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Is there a way to excel at what I'm doing without provoking resistance and criticism?

I've normally been employed to introduce changes, which has been communicated to me explicitly. I've been employed to e.g. save failing projects. The normal feedback I receive from my bosses is: "You're excellent in what you do and I've never met anybody who has created so much impact so quickly (...) People feel overwhelmed by you, do something about it".

It's not about my being impolite or excluding the others. I devote a lot of attention to listening to other people, normally ask them for their ideas first and do my best to cooperative. But yes, I am very proactive, propose how to do things better a lot. I'm noticeable.

On the other hand, I had one job (project) in the past I didn't care about. It was in a technology I didn't care about and I was planning to leave the company when I joined the project anyway. Basically, I was doing the bare minimum, trying not to be noticed as unprofessional but I definitely wasn't dedicated, since I spent several hours every day applying for other jobs and similar. I wasn't proactive or competent - I just didn't care.

Interestingly, the feedback I got from that job was excellent and when I quit at the end, they did a lot to keep me.

I'm wondering: Is not doing much and not caring really the best strategy to be successful in corporate settings?

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    Welcome! I think "best" strategy will depend on the person and be fairly opinion-based, so I don't know how great an answer we can give you here. Though, it seems from the experiences you have described that your normal feedback is still overall positive. I think it is normal for management to see you positively while still asking you to adjust some things. It seems that you like your own assertive style better so I'd say stick to it and find some visible way to better incorporate feedback.
    – GB1553
    Mar 4 '21 at 19:12
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    The concept of "successful" is also subjective and open to a lot of interpretation. What does "successful" look like to you? Mar 4 '21 at 20:37
  • I have noticed the same thing. When I feel like I'm flagging a bit my reviews are actually very good. This leads to more passionless work and then eventually too much passionless work, which is a forcing function to reset. I am currently at the too much passionless work phase (pure toil) and am making changes to restart the cycle yet again. One could recommend that I "break the cycle" but it proving to be a rather lucrative process.
    – acpilot
    Mar 8 '21 at 15:54
  • Not too much to add to the thread that has not been covered by others, but consider taking a communication skills class on influencing others and persuasive ability. If this is not offered directly by your company, check for local consulting firms that offer it; many companies will provide reimbursement for this training. Apr 20 '21 at 1:48
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Is there a way to excel at what I'm doing without provoking resistance and criticism?

Yes, but it takes work, if you display any kind of excellence, you are going to get hatred to some extent.

There is even a term for this: TALL POPPY SYNDROME No matter what people say, excellence is despised because people are petty and jealous.

So, the way to counter this is to be humble. Or, as the saying goes, "Humble yourself before someone else does it for you".

Pick up a book on sales, or Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people". You'd be amazed at how just a minor tweak to your language can change you from sounding arrogant or pushy or intimidating to sounding humble, cooperative, and helpful.

And, if you're any good, you need to play defense, because people will try to tear you down.

Do your work, do it well, and when you innovate, ask your team what they think. If you want to correct someone, or bring them up to speed on something, ask them what they think. Solicit input, socialize, and keep everyone in the loop.

You want to be seen as part of a team, and not the hotshot. Share information, be self-effacing, be of help to others, and make yourself a hub of information and assistance. This sets up interdependence between you and the team/group/company. If you are an active positive force to people, they will not give you trouble. There are very few people who will act against you when you are helping them.

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  • Turning into a sales'y person who's trying to be everyone's buddy buddy but also is defensive is a recipe for becoming the most annoying/hated person on the team. Sometimes teams just have crap people on them, the dead weight needs to be tossed over the side of the ship to progress.
    – David
    Mar 5 '21 at 22:51
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    It's just a realism of teams/math: there's always a bottom X% and top Y% of any collection of people. If that bottom X% does not meet the minimum requirements than they need to leave. I don't have 4 decades on you but I don't need it to see mathematical facts/optimal teams.
    – David
    Mar 5 '21 at 23:46
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    @David Data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. People are not numbers and don't stack the way you think they do. Sure, someone may be terrible at a task, but you find out why. Sometimes it's training, sometimes it's that they're in the wrong role, sometimes there are other reasons. If I had used your "math" I would have discounted some of the best people I have ever worked with. I myself am autistic, and would likely have been discounted by your math, but someone took a chance on me, and trained me up. I think experience wins this round Mar 6 '21 at 0:59
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    A golden piece of advice. +1
    – Theo Tiger
    Mar 8 '21 at 16:00
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    +1 for recommending HtWFaIP. Mar 12 '21 at 22:03
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Get profuse buy in from whoever is in charge if you want to make changes.

I am someone who does innovation challenges in my spare time, so I get how constantly suggesting improvements can be fun. But I have also been on the other end of this, and my resistance stemmed from management somewhat wanting the changes suggested, but also not being willing to pay for them (in terms of short term delays or component deadlines).

I worked with a very smart engineer (your equivalent in this case) who had a veritable pile of suggestions for refactoring the codebase, reducing the number of services, reusing components, code review process improvements, etc. All of it was good software engineering practice.

The problem is that while those things may be valuable, they take time. Me doing an in-depth code review meant that the current thing I was working on would be delayed (which matters if you report every day what you are doing). Spending time redoing the sketchy build process meant that some client work would need to be delayed while that was replaced. Upgrading to the latest library after years of neglect is probably important, but means that QA has to spend all day re-testing the thing, delaying other work.

Me caring about getting a careful code review instead of passing it off to an engineer who is more lenient means that my work was delayed on its way to production, especially if the other engineers also skipped them or force pushed. Improvements outside of the immediate project were not included in sprint planning, but I was praised or questioned on how many points of stuff I do in the sprint, so any work on stuff outside the project counted against me as it was not logged.

After the first few ideas, nothing this engineer wanted ever got done (or if it did, it didn't stick) because it didn't actually align with what was desired. They wanted things done and done quickly.

If my manager or product owner casually signs off on these things and then comes back to me the next day frustrated that X other thing didn't get done as a result, I then have to deal with it and they have the impression that I am not performing well. And I am not willing to deal with it as maintaining a good impression supersedes anything else.

As an employee, I mostly care about making the person(s) I am dealing with at any particular time happy. I want my boss happy with me. I want my product owner happy with me. Doing things other than the immediate task immediately often make them unhappy, as it has a cost they didn't fully appreciate. If they fully appreciate the cost beforehand, then doing it will keep them happy and all will be well.

Not sure if this is the specific issue in your case, but hope that it helps.

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+100

I've experienced similar things in my career and I can share what has worked for me. I'm going to give you my fairly strong opinions but accept they may not suit your situation or what you want out of life.

I used to work for a very large company with old fashioned tech and ways of working. People often spent decades working there and having good connections was as important if not more so than ability. I was someone that was always rocking boat but always encouraging people around me to better themselves and tried to lift up everyone around me. People would either love me or hate me.

I did not hide my brilliance and I did not choose the easy path. This is why:

  • Hiding your brilliance is safe strategy in the short term but often weakens you edge in the wider job market. How do you sell playing it safe to you next employer?
  • Investing in connections rather than your own abilities is also high risk. What if the in-crowd gets pushed out? What if you wanted to move to a new company or a new location? It's easy to become trapped in a golden cage.

In the end, I got really great job from a scale up. They matched my big company pay but also gave me a bunch of options that may end up being worth something. Essentially they wanted my experience in that industry but needed someone who they felt could adopt modern tech and ways of working. They trained me up on the latest tech and it was easy because now I had people actually supporting me on using tech and not holding me back. I've not looked back since and now work somewhere where I am truly valued for doing the things I like doing anyway.

Since then the old company has hit hard times and many people are losing their jobs.

So I'm an example of how taking risks, investing in yourself and not connections has paid off. I definitely got lucky and you can probably find examples out there of people that weren't as lucky. So it really boils down to whether you want to take those risk in life and can you accept the risks of them not paying off. Also ask yourself, will look back when you are older and regret not having seized the day!

PS it sounds like you are having doubts about yourself. Don't. You are not too good, your current employer is simply too lame. Find somewhere better that values you.

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  • Perhaps it's not clear but this sounds like company A was not receptive to you/your ideas so you moved over to company B where you got to shine. I wouldn't say you hid your abilities but just were not the the right fit for company A. The OP seems to be talking less about switching to better employers or learning/growing on their own and more about "How do I keep this job, show excellence, not get fired/etc. all without making everyone around me upset or jealous/resentful of my work ethic/results.". Good answer all things considered ... worry about thyself and grow, nobody should hold you back.
    – David
    Mar 10 '21 at 5:07
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    Fair point. When I was at Company A though, I often found myself asking questions like OP. e.g. Am I doing something wrong? Why do I always work longer. hours than everyone else? Why do I need to do 10x more to get a promotion? So I recognise a strong similarity. Plus I had people give me career advice to "work on people skills", "it's not what you know but who you know" etc etc. Had I followed the advice I would definitely be in a worse place now. Also, my "struggles" at Company A got me the new role. If I had said f*** this day 1 I doubt I would have gotten the job with Company B Mar 10 '21 at 9:49
  • @plgirarisedwords I think you're selling yourself short to an extent regarding your chances at other opportunities. I think, this context, company A was just a charnel house of workers who worked themself to death. Leaving those companies is the best thing you can do.
    – David
    Mar 10 '21 at 23:39
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The big question you have to answer is what is success to you? Is success obtaining promotions up the management track? Gathering experience as a technical expert? Becoming that guy who rescues projects?

I've been employed to e.g. save failing projects.

Often projects are failing because of a lack of decisiveness/leadership or personnel/funding. If it's the first, you absolutely should be stepping on toes, there is no issue here. If it's the second, you can get away with being passive and in the background, especially if the project leadership hasn't adjusted appropriately to handle new personnel. Obviously, you've left this job, but in a healthy corporate setting, you should be sharing your career goals with your manager so that you can work out what steps to take and get staffed on projects that help you get relevant experience and find "success" in your career.

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There's a fine line between being a resource (helpful, productive, and approachable) and being over zealous (know-it-all, showing off, and competing with everyone on the team). When working on a team, there's an aggregate for the team (i.e. overall the team's effectiveness and efficiency). When one person does really well then all of the others look bad in comparison and then there comes a belief (either from those others or from management) that hose people have to prove themself more and match up to best person on the team. This creates tension because not everyone has the same career goals, life responsibilities, or environment/background to make that a realistic goal.

Try to find the balance between of making the team look good as a whole publicly but then having push-pull in private. Perhaps hold back some progress information in stand-ups [others may need more time or be more cautious ... they don't want to feel they are in a race with their teammates] but make the entire team look good when show casing team work to the rest of the division, company, customers, etc. Show appreciation and recognition for others work in both public and private (even if it's not the way you wanted it done or thought it should be done) and make sure you call them out for their excellence and contributions (people like that). You can never not praise people or their work enough or their insights. It makes them feel valued, listened to, and a part of the team.

Don't ever criticize anyone in public and if you are a senior, lead, product lead, etc. then take the blame for the whole team when things go wrong (absorb the punch and show that you know how to appreciate them even when they mess up). Turn failures and setbacks into learning opportunities and professional experience builders. Coach them through the problem or failure and try to give them tips, tricks, and tools for the future. Mentor them and show them that even you made similar mistakes and learned from them. Emphasize that we are all human and mistakes are how we grow. Take the time to talk with them, know them personally and what their professional goals are [some people want to be managers and some want to be technical experts and others just like their current job], give them opportunities to grow in alignment with their goals and try new things out (perhaps even let them do it their way and see if they learn from the failure or gain experience [e.g. if I knew then what I know now ...]). Be ready to help them, reach out to ask if they need help or ask them for input on problems (e.g. "Hey, I am trying to do X. What are some of your thoughts? How would you do this? Do you think this looks good or bad? Try to rip this apart.").

Ask for feedback from them about how you are doing, ask them to give you constructive criticism and feedback. Try to build rapport with them. They are human and probably have their own personality (some people are more sociable than others, some are more task-oriented while others are more of a mix). Some people like to commiserate and talk their problems out or through while others want to strategize on solutions. Find out what works best for them and then do it.

However, there is also the fact that there is always going to be dead weight on teams or people who are just going to make the cut. This is natural and sometimes it is for the best of the team, company, and customers to just accept that they don't measure up and need to try another opportunity elsewhere (e.g. different team, different company, or different career/field). Everyone is different and that's a good thing.

Auxiliary note: I am coming from the point of view that you are a more senior professional with multiple years of project experience and team management roles. Obviously, if you are a new comer or someone without history to back up their record, you may want to try listening more than talking or trying to take the reigns on discussions, projects, etc. Know your limits and keep your center. Be ready to new challenges on but don't overstep your bounds. Be respectful and polite with courtesy and you will go very far.

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  • There is also an effect where someone who is a resource and a team player in the way you describe ends up as the first point of contact for a team simply because it is quicker than asking the team's manager, and that needs to be counteracted as well. Apr 20 '21 at 9:26
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  • Pace and what decisions can be made may differ between front and back office.

  • You may be proposing too many changes in one go, not dosing them in incremental manner so people are overwhelmed with information. Typical corporate life and processes are slower, more conservative and doesn't change so often than it could be in a start-up. Changes can disrupt colleagues schedule and may force them to learn new things.

  • Other discussion phrased in opposite way: Why is it important to gain “visibility” in the workplace?

  • From The Phoenix Project:

    I've figured out that the trick to a long career in IT operations management is to get enough seniority to get good things done but keep your head low enough to avoid the political battles that make you inherently vulnerable.

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"Very obviously, you do care."

And ... I don't believe you when you said that there was one time you didn't. (Who cares what "the technology" was.)

That's what motivates you. I understand.

I, too, have made my career by doing things like "helping to save failing projects." You care because you have learned that you can help people, whether or not they realize it and whether or not they appreciate it. You care when you talk to the "managers and highers," whether or not you have an "employee" relationship with them (for tax purposes ...) right now.

"The [old ...] technology cases" are really still the most interesting. First of all, a growing number of people seem to know absolutely nothing about them. (Although I freely admit that I won't try to write "RPG" although I've encountered innumerable business situations which still utterly rely on it.)

Looking back now on my "strange and checkered, most-unconventional" career, I can genuinely say that I wouldn't have had it any other way. We didn't pick the "easy" road – just the "interesting" one.

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Is there a way to excel at what I'm doing without provoking resistance and criticism?

Yes, if you're nice and friendly and everyone likes you they won't complain. If you're not very personable it will be hard, you'll have to carefully excel only in subtle ways.

People feel overwhelmed by you, do something about it

Sounds like bad feedback if that's all you got. You should ask the boss what exactly they expect you to do. It would probably much more useful than guesses by strangers on the internet.

It's not about my being impolite or excluding the others.

Maybe you're not as nice at it as you think, if people are complaining.

I'm wondering: Is not doing much and not caring really the best strategy to be successful in corporate settings?

The best strategy is do what your boss likes. If boss likes out of sight, out of mind, obviously that is better. If boss likes people who distinguish themselves, same. There's not going to be a single strategy that always works.

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