Questions of Balance

You need to know when to push hard and when to hold back

Photograph by Getty Images/Imagezoo

You are a highly skilled worker. You are experienced. You are motivated. You want to accomplish things in your job, now. So you push a bit and then you start to worry that you are getting too impatient with your co-workers.

Leadership is largely about having the drive to produce results. But when should you dial up that drive? And when should you dial it down?

Dial up/dial down is an increasingly important issue for seasoned workers who are trying to stay relevant at a time when technology is transforming the workplace. "There is an insecurity about being invisible to younger workers," says Katherine Crowley, vice president, K Squared Enterprises, a psychotherapist who specializes in difficult work conditions. "The anxiety can push you to prove your worth and your value. That can create over-sharing, and pushing to help your effort may be viewed as steamrolling. You really have to find a balance."

For midlifers, the economic downturn of 2008 was "the great leveler," says Crowley. "And things are not going to return to where they were." Seasoned professionals must learn to work in a world dominated by younger workers, who often have fewer skills and less experience.

"I had to keep biting my tongue when someone proposed an idea that everyone thought was a new innovation and really it was an old idea that failed," says a top-level web site developer about his years at cutting-edge startups. It was hard to tamp down his skepticism, but it's a skill you may need to master at midlife. Remember, you put yourself on a slippery slope as soon as you offer opinions that were not asked for.

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"You want to project an image of confidence. But you do not want to be someone who is self-important and overbearing," says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of career advisory iRelaunch. It's a balancing act, and the group she advises – professional women returning to work after career breaks – is often sitting on the other end of the teeter-totter: They need to dial it up, not down. Sometimes she counsels them to "fake it a bit," Cohen says. "You need to project confidence. Even if you might not feel it at first, the more you show it, the more your inner confidence will grow."

Even those who never left their jobs feel the pressure to stay relevant. The transformation of the workplace that is being fueled by technology makes career paths more slippery than ever. Pushing too hard can end in frustration, or worse, in being marginalized. Here are guidelines from the experts on how to put some "traction control" into your career drive:

For job searches…

Find out exactly what skills and experience the job recruiter is seeking. Digital screening of thousands of applicants for each opening makes hiring managers picky. So don't spin. Listen — even if your skills are better than the job requires. Say you're an air traffic controller who stays cool under pressure. Find out exactly how the new job is like your old one landing planes, then explain its relevance precisely.

Don't unpack your entire experience at every opportunity. Once you've figured out the job specs, there is no need to unload your entire glittery resume. It's up to you to make your experience fit the opening. "Uncover the greatest challenge your interviewer is facing right now," says Crowley. "Let that be your guide."

For building real confidence…

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Whether you are in a job or searching for one, work on your personal pitch. You know what you want to do, whether it's landing a new job, leading a project or navigating a changing role. Reach out to colleagues, friends and family who will share your enthusiasm. "When you get in touch with your old colleagues they will have a frozen-in-time view of you," says Cohen. What's good about that? "They remember your accomplishments. They won't be focusing on the diminished skills you think you have. It can be a real confidence boost."

Build skills and knowledge and interact with practitioners. The first part is fairly obvious. Stay current on tech skills and industry developments. But it's important to find ways to talk with people in the trade. That way, when you do need to speak up in an interview or presentation, you will use the right language.

For connecting with younger co-workers…

Keep an open mind about what you can learn. That computer nerd sitting in the next cubicle might be delighted to teach you how he created the cool Java applet on the company web site. "Young workers will have skills you don't. Your job is to enroll them in being interested in using the skills in working together to solve problems — instead of acting like you know more than they do," says Crowley.

Be vulnerable enough to ask questions. "Be sensitive about timing when you need an explanation, and maybe you can give the junior person career or life advice. There's room for give and take," says Cohen.

Don't overpower people with your enthusiasm — or pessimism. "You might know on the basis of past experience that some things might be doomed to failure. You have to be careful how you present that," says Crowley.

Younger workers are more concerned about work-life balance, while you might be at a life stage that allows you to spend more time in the office. "Don't assume they don't care about the work. There are different ways of being passionate," says Crowley. "You can't take it personally if your co-workers don't see the inherent value of your idea, regardless of how right you might be. Sometimes you just might have to be ready to start dialing down your expectations."

Tags: career

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