Whenever you enter into any professional work environment, certain rules automatically apply. You are expected to understand these rules from the second you walk in the door. It is not your employer’s job to teach you about basic workplace etiquette, the duty lies with you to learn what matters to the extent you have not done so already. However, there are two especially problematic errors that may cause your downfall more so than most others. Apparent in life generally, their potential damage is amplified in the workplace, where a particular framework must be followed to maintain efficiency and the hierarchy of responsibility. Those two errors are the inability to handle criticism and the aftermath of mistakes.
Both errors are grave for different reasons. To understand why requires a basic understanding of any employment structure. In practice, each employee is a lego block part of a much bigger structure. For that structure to stand on its foundations, there must be effective communication and a delegation of responsibility. That is what ultimately creates efficiency, and efficiency is an essential element of success. To build towards success and create that efficiency, however, each lego block in the structure must strive towards that efficiency and success individually by handling his or her responsibilities and growing as an employee. The whole is the sum of all of its parts, after all. The inability to handle criticism and the wrong handling of mistakes impact this foundation by signaling that you do not fit into this structure. An inability to handle criticism signals you are not perceptive to change and progress (necessary in the always-existent quest for more efficiency), but firmly rooted to the present. This signals you are not only limiting your own potential for growth and success, but that of your employer. The mishandling of mistakes is even worse, as it signals you are not prepared to accept responsibility and effectively communicate with your co-workers and superiors in the hierarchy about bumps in the road. Bumps in the road always happen, they are part of the framework, why not tackle them directly to learn from them and bring about more efficiency in the future? Mishandling mistakes is a cognizant decision on your part to subvert your own employer for the hope that your own status remains clean.
A. Handling Criticism
It’s not easy for anybody to accept criticism in any situation, even though some people react in much better fashion in response than others. Ignoring the fact that being unable to handle criticism is a problem in any facet of your life, it is particularly problematic in the workplace. Starting out on the bottom of the totem pole, whether as an intern or junior associate, the first thing that you need to drop is your ego. Regardless of your potentially fantastic academic record, life track record, or anything else you use to prop up your self-esteem, the bottom line is you are just in the early stages of your future career. A kid in the profession that has no substantive legal experience worthy of merit. Your primary purpose is to learn and improve, to create value and show you are worthy of growing within the employment structure. The best way to demonstrate this is to simply remain silent in the moments you feel the need to defend yourself when you are receiving feedback. For example, when you receive harsh criticism over an assignment, do not try to rebut what is being said. At best, you are right but look confrontational and off-putting. At worst, you have an uncontrollable ego. This type of perception about you can quickly have you dropped. You have to remember, the reason you are there is to create value. The simplest way to create value is to incorporate the feedback you receive and grow as a lawyer. The workplace is not a place where you need to flex your mental muscles over who is right or wrong, who does that benefit? Neither your employer nor you.
The best way to handle criticism is to listen, absorb, thank the person for taking the time to provide it, and actively remind them how you will make sure that your future work will incorporate such changes. You have to remember, even though it may be criticism, it is someone’s feedback that provides you with another perspective. That is gold at any stage in life if it is made in good-faith and substantive, especially at this stage of your career. Think of every criticism you receive as a learning experience, and use it to make yourself a better intern or junior associate. That is the mentality that creates efficiency and success, both for your own personal career growth and that expected by your employer.
B. Mishandling Mistakes
Whenever you are responsible for a mistake, there is only one way to react: immediately do whatever is necessary to fix it before it becomes a problem and if this is not possible, alert whoever is able to help get everything under control. That brings respect and breeds confidence, even if what brought about these qualities was brought about by your hands. Don’t even think about hiding the ball because you think it might be traced back to you. Someone will have to take the hit for it if it is not handled, and these things will almost always come back around or worse, be directly discovered. In addition, to the extent you are thinking of ways to dodge responsibility, that time is being taken away from reacting appropriately and handling the matter. Nobody likes to be involved with people that cannot handle problems, and it will not go well for your own future growth within the profession if you are unable to figure out how to approach problems directly and get to the bottom of a necessary solution. There are always going to be problems, do not contribute to something greater in the future by collecting the dust little by little. Unlike the criticism error, if this is discovered this is highly likely to result in potential termination. If there is one thing you have in this profession, or any other for that matter, it is your reputation. Something so simple, often over the smallest of problems, can destroy that reputation. There’s really no way to win.