‘Keep your mouth shut and your ears open!’ this was the advice I received as a greenhorn from a senior colleague almost 16 years ago. It was brutally direct and confronting at the time but is some of the best advice I have ever been given.
We’ll call the officer ‘Tim’ (names have been changed to protect identities). Tim had a reputation of being a tough SOB in the workplace. I had heard numerous stories about Tim before first meeting him which scared the stuffing out of me. When I discovered I was rostered to work alongside him for the first time I requested a spare change of trousers from the Uniforms Officer in case I ‘soiled’ my allocated pair.
Speaking of toilet humour, there was even an incident where his photo had been removed from the senior manager’s office, placed in a urinal and ‘soiled’ upon!
His stature and presence were intimidating and his hair was as dark as I had imagined his heart to be… how wrong I was.
During our initial encounter where Tim had greeted me with that very direct pearl of wisdom, I followed his advice and listened to and observed those around me, and learned in the process. By embracing Tim’s advice I attained a lot from simply noticing how others did things. I asked questions when I didn’t understand or required assistance but I listened and learned whenever possible. I learned how to correctly action tasks by observing others which allowed me to make less mistakes than I otherwise would have if learning on my own.
To this day I follow Tim’s advice, especially when transitioning into a new role. While we may feel the urge to recreate a process or procedure to improve it and demonstrate value, it is wise to first understand why it is done in its current manner. Changes you wish to propose may have previously been trialled or there may be limitations or requirements in place that you aren’t yet aware of. By disciplining yourself to first learning the current process properly, you will then attain the understanding of how it may be better done in future.
Just so I’m not misinterpreted, what I’m speaking about here is very different to not sticking up for yourself. We each have a voice and should use it when required but we should also be mindful to select the right tool for the task. Listening, observing and learning will provide context and broaden the abilities at your disposal. It is hard to learn when we think we already know the answer. So take the time to properly understand the question before rushing to provide a solution.
Another thing I wish I had learned earlier on is to not let other people’s opinions influence my perception of someone I haven’t yet met. Let your own interactions decide how you feel about another, not someone else’s.