This post is part of a series on Leveling Up.  If you are new to this blog, you may want to start with this post on finding your path.

Why aren’t you leveling up now?

Most of us spend our days working 40 (or more) hours per week.  And no one goes to work with the intention to do a bad job.  However, not all of us are seen or recognized as top performers on our teams.  Why is that?  If you want to do a great job then why are you not able to achieve that goal?

Typically, I have seen people fall into a handful traps when it comes to their work performance:

  • They don’t have the skills to the job (in which case they should probably find a new job or work a lot of extra hours to get up to speed before they get fired)
  • They are lazy or unmotivated and aren’t doing the work (give yourself a kick in the ass, and if you still need motivation this article on finding your flow and motivation may help)
  • They are doing the work, but no one is noticing
  • They are doing their work, but aren’t moving up because of something unrelated to the work (their attitude, relationships with coworkers, etc.)
  • They think they are doing the work, but aren’t really because they don’t understand the expectations

And there are more of course, but I am going to focus on the last several for this article.  These are the ones where the person can actually rectify their situation because they have the skills to do the work, and the willingness to work hard and get things done.

There may be several reasons impacting your career trajectory, so here are some tips and ideas to help you address the many probable causes for your stalemate.action is the foundational key to all success - pablo picasso quote


Understand expectations

More often than not, people work on what they think is important.  This could be because the work is interesting, or maybe they haven’t spent the time to really understand the desires and requirements of their boss or organization.

Do you know what is required to be successful in your role? What are the 3 tasks that are critical to your success?

Most people may have some idea, but often their boss’ idea is very different.  You need to be the CEO of your job.  This means that you need to know the definition of success – for you, and for your team and company.  Identifying these for your current and potential roles is key because it helps you prioritize your time and choose the areas to focus and develop your skills.

And when it comes to writing code, knowing what you should cut corners on, versus build the best, scalable solution is important to making the right tradeoffs with your time.  And it is so hard to know sometimes without asking.  Next time you have a one-on-one meeting with your boss here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • What is the most important project or goal for our team now?
  • I am working on projects A, B, C – are those the right set of projects?
  • If I wanted to more than what is assigned to me, are there any projects or initiatives I should consider?
  • Who is an example of someone successful? What skills or traits did they have they I could improve upon?
  • What are 2-3 things I could do now to improve my job performance?

You can also do mini-post mortems after projects are completed to help understand where you could have improved or done better.  These are great ways to leverage your manager and make sure that you are working on the right things.

Does your boss know what you do all day?

Very often I have someone come to me in a 1:1 and are perplexed that I am disappointed with his or her progress on a project.  Of course, sometimes this comes down to not understanding expectations are prioritizing work incorrectly (see the above section to deal with those causes).  And other times it has to deal with the fact they are just working on stuff that isn’t clear, visible, or apparent – and they are not communicating it to me.

For example, have you ever spend the whole day trying to debug a thorny issue?  Or maybe one of your coworkers asked for help and the next thing you know it is 5pm and you made no progress on your project.

These things happen to all of us, and I think most managers are understanding of these things (and if your manager is not, then know this and prioritize your time to their priorities), however the key part of that understanding comes from strong and proactive communication.  If you work on things that are in the background, or not on the critical path, take the time to make sure your boss knows and understands your whole contribution.

This can be done with a simple note letting them know that something has taken longer, or delayed your progress (although it is also wise to include a note on the impact of your other work).  Or if you do scrum you can bring it up there (assuming your boss is there), or even in status reports.

I would just advise that the sooner the better, so if the boss doesn’t agree with the way you are prioritizing (for example helping someone that should not need that much help – or should be asking someone else) then they have the chance to interject and help steer your in the right direction.

The most important thing is that you actually take the time at some point each week to communicate your contributions and time.  Don’t assume that your manager will just know.

Are you doing enough?

Often times a person assumes that just doing the work that is assigned to them is enough to get promoted or recognized.  However, unlike school where just doing the homework correctly was enough to get an A, just doing the work is probably average in most organizations.  In fact, just doing the work is why you get paid.

If you want be the best you can at your job, you need to do more than what is asked of you.  This means understanding the expectations as mentioned earlier, but also looking for ways to improve or help the team and company.

You can do this by taking on extra important projects that others may not have time to complete (just make sure that they align with the priorities of the team and organization), or even by just working really well with others and adding something to the team dynamic and culture (for example if you are spending all your extra time getting your work done earlier – which most bosses love and appreciate).

Taking on extra projects is a great avenue to build news skills, and also a way to potentially contribute to other parts of the technology and systems you don’t normally encounter.  Just know that people don’t move up by doing what they are told to do, the people that rise to the top are the ones that are filling the holes in the organization and contributing at a larger level than everyone else.

Do people like working with you?

I have written a blog post before on being a great teammate, but you wouldn’t believe the several people who are help back in their career because of their bad attitude and inability to work well with others.  To achieve a high level of success you it is necessary to be a strong part of a part of a team, not just a solid individual contributor.

  • How often do you put the interests of your team and company ahead of your own?
  • Do you do things for others with no expectation of something in return?
  • Do people ask you for help?  And when they do ask, do you make an effort to make them feel inspired and encouraged (or do you make them feel uncomfortable for asking a question and inconveniencing you)?
  • Do you talk too much and notice that others avoid you?
  • When people bring up new ideas, do you focus on the flaws or issues with the suggestion?
  • Are you open to hearing (and being convinced of) different points of view?
  • Do you speak up and voice dissent even if it is not the popular or easy thing to do?  (Obvious do this with the right timing and tact.  But doing the right thing is always a reward in itself – both for the organization, but also psychologically in the short run and professionally in the long run.)

Think through these questions and see if any of them (or perhaps some others) could be used to describe you.  If so, your attitude and the way you conduct yourself at work is likely holding you back.

The first step to overcoming this major hurdle is to recognize that it is an issue and start making steps to repair working relationships.  So much of this is all about the golden rule – treating others like you want to be treated.

Here are some tips that may help:

Become vulnerable, and be authentic.

We all make mistakes, and at work especially, many people are reluctant to admit responsibility for failures or mistakes.  Part of this reluctance may come from fear of retribution, or even just the unwillingness to admit that they didn’t meet their own expectations.  However, learning to accept feedback and mistakes is very powerful.  Besides the relief of being real and authentic, it can also improve relationships and interactions with others.

Listen more than your speak.

Make sure you are paying attention to others.  Be present in the conversation and meeting and really try to hear what the other person is saying.  Ask good questions and repeat back what you hear to make sure you really understand.  Be open to alternative viewpoints, and the simple fact that you could be wrong.  Make others feel heard.

Focus on influence not authority.

I can’t count the number of times someone has sought a promotion or position so they could tell people what to do.  Great leaders don’t get results through demands or exercising authority, but through helping people realize and understand the best approach for the organization.  If you don’t feel respected a promotion won’t help, you have to earn respect and trust through working collaboratively and adding value to others.

Be positive and a team player.

As engineers we have learned to focus on flaws – the bottlenecks in the system, or the errors in the code.  And as a result I feel like this perspective can carry over into our personality and our lives.  To be the type of person that others want work work alongside, you need to learn to be optimistic and see opportunity instead of failure.  Exude positive, can-do energy and it will be contagious.  And of course, everyone wants to work with someone who makes them feel good about themselves, and inspires them to do their best – why can’t that person be you?

Of course there are many more and what will work for you depends a lot on your areas of improvement.  Just remember that the first step to taking your career to the next level is to really rock your current job.  In order to move up and do more, you have to be able to ace what you are doing now.


If you have other suggestions or ideas, please leave them in the comments – I know there are probably many more ways to be even better at your current role.


Good luck!

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