When you're first starting out in your career, it's easy to think that your job consists of "what my boss tells me to do," followed closely by "how my boss tells me to do it." But after 15 years of study, practice and mostly observation, I've concluded that the most productive employees in the world take a different tack. As follows:
1. Don't work for a boss you don't respect. It's true: There aren't an infinite number of jobs out there, and you don't always get to pick the boss you want. That said, you will inevitably fail at your job if you insist on working for someone you don't think very highly of. Because your feelings will inevitably leak out in your attitude, in your words, and in your work. And when your boss gets wind of the fact that you are contemptuous of them, nothing you do on the job will be right -- even if all the work you do is brilliant. That situation alone is the ultimate productivity-killer.
2. Tell your boss what your boundaries are. All of us have tasks we need to decline. Sometimes they represent a higher volume of "ask" than we can shoulder. Other times, they're too outside our scope of work. Still other times, they violate our sense of integrity. If a request is not doable for you, it's important to say so explicitly.
3. Make a regular schedule for pursuing a passion outside the job. Engaged employees are productive employees, and it's a fact that no work environment can be endlessly engaging. You have something in your heart that you love to do, or maybe it's a few things, and it's nothing to do with work. Even if you feel like your tasks are overwhelming, and you're afraid you can't keep up, force yourself to do what you love for at least one hour a day. You will find that the energy, excitement and empowerment that comes from being fulfilled will "spill over" into the workplace. You'll bring more attention and accuracy to your work, because you'll have the confidence to take charge of the job -- to do as well in the office as you do outside of it.
4. Learn the "iceberg" of your corporate culture. In organizational development we visualize the workplace as a kind of iceberg. Most of what you need to know is submerged beneath the surface, and you can be sure that nobody is fully capable of telling you what lies there. So while you should do the things you're explicitly told to do -- that is, the tip of the iceberg -- most of your time should be spent on the invisible levels. At a very broad level, these include the implicit requirements, meaning things you're supposed to know, and the unspoken ones, meaning things that cannot be articulated. The way to explore these seemingly solidified and impenetrable masses is to ask about the implicit even if it makes you feel stupid. Once you understand that, you will be sophisticated enough to surmise the unspoken.
5. Organize your work into "projects" and "programs," and keep track of them. Everybody has things they need to do once and not again; these can be considered "projects" and their minutiae fill up most of your inbox with a flurry of emails back and forth. The rest of your work, and the more important part consists of "programs," that is things that you will repeat doing on a regular basis and that don't get as much attention. To be a productive employee you have to independently keep track of both of these things, and be able to report on them at a moment's notice. Every successful person I know has a binder or set of folders kept close to the desk, and they're ready to display the contents when the boss shows up and abruptly asks for a briefing.
While it's true that talent is something you're born with, the skills associated with being a great employee are most definitely learned. Anyone can become an invaluable asset, if they only take the time to study and practice.
Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a communications specialist in government, as well as a blogger and speaker on branding and social media. The views expressed are her own and do not represent a federal agency or the government as a whole. Follow her on Twitter at @oursocialfuture.