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Working with other people can often be either the most pleasant or the most frustrating aspect of our waking hours.
As the often-misquoted saying of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre goes, "Hell is Other People." Even if you are doing something you find passion and meaning in, life can be miserable if the people you deal with is a terrible worker.
On the other hand, if you have worked with a true pro, you'd understand what an absolute treat — and how rare — the experience is. It elevates your work quality and satisfaction, motivates you to work better, and inspires you to strive towards higher standards.
How do we improve our career and become a great person to work with?
Amongst all the people I've enjoyed working with, there is one common thing they do consistently that make them stand out from others — they proactively seek to reduce uncertainty.
Uncertainty is a major source of mental drain and work anxiety. When our teammates / managers / direct reports / clients spend time guessing and worrying about your actions, you are adding elements of uncertainty and stress to the people around you.
We prefer the known — even if it's not ideal — than the unknown. A study found that people were significantly more stressed when there was a chance of getting an electrical shock, than when they knew for certain they will be shocked.
When a company provides a great customer experience, often times it involves eliminating elements of uncertainty and surprise, making sure the customers know exactly what to expect. When you order an Uber ride, you know exactly when the ride will arrive, and where the driver is at any moment. When you buy something online, you don't have to second guess when the parcel will show up.
Similarly, to be a great person to work with, others should know exactly what they can expect from you. They know you are on top of things, and they won't have to worry about checking in with you. They know they can focus on delivering their parts, and trust that you will deliver yours.
How to be an Uncertainty Killer?
1 - Do What You Say & Say What You Do
Most people are good at doing and delivering what was promised. But great worker goes one step beyond, communicating their actions and setting expectations clearly, so there is little room for guesswork.❌ "I'll take a look."
✅ "I'll take a look, and let you know by the end of tomorrow what we should do next."
2 - Anticipate
A true pro anticipates where uncertainties might arise, and pre-emptively seeks to squash them. A great worker knows what doubts the other parties might have, and proactively addresses them.
Here's an example: after giving you a task last week, your boss is checking in with you and asking whether you've finished the task.❌ "Not yet"
❌ "Not yet. It will be done by end of tomorrow"
✅ Your boss should never have had to check in on the status in the first place. The fact that they asked means that they felt uncertain. It means you were not proactively providing them with enough information to make them feel at ease.
3 - Total Ownership
There is a corporate culture in Singapore called "cover my backside", where people do work with the goal of protecting themselves from blame.
Instead of just following the motion and checking the boxes, a top professional takes full ownership in delivering results, and proactively moves a task forward.
"Have you integrated the API?"❌ "I've tried working on it. But the documentation is not very clear."
❌ "The server team hasn't sent the API documentation."
✅ Reach out to the API provider and iron out the issues, and inform your manager on the delay
4 - Speed in Communication
All else being equal, speed is an under-rated competitive edge that I see in most top professionals.
A while ago, I was helping a client search for a service provider, and the companies that were prompt in communication gave us the best impression and earned themselves an advantage.
When you are timely in replying emails and messages from others — especially when others depend on your information — you drastically reduce uncertainties and avoid any unnecessary context-switching the counter parties might have to do when you reply late.
There are situations when you need to take time and be deliberate. But a top pro will at least acknowledge and communicate what others can expect: "hey let me think about this, and get back to you by end of the week."
Someone I look up to once told me one of his principles for building trust is never blue-tick someone. Blue-ticking refers to reading a message and not replying, originating from the UX of a chat app called WhatsApp. It is not an easy habit to keep up, especially when we are busy and stressed. But it is an important ideal to strive towards — letting others know we prioritize and value their time by reducing any uncertainty and doubt they might have.
In its original meaning by Sartre, Hell is Other People has nothing to do with our frustration with others. It refers to our ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object from the view of another consciousness.
The term "uncertainty killer" is inspired by an article by Nick Maggiulli.