After decades in a successful career, Helen was ready to create more life balance for herself in the home stretch to retirement. She wanted to have more energy for her personal life, so she took a new position that was a step down from her prior roles. She was excited about the time that would open up by having less responsibility, yet she still felt her years of experience would be valuable to her new organization.
When she started her new job, she enjoyed a warm welcome by the team. Yet she immediately noticed a generation gap that set her apart from her new coworkers, along with a fast-paced work setting that was tough to keep up with. Still, Helen saw these differences as an opportunity. She hoped to add value by sharing her wisdom with her youthful coworkers, which came naturally to her after years of working in professional settings.
Eager to prove her value and contribute to the team, she picked up her pace and made an effort to connect with the team. Within a few weeks, she became comfortable and began pointing out areas where the organization could improve, based on her own past successes. Though her intention was to contribute her best assets to the group, her ideas seemed unwelcome.
Before long, the team began excluding her in a number of ways. They didn’t include her in meetings related to projects she was working on, stopped copying her on emails, and generally ignored or dismissed her. Helen began feeling hurt and offended by the obvious disrespect — and wondered if she made a mistake joining an organization so dominated by people at the start of their careers.
It sounded like Helen’s efforts to provide value by offering helpful suggestions was backfiring in some way, but she couldn’t get her head around why. As I listened, I had a strong sense that Helen’s suggested “improvements” probably sounded like criticism to her coworkers, and this approach would be particularly hard on a group of people who were passionate about their jobs and proud of their accomplishments. We likened it to a new house guest launching into a list of improvements you should make on a home you just custom designed.
When I shared this perspective, Helen felt it was possible that she had accidentally offended her new co-workers on several occasions. Looking back, one moment stood out because an office mate had become visibly upset when Helen suggested they move some items around “to make the space less cluttered and function more efficiently.”
With this in mind, we brainstormed on a way she could add value using a different approach. One strategy would be to initiate conversations by asking questions instead of offering advice. This inquisitive approach can take the form of asking questions about what people are working on, what they care most about, what their challenges are, how your role relates to theirs, what they believe your role is in the organization, what they most need from you, or how they believe you can make their job easier and help the team become more successful. Any of these types of questions show caring and awareness.
What Helen Did
I requested that Helen ask for feedback from her colleagues, specifically when she felt them shutting her out. She was not comfortable at all with this task as she was embarrassed and felt vulnerable. Ultimately, she was concerned that others felt she didn’t belong.
When she finally worked up the courage to broach the subject, she ended up hearing exactly what she dreaded. People shared that she appeared to be pushing beyond the scope of her duties, and was getting involved with things that weren’t really in her job description. This was painful to hear, and she was shocked to learn that some felt she was being critical and demeaning. To Helen, this whole line of thinking seemed childish when she was simply trying to relay professional improvement strategies.
From Helen’s perspective, people should want to work at the highest standards and be happy to receive information that will improve things. The idea that she should hold back on sharing helpful information just because it was outside of the direct scope of her position seemed irresponsible. And her attempts to couch her suggestions in flowery language just to make people feel less defensive seemed to take too much time and dilute the message. Plus the young people she worked with seemed to have no problem with directness – as their own communication with each other was open and efficient.
Helen couldn’t get past this until someone at work enthusiastically suggested ways to help her “fit in” more successfully and she felt completely put down and condescended to. This was an “aha” moment because Helen finally realized firsthand that, in their enthusiasm and desire to help her, they were just offering suggestions. But the result was that she felt criticized, and now she understood how others must feel when she did the same!
Helen now realized that she had been alienating others unintentionally and would need to work to change her brand from “pushy, bossy, and critical” to something that more accurately reflected her values and intentions. She was committed to finishing her career strong as someone dedicated to “service” , and used this concept to ground her thinking. She asked herself how she could best serve the organization, by finding out how she could first serve each team member within the scope of her role.
She realized she couldn’t serve people by delivering messages that were received as put downs. Yet holding back on sharing useful information to improve things didn’t seem like service either. So she worked on changing her method of giving suggestions from “this is how this should be improved” to noticing what was working well in the organization and offering her suggestion as a potential value-add, and framed as a way to achieve a goal even more effectively.
For example, as a suggestion for improving the accounts receivables process, a simple adjustment in wording can change a suggestion from coming across “pushy” to being received as “useful”.
Before: “We are waiting too long to address receivables issues, and our accounting staff is avoiding making calls. I can create a system for them to remind clients about payments before it becomes a problem, and I’d be happy to set that up and train them on it.”
Now she carefully chose phrasing that offered insight and help without pushing specific solutions onto people.
After: “I notice the accounting team seems reluctant to call clients about late bills, and that they are facing a backlog. I would be happy to share the system of automatic emails I used at my old company. It helped me catch issues early and avoid most of those awkward calls. You are welcome to use any part of my old system that you think might work for you.”
What Helen Learned and How She Grew Because of It
We all have blind spots, and a big one I see in my work as a coach, is that we don’t know how we are received by others. We typically assume that the impact of our actions with match the intention, but that is often not the case.
What Helen realized was that when she talked about process improvements, she overlooked the people who invested so much time and energy inventing the process. Her words came across to them as particularly insulting because the criticism was coming from someone who hadn’t bothered to try to understand how they got to a system, and wasn’t there before to witness the thinking or work that led them to it.
Through this experience, Helen became more aware that giving suggestions isn’t necessarily the best way to prove your value. She also realized that when people shut you out, it may not be personal, and changing your approach can make a huge difference. She learned that people weren’t leaving her out because they were “unappreciative disrespectful millennials” while she was older. They were leaving her out because her approach felt judgmental and condescending to them.
Once she began to make inroads in changing her approach, she found more and more to appreciate about her younger peers. They were smart, picked up new ideas and implemented them quickly once they saw the value. And they often were able to take some of her organizational processes and make them even more efficient due to their natural savvy with technology. That new appreciation showed up in Helen’s energy and work satisfaction, and she found herself more accepted by the group as a result.
As we gain work and life experience, it’s very natural to want to offer guidance and suggestions to others when we see an opportunity for improvement. Yet others may not want our advice – and instead prefer to solve their own problems and create positive outcomes in their work and their lives. If you put yourself in their shoes, you can usually see how well-meaning suggestions can often backfire.
By listening to others, and then mirroring what you hear you’re more prone to get someone’s attention. Then if you have a relevant story, example, or strategy that has worked for you, it’s often better received when shared as one of many possible options for them as opposed to the solution that you believe they should execute. Give it a try, and I’m sure you’ll be surprised by the results. Or if you’re already doing this successfully, feel fee to pass this strategy on!
This article was written by Heather Rice in collaboration with Nahid Casazza for coaching content.