Being a self directed worker requires specific skills. I hope to detail some of the skills I had to learn, and a couple I had to un-learn, to help me be more self-directed in my work.
Readers of the blog were recently asked to recommend topics to explore. This topic is from Angela, who asked to read more about how to navigate self-directed work. Thank you Angela and I hope this post gives some insight to you and others! This is the first in a two-part series. The next post will explore how I learned to say no to supervisors and then to myself.
In the Beginning
For most of my professional career, I have worked in offices staffed by people with very distinct, individual roles. Our goals rarely overlapped and we had to work to build collaborative relationships. Once or twice, I was the only professional staff managing the work full-time for the entire department. To call this time stressful would be an understatement.
Eventually I began working in offices with more collaborative roles, but the self-directed work style was already established. For me, self-directed work was working toward common divisional or departmental goals without day-to-day supervisors. It called on me to work more inter-dependent with my colleagues on bigger and longer-term goals than my day-to-day work.
I have written about the offices in previous posts, where I spoke about office politics and institutional politics. But obviously the office environment was more complicated, more nuanced than those situations. One particular issue I had to resolve was how to manage the year of work on my own.
Now I was hardly ‘on my own’ but anyone who has worked in a solo department can’t shake the ‘feeling alone in the work’ feeling. At the start of my career, I worked prior to online tools to help manage the work. I believe the tools I used are just as useful today as they were that many years ago. Below are the four I believe may help you self-direct your work.
Three Ways to Self-Direct Yourself
Over the years, I had to learn through some trial and error the ways to help self-direct my work. In some cases, the methods were recommended by others and some were learned due to necessity. I believe these will translate to most work environments and offer them to you to explore.
Create a Management Plan
I have written about developing a personal development/management plan. In the department I managed, I was the sole professional staff and had a great deal to accomplish each year. But I also wanted to create professional skill goals and motivate myself personally. The management plan allowed me to focus on skills that I could practice and self-evaluate to help me accomplish larger goals.
For instance, I wanted to learn more about evaluating the learning outcomes in my area. While it wasn’t part of my professional evaluation, learning this skill would help me better discern what was working and what wasn’t. So I created a management plan that allowed me to self-track my assessment learning over the course of a year. Because the goal wasn’t part of my professional evaluation, I had less stress to accomplish the goals. However, the management plan was part of my larger goals and I had strong motivation to show something tangible.
Establish Goals with Others
In one department, I held a temporary interim director role while the division underwent changes in leadership. During that time, I had to complete my coordinator responsibilities and all of the director-level work. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work put on me as a young professional and had to develop realistic coping mechanisms quickly.
One of the ways to manage the work was to work with the departments within the student affairs division that had similar work to mine. By creating shareable goals, we could hold each other accountable for the work that had to be done. For instance, I could train students in their area on diversity and multicultural outcomes, scheduling this work weeks and months in advance. This pre-scheduling allowed me to work around these established deadlines, and gave me the opportunity to introduce myself to new populations of students.
As a solo worker, one thing I always needed was more boundaries. Working alone sometimes affected my ability to create realistic timelines. By working with others, especially as a young professional, I was able to learn how to gauge these deadlines better on my own. Plus it showed my colleagues what I was capable of doing, which was a win-win for all of us.
Ask for and Actually Listen to Feedback
One of the up-sides of self-directed work is being able to create and follow-through on you goals at your own pace. One of the down-sides of self-directed work is that the goals might be created in a vacuum. Asking for and listening to feedback can be a blessing and a curse of those working on self-directed projects.
I was notorious for attending staff meetings, hearing an interesting idea or process I wanted to explore, and then going off to figure out how to make it work. No one ever asked me to do it. No on insisted that I work alone. And no one said it was necessary to make it happen. But I would just add it to my work load and try to show a finished project as soon as possible.
And that is usually where I would run into problems.
As a solo worker, I used to develop projects on my own. Unless our goals were overlapping, I rarely shared my work with my peers for feedback. And when I began working in offices with more staff, I still operated as if I worked alone. This was something I knew I would need to work on to adjust to being both self-directed in my individual work and a better team player.
I began to seek feedback on project ideas early, When I had a free 10 minutes, I would pop into co-worker offices and ask for immediate feedback on specific items. I knew that unless the project was truly shared, I didn’t want to put my work onto them. But I also didn’t want to create work that was only mine. And I would listen to the feedback. This meant training my ego to resist the urge to say ‘But…’ and instead listen to the feedback with defensible ideas.
Seeking feedback has popped up multiple times as a professional and I will come back to this idea again this year.
One Last Lesson
One thing I had to learn to do: become comfortable with so-called personal failure. I can’t remember how deadlines I missed over the years. Or projects that were presented without going over the details. Items published and distributed without proofing. Trainings I did on the fly. The list was long.
And yet the work was usually lauded and students learned. I had to learn to wean myself from the needs to be perfect. All I really needed was an understanding of the outcomes and what affected student learning. I also had to be comfortable with the feedback from supervisors or peers about what they would have done differently. As I became more comfortable in my expertise, I realized how unfair comparing myself to their expectations for perfection impacted my personal expectations. Instead all I needed was more grace and understanding that I was on my own journey. I had to experience these personal failures in time management or program delivery in order to improve. Also, I had to give myself the grace to learn through these experiences, especially when I was the only one working on these projects.
Realistically, I can bet that many others have spent more time beating themselves up over and over. I challenge you to put this energy into giving yourself grace instead.
Next Post: How I Learned to Say No
The three ways described above helped shape me into a confident self-directed worker. But these weren’t the only skills I had to learn over the year. I will continue the series of self-directed work strategies by sharing how I learned to say no.
Skill Building Development for the New and Mid-Level Career Professional
I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years. I have helped them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.
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