If you’ve been in the professional world long enough, you’ve had a not-so-stellar annual review. You were probably told that you need to improve your work performance without a clear direction of what that means. Sure, you can improve your work performance by just getting more done. But that’s not the most effective way.
In order to meaningfully improve your work performance, you need to improve a lot of skill sets that are not specific to your job.
Take a look at some of the great leaders that have led organizations to massive success – Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. Whoever you look up to professionally.
They have mastered professional skills beyond those specific to their industry or organization. These skills are used to inspire and motivate others to get things done on their behalf.
Regardless of whether you have direct reports or you’re an individual contributor, mastering these skills will greatly improve your work performance and bring you success.
You don’t need to have direct reports to be a great leader in your company. And you don’t need direct reports to be successful. You just need to lead the company to success.
Once you accomplish that, you’ll quickly find your career on an upward trajectory.
So, let’s discuss these qualities.
1. Be Proactive
Proactivity is the key quality that differentiates the employees that move quickly in their career versus ones that see their career stagnate.
Being proactive means that you are self-initiated and change-oriented.
Make things happen, don’t wait for them to happen to you.
Proactive employees are the ones that seem to have everything under control all the time.
Reflect on how your work.
- Do you do exhaustive research for your decisions and projects?
- Do you think through all possible angles prior to providing a recommendation?
- When a decision is changed, do you adapt quickly?
These are areas that you want to improve on in order to demonstrate your value.
Proactive employees are provided more independence by management. This is because they have built trust through their proactiveness.
How often do you go to your management to ask how to do something or which direction to head?
The reason proactive employees don’t require as much management is not that they know more than their managers (necessarily), but because they are trusted to do the research and find the right information to make an educated decision.
Employees that require less direct management are freeing up company resources (managers’ time) that can be deployed elsewhere.
You will not become proactive overnight or receive full trust from management. Proactivity takes time to master and develop, and demonstrating success from proactivity takes even more time.
But improving your proactivity over time will be invaluable for your career.
2. Be Accountable
Being accountable means owning everything in your world.
True accountability is often difficult to find in the professional world.
Even in upper levels of management, there are many individuals that do not take responsibility for their part in the failure. In fact, only 35% of managers and only 30% of employees are even engaged in their work.
So, it is not surprising that there are so professionals quick to cast blame and lack any accountability for their actions. They aren’t engaged in their work at all.
Don’t be one of those people.
Be honest with your mistakes and take ownership of them, loudly.
People are scared to openly admit “I messed this up”, especially in front of leadership. But taking accountability for it, loudly, DOES earn respect.
Because once you have taken accountability for a mistake, you take responsibility for fixing it.
You shift the organization’s focus from the past to the future. People re-focus on the objectives. Leadership wants this.
True leaders shine during their failures, not during their success.
3. Set Realistic Goals and Expectations, and Meet (or Exceed) Them
Goal setting at work is incredibly important.
Does your organization have annual goals? Quarterly goals?
I would be surprised if they didn’t.
That is because research on goal setting is pretty robust. Goal setting works.
So when your organization asks you to set your goals, don’t roll your eyes as most people do.
Setting goals is your opportunity to clearly document what YOU will accomplish in order to drive the business towards its strategic objectives.
Whether you are formally setting your annual goals or working to help flush out a timeline, make sure you always set realistic expectations.
But, you should always have a “stretch goal” in your mind. A more aggressive goal than the one you share with the organization.
Work towards your stretch goals, but communicate realistic goals that you are confident you will be able to achieve. Make sure your realistic goals will still lead the business to its strategic objectives in the timeframe needed.
Even if you only hit your stretch goal 20% of the time, that is exceeding business objectives 20% of the time… which is huge.
If your organization is pushing you towards unrealistic goals, you need to be loud about it with clear evidence of why that goal is not realistic.
Don’t just say “I can’t do that so quickly” but say “I can’t do that so quickly because of X. But, if we do Y in Z timeframe then we will be in a good position for success or to achieve X”.
Be proactive. Offer an alternative, realistic goal and communicate why that goal is still a good goal for the business.
4. Have a Plan
A subset of proactivity and achieving goals is working with a plan.
Whether you are leading a project team to a certain objective, or you are just managing your own work, you should have a plan in place.
A plan includes a list of actions for you (or others) that need to be taken in order to achieve a goal. A plan should have clear timelines and ownership for every action item assigned. There should be no confusion about who owns what in a plan.
Having a plan will also help you understand what resources you need in order to achieve your goals.
- Will you need help from another team member or function?
- Have you allocated enough time to achieve the goal?
- Have you taken into account all the dependencies between action items in order to achieve a goal?
A plan will help you answer all of these questions.
Nothing ever goes according to plan, and obstacles always arise. So try to incorporate flexibility into your plan. Don’t put “best case timelines” associated with each action item, you will just set yourself up for failure. Make sure you account for unknowns and potential challenges as best as you can.
Once you have a plan in place and are working to it, make sure you regularly re-evaluate your plan to make sure it is still applicable and you are making progress towards your goal.
5. Communicate Effectively
Unless you own a business with no vendors, employees, or customers…you are working with someone.
That is why communication is so incredibly important and why the best employees are typically ones that communicate most effectively.
- Do you speak too fast?
- Do you find yourself lost in your own words?
- Are you terrible at public speaking?
- Do you ramble?
- Are your words often misunderstood?
We’ve all been there.
The best way to improve your communication is to read and implement those skills in your everyday life.
Yes, all of my posts tell you to read. It is SO damn important.
The best way to learn to communicate effectively is to do learn from people that know-how.
If you are just starting to work on your communication skills, I highly recommend you start with “How to Make Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. (affiliate link)
It is an absolute classic in communication books. It is easy to read and easy to implement.
Communicating these days is also not just about speaking with people, but digital communication as well. So make sure you learn about business email etiquette as well.
6. Prioritize Your Work
Once you have set your goal and are aware of the business’ goals, prioritizing your work should be fairly straightforward.
The majority of your time should be spent, and divided accordingly, towards achieving these objectives.
So be clear with your time and don’t take on too much outside of your defined goals.
Being proactive is NOT about doing everything you are asked to do.
If you find yourself spending too much time on work that is not aligned with your goals you need to…
7. Manage Your Time
Effective time management is incredibly important. Time is one thing we cannot get back or buy more off.
Every single business’s resources are constrained by their employees’ time management.
And yet, there is little a business can do to directly impact how you manage your time.
So if you manage your time well, it will improve your productivity and provide a larger return on investment (ROI) for the business’ investment in you.
This will be noticed.
Many of you know I am a huge fan of calendar blocking. It’s my favorite tool to instantly turn you into a time-management pro.
8. Be Decisive
I find decisiveness is something many people struggle with due to confidence, lack of experience, or fear of failure.
If you struggle with decisiveness, take time to reflect on why.
If it is a personal struggle (i.e. confidence) this is something you will need to overcome to improve your work performance. Check out my tips to improve your confidence.
If it is because of a lack of experience, this is where proactivity helps.
Make sure you’ve done your research and understand the question from all sides. Once you do, if you are a junior employee it is perfectly acceptable (and many times expected) that you run your decision through management.
But remember, don’t pitch your decision as a question on what to do.
Make your recommendation for the decision and outline the research on WHY you are recommending this decision.
This way, it will be your recommendation and decision that is backed by management. You will present yourself as decisive but also ensuring that there is appropriate alignment prior to the execution of a decision.
As you gain experience, you will find many times the same question comes up throughout your career. Use your experience to eventually shift to making certain decisions yourself, without having to run everything by management.
Good judgment is key here. Consider the magnitude of the decision, your experience, the potential cost to the business, etc.
9. Actively Develop Your Skillsets
You should never stop learning and improving both soft skills as well as skills directly related to your work.
READ READ READ.
Shocking recommendation coming from me, I know.
Reading is the absolute best thing you can do to develop your skill sets. Read on communicating, negotiating, business leaders, specific skills for your work.
Always read, and always keep learning.
Take time to learn skills that aren’t even directly related to your job. If you are able to understand other function’s skills and responsibilities better, you will improve your own work performance and collaboration.
Besides reading, try to attend industry-specific meetings for your work. Take on projects that will require you to learn new skills.
Don’t stop challenging yourself to improve your work performance.
10. Build Relationships with Your Co-Workers
Everyone wants to work with people they like and enjoy spending time with.
That is why it is important to develop meaningful relationships with your colleagues.
It is not necessary to be best friends and spend every weekend together. In fact, if you are too close to a significant number of co-workers it can complicate your ability to make decisions.
But you should have friendly relationships with the majority of your colleagues, where you can carry an easy conversation about topics other than work.
Take time to learn about your co-workers and their interests. Be genuinely curious to get to know them.
11. Take Care of Your Physical Health
You cannot improve work performance if you are not functioning at the highest level.
In order to do this, make sure that you are taking care of your physical health.
Sleep is most important, so ensure you are getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night. If you find your mental acuity waning, you need more sleep.
Eating whole foods and exercising will also help to improve work performance. This is not a nutrition or fitness blog, but in general, keeping your body in peak physical health will keep your mind at peak performance as well.
If you are feeling physically tired and ineffective, look where you can improve things here.
12. Find a Mentor
Mentors can be incredibly valuable in helping you navigate the political challenges that arise in your industry.
A mentor can be anyone, but typically you should choose someone above you that is in a similar functional group (or a functional group with which you work closely).
A mentor should be someone that you admire for their work and communication style. Someone you can feel you can learn from.
Once you have chosen someone, be upfront. Schedule time to speak with them and let them know the areas you are looking to improve work performance.
Ask them if they would be willing to mentor you.
Having a mentor means having open and honest conversations about your challenges. To allow your mentor to be effective, you must be willing to be vulnerable to a certain extent.
A good mentor will be there to help coach you on how to navigate your work environment.
13. Seek out Feedback, and Use It
A mentor is one source of feedback, but you should have many.
Feedback is incredibly valuable. And really, NEGATIVE feedback is the most important type of feedback to receive.
As difficult as it can be to process negative feedback, it is the feedback that provides the most opportunity to grow from.
So get used to receiving negative feedback. In fact, actively seek it out.
Asking for feedback is easy.
Here are some questions you can use to prompt feedback:
- “Is there anything I could do better on this project?”
- “Do you have any tips for me to improve?”
- “In hindsight, is there anything you think I should have done differently?”
Try to ask these regularly of colleagues with whom you work closely. Use the feedback you receive to tailor your execution and improve work performance.
At first, receiving negative feedback may be difficult. But as you make it routine, it will become natural to receive and execute on.
14. Communicate Obstacles Early
When you run into obstacles while working towards your goals, it’s important to communicate and share them fast.
Don’t wait to tell your teams and/or management about challenges you’re facing- whether they are due to your mistakes or not. Remember, be accountable.
If you wait to communicate obstacles in order to try to conquer them first, there are two situations that could happen.
First, you may overcome the obstacle. Which is great (but oftentimes not the outcome). But this is still problematic, as your effort and ingenuity may not be recognized as no one was aware of the obstacle.
The more likely scenario is that you will need help overcoming the obstacle. By the time you communicate the obstacle, timelines will be affected more than they would’ve been if you communicated early and allowed the team to brainstorm a plan together.
To improve work performance you need to learn how to rally people behind a common cause or problem.
Communicate your obstacles early. Come prepared with ideas on how to approach the obstacles, and what additional resources you may need.
An employee that can rally people to overcome a challenge and achieve an objective is more valuable than one that silently tries to tackle them on their own.
15. Listen and Ask Questions
Listening is a skill that is too often overlooked.
To improve work performance, make sure to take the time to fully understand peoples’ perspectives and ideas.
Be curious about why they think the way they do. Ask questions.
Asking questions based on the last 2-3 works someone says is called mirroring and is one of the basic negotiation skills Chris Voss teaches (author of Never Split the Difference).
It’s not just a negotiation tactic, but an excellent way to keep people engaged and talking.
Try it and LISTEN to the answer. Absorb the information, and use it to execute.
16. Recognize Others’ Success
Recognizing others’ accomplishments will not make your accomplishments less recognizable.
One more time for the people in the back!
If you recognize other people’s success it does not mean your success will not be recognized!
You don’t need to be a manager or leader to recognize when someone is successful or achieves a goal. And when they do, congratulate them! Celebrate it!
Not only will this help you build stronger relationships, but it builds trust among co-workers.
Even if you played a huge part in someone else’s success, congratulate everyone who played a part.
17. Know Your Limits
I always encourage you to challenge yourself and not just limit your tasks to your job description. Challenging yourself and taking on new projects will be a great way to improve work performance.
But know your limits.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you are doing something new or developing a new skill, be honest with yourself on your knowledge and limitations. Ask for guidance or help. Ask questions.
This will help mitigate the risks of mistakes.
And remember, WHEN you make a mistake..take accountability!
18. Keep Things Simple
Don’t try to overcomplicate project plans or your approach to tasks.
Don’t put together your goals with unreasonable assumptions.
You dont need 500 slide decks with 1000 words on each slide trying to answer every possible question before it is asked.
The simplest approach is usually the best. It is also the approach that is easiest for people to follow.
Only add complexities if they are ABSOLUTELY needed.
19. Don’t Ever Cast Blame
Going hand in hand with accountability, don’t EVER play the blame game.
Even if others are blaming you, the response is never to cast blame back.
Even if they HAVE made mistakes and are not taking accountability.
None of these responses will help you improve work performance or present you as an effective employee.
Take accountability for where you truly made mistakes (even if you only deserve a small part of the blame) and be proactive in tackling obstacles created from ANY mistakes (yours or others).
Don’t spend time or energy gossiping about X co-workers who screwed things up so badly. If you need to vent, talk to a friend outside of work.
At work, focus on what needs to get done and where you can help.
20. Be Involved
Don’t be afraid to ask to be involved in discussions that may not pertain directly to your tasks.
If you think it will help you understand your role or complete your work, always ask to be involved. Even if you end up sitting and just listening.
Often times, people get upset when they aren’t included in conversations. Most of the time this is not malicious intent. So don’t be afraid to speak up and request involvement.
Understanding more aspects of the business and projects will only help improve work performance.
I can give you all the tips in the world to improve work performance, but if you don’t execute on your projects it all doesn’t matter.
At the end of the day, you need to demonstrate to your employer that you are a fantastic resource. That you can influence people to get things done. That your priority is always the business.
Executing on your projects and showing results, and doing it using the tips above, will guarantee that you improve work performance.
So those are my tips on how to improve work performance! Did any surprise you? Do you have another great tip? Let me know down below!
21 Most Effective Ways to Improve Work Performance