Q: I’ve been asked to work on projects in a different area of my company. This is good for variety, but even though the work is described as “the same” as what I currently do, there are a lot of differences under the surface. The problem is that when I ask questions, the unspoken reaction is “you shouldn’t need to ask.” How can I handle this?
A: Take charge of clarifying the project, being sure you know “how” and not just “what” when you start.
The inner game
Presumably you’ve been asked to help others because of your good performance on your existing work. That can make it even harder to feel that you’re falling short. Notice any emotions you’re experiencing, whether they’re directed outward as frustration with others, or inward as self-doubt and criticism of yourself. This situation can be resolved, so accept your feelings and then let them go, using your breath to help.
Think about the experiences you’ve had so far, and make sure that you’ve got an accurate read. Anxiety may lead you to over-interpret their reactions. Is this from just one person and, if so, how do they interact with others?
Get clear about the areas that you “should” know, so that you can describe the differences between the way you’ve done the work in the past and the new situation. For example, if leading a project now includes some tasks that you weren’t responsible for before, make that clear so you can acquire the knowledge you need.
The outer game
Making this transition will require an extra layer of project planning, as well as plenty of communication.
When you get a new project, start by analyzing it and making a plan that details what, where, who, and when, perhaps more so than you’d do in familiar territory. This will highlight gaps in your knowledge — for example, knowing the right people to talk to for certain questions. Share this with the team so that you can get the information you need in a structured way.
Talk with the project sponsor or the team to clarify roles and responsibilities. A great deal of frustration can arise when these are unclear. Don’t be intimidated by the implication that you should know things that you couldn’t possibly know. You can address this by just being unabashed in your questions — owning what you don’t know is a much stronger position.
Enlist your boss as an ally. He or she will be able to help you navigate this situation, reinforce your reputation as needed, and be a sounding board. It may help if you can get your questions answered elsewhere so that you don’t have to bring them to the project team.
Be sure not to ask the same question twice. Take notes, and apply information you’ve received to new settings. And ask yourself if you’re asking questions where you could just make some assumptions. While you don’t want to be too risky, you also don’t want to be too timid to make a decision.
The last word
Be willing to ask the right questions, planning them in advance as much as possible to help ease the transition.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.