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Get the Respect You Deserve

How to improve your worth in the workplace

By Molly Joss

When you’re young and brilliant it can be difficult to get the respect you deserve—particularly in the workplace. If you’re young and competent, it can also be difficult. You might need a little help to get people to see how valuable you truly are. It happened to me, so I know it can happen to you, as well.

Not that I’m all that brilliant (I’m trying to be modest here), but I do know what I’m doing. Now that I’m older, have a few lines on my face and an established track record, it’s easier for potential clients to believe I might know what I’m doing. It wasn’t so easy when I was younger.

Trial by Fire

Fortunately, I learned a valuable lesson early on in my computer career. Back when I was just starting out, I was testing and researching computer systems and writing about the results. I was new to both the job and the industry. I had a fresh face—so fresh, in fact, that I looked a lot younger than my age. My boss knew I was right for the job, but he was concerned that my youthful appearance might lead potential clients to underestimate me.

He decided to help me out by asking me some difficult questions at the start of a meeting in front of a group of important clients. He had warned me on the way into the meeting to stay cool. The gambit worked. The clients were impressed with my answers and I won them over. I even continued to work well with them on my own in other situations.

My boss and I talked about what happened later over lunch. He explained that he knew the clients might have some concerns because I was new and looked younger than I was. He also knew he would want me to work with those particular clients onsite later, so he wanted to establish my credibility up front.

In retrospect, I was glad he set up the initial “show and tell.” I went through a brief trial by fire and immediately proved myself as a respected professional.

It’s been a long time since I looked too young to handle my job, but I still use some of the skills I learned by having to prove my worth in the workplace.

Read on for some advice for how to command the repect you deserve at your new job.

Tactics to Gain Respect

When you’re working in your first few IT jobs, expect people (your boss, your boss’ boss or clients) to be skeptical about whether you can get the job done. Look at it from their perspective—you don’t have the experience and possibly the number of advanced degrees that they have. You also look young, you have energy, your joints don’t pop or creak loudly when you stand up at the end of a long meeting. In the vernacular of their time, you’re still wet behind the ears!

In order to prove your worth, do yourself a favor and look for opportunities early on to establish your credentials. If you can get a trusted colleague or a boss to help, arrange for them to ask you a tough question or two in front of other co-workers. Make sure, though, that you both plan ahead so you know the correct answers. Make sure, too, that the questions fit smoothly into the discussion. It will be obvious if they’re dropped in where they don’t belong. Answer them simply without a lot of excess detail.

Here are a few other lessons I learned during the years I was getting older and building my resume:

  • Never correct your boss or a client in front of other people. Nobody likes being corrected in public. At best they might get defensive, and at worst, well, let’s just say it can result in a sudden change of employment.

  • Don’t make up an answer to a question or an explanation if you don’t know the answer or don’t have all the facts. The best thing to say is that you’re not sure of all the details and that you’ll do the research and get back to them. Then, do what you promise. It took me a while to learn this lesson. I finally learned it after falling into a trap an unfriendly colleague set for me. He asked me a question in a group that the boss had been unable to answer in a meeting earlier in the day—a meeting I had not attended. It was a difficult question, and I faked an answer. It all got back to the boss, of course, who took the time to chastise me for lying.

  • Watch your body language and your tone of voice when answering questions or offering explanations. It’s so easy to slip into the master-of-the-tech-universe mode. Don’t offer a lot of detail unless asked or you’re getting a lot of blank stares. If anyone starts to roll their eyes, take that as a cue to wrap it up.

  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver. It’s tempting to do this when you believe in yourself and you want to make a memorable contribution early on in your job. Believe me, it’s better to under promise and over deliver later if you can. That’s what really creates good memories in the minds of bosses.

  • Look for opportunities to establish your credentials in the workplace or with a client. Ask a reliable co-workers help if needed. Answer the questions you can and promise to research the ones you can’t. Stay relaxed and believe in yourself.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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