline, even though in the back of their heads, they have a deadline of, “Well, I want you to get this done by Friday.”

So, if you don’t ask and your manager doesn’t tell you, you’re going to be on completely different pages about this deadline. So, the first step is to ask, “Hey, when do you need this?” But there’s also a further unspoken rule here, which is that whenever there’s a deadline in the workplace, there’s also an unspoken earlier deadline.

So, even though this is due on Friday, maybe before I hand this deliverable to you, Pete, I need to talk to Jenny, and maybe Jenny is out on Thursday, so I actually have to talk to her on Wednesday. And before I can speak to her, I need to speak to three other people who I can only talk to on Monday. So, the deadline isn’t actually next Friday, it’s this afternoon.

And so, aligning on this ahead of time when you’re delegated an assignment can go a long way in demonstrating that you’re committed and, at the same time, draw those boundaries because you’ve already had this conversation with your manager about, “Hey, I promised to get back to you by this time. It’s not yet that time,” of course you’re not saying this but you’ve gone on to the same page that, “Hey, I will get back to you, so don’t be so nervous, don’t be so anxious about what’s really going on right now.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I think those conversations are so necessary. When you mentioned unspoken rule or expectation of the superintendent doing the Saturday night email, I think that’s one of the most powerful conversations that managers and teams can have, is, “What are our expectations associated with email or Slack messaging, etc.?” because I’ve facilitated workshops where there are just incredible lightbulbs going off, like, “Oh, my gosh, so you don’t need this right away? Like, generally, I can reply within 24 hours, and that’s fine? Wow!”

And then there’s another ball of wax associated with multitasking, switch-tasking, and the horrors it does to our attention and deep work and focus zone, flow stuff. So, that’s a whole another ball of wax. But it can be so transformational when you clear those up, and say, “Oh,” or made you learn, “Actually, yes, I do expect that,” like, “Oh, glad that I know that. I can tell you what I can and cannot do with regard to that.” When you said boundaries, how do you recommend you have those conversations?

Gorick Ng
Well, it’s to approach this as, “How can we best work together?” versus “These are all the things that I demand from you.” And this is a two-way street, this is a conversation that managers can have with their teams, and that team members can have with their managers. So, when you’re meeting your manager for the first time, my advice is to ask, “Hey, what are your biggest goals and priorities over the next week, month, quarter, year? What are the things that you’d like me to be focusing on? What are the top priorities, the have-to-dos versus the nice-to-dos?”

“And how would you like to communicate, day to day, week to week? Would you like me to send you a summary email at the end of every week? Or, would you like me to try and tack on maybe a two-minute conversation after our weekly standups?” To your point, so much of this is about making the unspoken spoken. It’s about reminding ourselves that we can’t read the other person’s mind, and so just because we don’t talk about expectations, doesn’t mean that there aren’t expectations.

And we have a choice of either guessing and probably guessing incorrectly, and having that conversation upfront. The style by which you ask is really important. It’s a matter of, “Hey, how can we best work together? How can I save you time and stress?” versus “These are all the things that I expect of you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, or that I don’t do.

Gorick Ng
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I don’t do dishes. I don’t do toilet.” Okay. And so, how about compatibility. How do we demonstrate that?

Gorick Ng
This is the toughest one because bias and discrimination are real. And so, whether we’re talking about age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, vocal pitch, introversion, extroversion, access to transportation if we’re going to a social event after work, internet connectivity, accent.

So, it’s not a level playing field when it comes to the sea of compatibility where some of us, just by who we are and the backgrounds we come from, might show up in an organization and be able to speak like and have the same conversations as those of our coworkers. Versus, someone else who might feel like an outsider and who has to work a lot harder to demonstrate that compatibility.

Let me give you an example of just how tricky and sometimes uncomfortable this sea of compatibility can be with a story that I included in the book of this individual who joined a team that had this ritual of going on pedal bar outings.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Gorick Ng
Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with pedal bars.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I live near Nashville now. There’s always the Bachelorettes on the strip. They’re going to the bars and they’re pedal…how do I say the word again? Pedal?

Gorick Ng
I think it’s a pedal bar. I have never done it myself.

Pete Mockaitis
P-E-D-A-L. Pedal bar, yes. So, they’re all pedaling on this thing. It’s just like “That cannot be safe.” That’s what I think whenever I see them, it’s like, “You all must have great insurance because I don’t know about this.”

Gorick Ng
Right. Yes. So, this individual found himself in a team where everyone liked going on pedal bar outings while wearing tie dye, actually. So, it’s a tie dye T-shirt pedal bar outing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Gorick Ng
And this individual thought, “I don’t like drinking. This whole pedal bar tie dye business, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” And so, he didn’t end up showing up at these outings. So, he politely declined every occasion, and then got to a point where he stopped getting invited altogether because his coworkers thought, “Ah, maybe you’re just not interested in hanging out with us.”

Fast-forward to the performance evaluation process, and he, like the individual I interviewed who was seen as not a team player at the cinema, well, this person also got the same feedback, which is that “You’re doing great in your job but you’re just not a team player.” At which point, he thought, “Okay, what you’re really asking me to do is to join you on these outings,” and that’s what he ended up doing.

I’m not saying conform, and we’ll come back to this, but he ended up going on these outings. And, fast-forward to the next review cycle, and his review shot up, and he ended up continuing to put himself out there, get to know his team members, and he ended up getting promoted actually in record time, multiple times, actually, in this company.

Now, we can hear this story and come to multiple conclusions. The first conclusion is, well, conform if you want to “fit in” which is one interpretation. The other interpretation is to do some self-reflection around what you hold sacred, what you’re willing to negotiate, and what you’re indifferent about. And this is a big thing that I uncovered in my research, which is different people are going to have different zones of tolerance when it comes to what they’re willing to give up for their jobs and, specifically, for the purposes of demonstrating compatibility.

So, some people will have, for example, a nontraditional name, at least within a particular context. And some people in that situation will say, “Yeah, give me a nickname. Go ahead.” Others will say, “No, I prefer that you call me by my real name, and I would prefer that you learn how to pronounce it as well.” Others will say, “You know, I’m willing to let go of my entire wardrobe and wear the slacks that you all wear and the blue and white dress shorts from a certain brand that you all wear and the loafers that you all wear.”

Others will say, “You know, I’m willing to conform to a certain degree, so to mesh with maybe your level of business casual but I’m going to show my own flare. I might show off my usual hair or I might show off jewelry that I would like to.” And no one can tell you what is the right answer. It’s really about who you are and what you value, and whether this is even an organization that you want to bend to.

And this also speaks to something else about these so-called unspoken rules, which is when you’re faced with an unspoken rule, you have three options as well. You can either follow the rules, you can either reject the rules, or you can bend the rules. So, in this case, in this particular individual’s situation, he ended up conforming to start getting promoted to management but, in the end, ended up using his managerial and leadership platform to make sure that folks coming into the organization after him didn’t have to conform in the way that he did.

So, he ended up leading diversity and inclusion initiatives, he ended up creating managerial training programs that would instill a different style of leadership in the organization, and that’s what this individual did. Not to say that we should all do it in this way, but this is one example of many of just how tricky this compatibility topic can be.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that notion of the three choices, and I actually got this question just yesterday. I was speaking at the IMF, and someone said, “What do you do if you feel like you can’t bring your full self to work because there’s a homogenous culture?” I don’t know if this person was referring to the International Monetary Fund workplace in particular or asking for a friend or whatever. So, not to put that on anyone.

And I thought that that’s a fine question, and it really made me think about, “Well, how are you defining what constitutes bringing your full self to work?” And I think you laid that up nicely in terms of, “Do you care about the loafers or the blue and white dress shirts or the pedal bar, or do you not?” And so, you might have a strong view, you might not, and you got your three options associated with reject the rules, conform to the rules, bend the rules.

And I think maybe a pre-step, if you will, the prequel to that three-part choice, is just confirming that’s really a rule because I think, for example, if it’s like we all happen to wear…I’m wearing jeans and a polo right now as we’re chatting. And so, if I was in a workplace where there are four other people wearing jeans and polos, and then a new person shows up, they might get the memo, “Oh, I’m supposed to wear jeans and polo. Like, that’s what we do here.”

And, yet, if you are engaging in those conversations openly, honestly, directly, proactively, you can mention, “Hey, you’re actually totally free to wear whatever you want. If you want to wear a death metal band T-shirt, that is completely fine here. We just all happen to coincidentally like jeans and polos, yeah.”

Gorick Ng
This is so important a conversation to have, and it has to start from the managerial leadership side. Because if we put ourselves in the shoes of, for example, the individual I interviewed, this is the typical experience of a new hire, which is you get hired, you get radio silence, you have no idea what’s expected of you on your first day, sometimes you don’t even know who your manager is, let alone where you’re supposed to show up and what you’re supposed to know.

You show up, you don’t know a soul. You go to a meeting, everyone’s talking over you or not even acknowledging that you’re the newcomer. You have questions but no one is there to help you out. You try to speak up but you have that imposter syndrome. You try again and folks don’t even acknowledge that you exist. You receive an assignment but you don’t know what to do. You have questions and don’t have anyone to go to. And then, all of a sudden, fast-forward to your performance evaluation, and you’re called an underperformer, not a team player, apathetic, not leadership material.

Now, if we just put ourselves in the shoes of the typical experience of an employee, there are just a lot of really basic things that leaders and managers can do to create a more welcoming environment. And it begins with what you just said, which is “What are the things that really matter in this job? And what are the things that we actually don’t really care about?”

But someone from the outside, if an alien from outer space were to swoop into our organization, this alien might interpret our organization as one where everyone has to be up at all hours, everyone has to wear jeans and polos, everyone has to talk a certain way, everyone has to talk about a certain set of sports and a certain set of teams in that sport, and that may not necessarily be the case.

So, being proactive about this conversation is important because that new hire, who is already feeling uncomfortable, is probably not in a position to spark this conversation themselves. You have to be the one to bring it up.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s great stuff, Gorick. Thank you. Any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Gorick Ng
As I take a step back from my research, my biggest aha moment is twofold. One, it’s that high performers and high potentials are developed, not born. And the second is that, when it comes to onboarding your employees, developing your employees, engaging your employees, and promoting your employees, all of that begins with speaking the unspoken rules.

These unspoken ways that we do things in this organization, that we might assume to be common sense but that’s often not common sense. And this is often a function of privilege, of where we grew up, of our work experience, of the communities in which we live. And deconstructing what those unspoken rules are for all can level the playing field for all of your employees.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gorick Ng
I wish this were my quote. It’s, unfortunately, not mine but it’s still my favorite, and it’s, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Gorick Ng
I’m a big fan of Erin Meyer’s work on The Culture Map. So, she maps out different working cultures across countries around the world, and then maps them out across eight scales. It helped me gain a better appreciation for this notion of cultural differences and how what may be common sense in one culture, may actually be at odds with how another culture does its work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Gorick Ng
My favorite book is Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus. It’s actually a picture book on a caterpillar who discovers his true purpose in life. And it turns out that it’s not what everyone else is pursuing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Gorick Ng
I love Instapaper. It’s a tool that allows me to save articles for offline reading, and I actually have Siri read those articles to me when I’m on runs.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Gorick Ng
I can’t say this is a habit yet but I’m definitely trying harder to block off time for the important work so that the mindset of just one more email doesn’t turn into an entire day of emails.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Gorick Ng
The takeaway that folks repeat back to me most often is the idea that it’s not enough to simply put your head down, do the hard work, and let your hard work speak for itself. You need to be seen, you need to be heard in order to be remembered. And you need to be remembered in order for you to be promoted.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gorick Ng
Best place to contact me is at my website, which is Gorick.com, that’s G-O-R-I-C-K.com. I’m also on the various social media networks, so feel free to connect with me.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gorick Ng
My call to action is to leaders, and it’s to identify one person on your team who may come across as a low-performer, someone who may appear to be apathetic or just not get it, and ask yourself, “What might they not get that I consider to be common sense?” and then reach out to them, and ask, “Hey, how are you doing?” and listen. You might be surprised by what they tell you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gorick, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in sharing and following well the unspoken rules. Keep on rocking.

Gorick Ng
Thanks so much, Pete. Appreciate your time.

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