Can I Cut The Mustard?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a challenge: I can’t do anything right, I am so insecure and feel so incompetent that I am making really silly mistakes like putting the wrong month on a huge email to everyone, or the right day but wrong date.

I have been at a job for almost 9 months now. Over that time I have found out that I have replaced two employees and do much more than they ever did.In addition these two employees evolved into the position I am in, over a 13-15 year time frame. There are so many moving parts that just getting the basics down took some time.

My two immediate supervisors are so demanding and seem to think I should have caught on by now and always ask me to ‘explain my reasoning’ why I was not prepared or misspelled someone’s name or whatever. I can’t do anything right, I am so insecure and feel so incompetent that I am making really silly mistakes like putting the wrong month on a huge email to everyone, or the right day but wrong date, etc.I am so behind on all of my AP, they keep throwing things my way and then wonder why everything takes so long…I sometimes think just one person is not capable of taking care of all three regions, since it has never been done before. Then, I think I can be that person, but I just don’t know if I have it in me.

Signed, Worn Out

Dear Worn Out:

I realize it’s easier for me to say this than it might be for you to do it, according to the culture of your workplace, but don’t you think it’s time for you to talk to your supervisors and tell them how you’re feeling? I doubt they would instantly fire you if you expressed your desire to do well but also said you feel overwhelmed doing the work of two people and needed to find some ways to reduce the pressure about it.

They know that you have made errors so this would be the right time to explain, in part, why the errors happened. They also are aware that two people used to do the work you’re doing. It could be it seemed there wasn’t enough work for two,which is why they downsized from two to one–you. If you’re a more dedicated worker than either of the former employees it could be that you are doing more than they were and the supervisors don’t realize it.It could also be, as you noted, that you don’t have the experience and practice those two had, so work is more difficult for you. If that’s the case, maybe you will find it goes easier over time.

I once worked in an office where “Sharon” was finished with a daily computer task by noon every day and used the afternoon for other work. Her replacement was still working on those “morning chores” when it was time to go home. We didn’t realize how easy Sharon made it seem until someone else tried to do the job. So, we had to adjust our expectations, provide more training and support and change some of our methods, which had worked with Sharon but couldn’t work with a new employee. As that employee gained skills we were able to return to some former processes. The problem with trying to be a miracle worker is that your work ethic and panic have pushed you to turn out as much work as possible.

Unfortunately, that is catching up with you in the form of errors. You can help to eliminate the errors through a technique or two that I’ll mention. I don’t have a magic solution for the whole problem, but it seems you need to do something to gain some relief, at least partially.In the past, like you, I have made seemingly foolish errors in the middle of otherwise very good work–which drags down all of it.

Once, in open court, a federal judge told me that while my written explanation was excellent, the day and date combination bore no resemblance to any calendar he could find. He asked me if perhaps I had referred to a lunar year with which he was not familiar. Very embarrassing! At the time it wasn’t practical or appropriate for me to expect someone to stop their own work to proofread for me. So, I had to learn ways to develop correct work on my own. Here are some of the methods I used.

1. The most obvious is to take the time to read and re-read, even if you don’t think you have the time. I stand up or just relax my eyes for a minute or two before I proofread my work. That way I can look with new eyes.

2. I print out the material rather than proofing it on the screen. Nothing looks the same and it’s easier to spot errors.

3. If an email is very important (an ad, an important letter, etc.) I send it to myself first and print it out, just to see how it looks. I have found a number of problems that way.

4. It helps me to read problem areas such as days and dates out loud.

5. I find I can’t use a computer calendar, especially Outlook, to help me verify, because it’s too easy to lose track of the correct month–they just slide into each other. I MUST use a real paper calendar that has one month at a time, not three months as some of them do. The months have to be clearly separated. I keep one right on my desk rather than using a wall calendar.After I verify once, I do it again before an important item goes out.

6. I almost never cut and paste material that I know I must edit or customize, because I have seen others make so many mistakes that way. I copy and paste paragraphs that will stay the same, but am too fearful of mistakes to do that most of the time. If I do, I nearly always use the “Insert” key so material is deleted as I type. That way I don’t risk adding new things but leaving the old words in.

7. A prime way to make less errors is to be less rushed. You are clearly working hard and you may need to do every bit of the work you’re doing. However, I urge you to consider every task and make sure that you haven’t taken on things that no one expects of you or that you aren’t doing far more than even good work-ethic requires.You’ve probably encountered someone at work who politely says he or she can’t do something for you because he or she is too busy. When that has happened, you haven’t hated them, you’ve just assumed they were busy. You, on the other hand, probably never say you’re too busy. That may be your only choice but it may not be.

8. I started this by saying you should talk to your supervisors about feeling overwhelmed. Consider also talking to them with the approach of asking them some key questions: What do they want you to continue doing just as you are doing it right now? What do they want you to do less of? What do they want you to do more of? Do they have suggestions for how you can accomplish this very challenging job, and do it in a way that helps them, helps you and helps the company?It may be that they have been doing some thinking about it anyway and have ideas. Or, you may find out that the things that concern them the most are not what you expected.

You mentioned that your supervisors ask you to “explain your reasoning” for mistakes. You don’t say if they seem to be angry or if they seem to want you to succeed and are puzzled that you are not doing as well as they want. Asking for your reasoning seems like an odd request for a spelling error or for not having something done, unless they are thinking you might genuinely have a reason–but it doesn’t sound like that.The bottom line is that if you want to stay in that job you will need to find a way to gain some control over your work level and to do your work without errors. Some of that you can achieve on your own but you will need to work with your supervisors about some of it.

I don’t know exactly what you will have to do to be the “go to” person who knows it all and does it all in your region. I think you may end up worn out and burned out if you genuinely try to know it all and do it all at this point. You’re still learning and still finding your place in the company–all while carrying a huge load of work. I hope you will try to share thoughts about that with your supervisors, so they can understand your status better.I also hope you will have the time, in the midst of being busy, to let us know what happens with this challenging situation. Best wishes to you!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.