Your career is about relationships: with your boss, your coworkers, and with the people you serve in your work.
And relationships are driven by words, the most important of which are delivered in specific phrases that are like magic incantations, with the power to change lives.
Just as “I love you” and “I do” have near-electric power in personal relationships, phrases like “You’re hired” and “I quit” can start and end careers. But there are also formulaic phrases with the power to advance your career by improving your work relationships.
“I’m John, and I’m an account manager.”
The most powerful phrase you can use to advance your career is an introduction. The people who have influence on your career, both within and without your organization, need to know who you are.
So often there’s an interest imbalance between the people with the power to advance our career and yourself. Everyone knows their boss’s boss’s name, but does she know yours? If not, it is a lot less likely she will sign off on your promotion, or think of you for the special assignment.
You may have memorized the entire org chart of your prospective customer’s business, but do the decision makers there know who you are?
Sure, it may seem silly to keep introducing yourself to people you’ve already met, but if you don’t work together daily, there’s a chance they might have forgotten.
They’ll appreciate the reminder, and you’ll benefit from the familiarity bias that leads people to prefer people for as little a reason as being more familiar with them. Keep introducing yourself until people are greeting you by name. It’s a little thing that can make a huge difference.
“I would be happy to…”
If you’re going to do it, you’d might as well be happy doing it. The best response to an assignment or request is to repeat it with the preface “I would be happy to…”
If you are responding to an assignment, this positive response is a form of positive reinforcement for the person giving the assignment. They will be inclined to give you more assignments (and likely better assignments) because you are training them that assigning things to you is a pleasure, not an uncomfortable experience of forcing someone to do something.
If you are responding to a request from a customer you are similarly rewarding them for their interaction with you. Even if the customer asks you to do something you can’t, you can respond with what you can (happily) do for them.
“Can you get it here by Tuesday?” “I’d be happy to deliver it on Wednesday, which is the first day we can have it to you.”
Moreover, there is evidence that simply expressing your happiness to do something can change your own attitude about the task: we live up to the expectation we verbalize for ourselves, and saying we’ll be happy to do things can actually lead us to be happy to do them.
“How can this be better?”
You can use this magical phrase all day long. It’s the perfect introduction to a conversation with your boss, your co-workers, or subordinates.
It is a way to show your work, a pleasant and flattering excuse for a conversation with anyone, and a continual reinforcement of the idea that you are constantly seeking to improve and advance.
When you ask something like “Is there anything wrong with this before I send it out?” you are sending lots of bad messages: You are introducing the idea that there might be something wrong with your work. You are putting the responsibility for finding and fixing errors onto the person you’re approaching.
Asking “How can this be better?” leaves room for the possibility that it’s already great. It implies that the person you’re approaching can make a valuable contribution, yet doesn’t put a heavy obligation on them to participate or be responsible for errors. It shows that you respect their opinion, and they’ll respect you for that.
“I can take care of that for you.”
It is a natural and generous instinct to ask busy people—like your bosses and co-workers—what you can do to help. But “What can I do for you?” is a powerless phrase.
At the best it’s just part of an empty, formulaic exchange, answered “Nothing right now, but I’ll let you know if there’s something.” At worst it actually puts another obligation on the busy person you’re trying to help: Now they have to find something for you to do.
Do the work to identify the thing you can do for someone. Be prepared to explain how and when you will do it. And be ready to take no for an answer—sometimes people aren’t ready to let go.
But if you pay attention and persist, you will get a chance to show what you can do, and how you make others’ work easier. I have seen many people position themselves as the natural choice for a new position or opportunity by slowly taking things off their boss’s plate and becoming indispensable.
“What would you do?”
Want to know the secret of getting ahead in your organization? Start by asking; you’d be surprised to learn how few people do.
When you ask people what they would do—to get ahead or to solve a problem you're creating a positive interaction. People love to be asked their opinion, and when you ask them to tell you what they would do, you avoid a potentially awkward situation where you ask what you should do and get advice you might not want to follow.
And the best part about asking people what they would do is that they’ll usually tell you, and you will build mental a toolbox of solutions you may be able to use in the future.
Career advancement is ultimately about relationships, and nothing affects your relationships like the words you use. Choose the right words carefully, and make a habit of repeating the powerful phrases that build relationships and shape your own attitude.