Our culture heaps praise on entrepreneurs, those intrepid business gurus who are willing to risk everything to succeed on their own terms. But what if you want to be more independent at work — without going it alone?
Not everyone wants to work for themselves. The rewards may be great, but pitfalls abound. You might not feel like risking multiple failures in order to have more say over your time – even if freedom is important to you.
If you find yourself craving more autonomy, but you’re not interested in navigating that much uncertainty, there are plenty of things you can do to cultivate professional independence. You don’t even have to quit your job to do it.
1. Be Reliable
To get more freedom at work, you first need to prove that you’re trustworthy. That means being reliable — doing what you say you’re going to do and doing it well, 100 percent of the time. It also means making sure that your boss and coworkers know that you’re reliable, by talking with them about your intentions and following up with your results.
That might feel self-aggrandizing, like you’re tooting your own horn, but it’s just good communication. You’re letting your teammates know that they don’t have to worry that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. That makes it easier for them to do their part, too.
It’s also important to communicate when you find that you can’t meet your obligations … even if it’s uncomfortable to admit.
At Inc., Lee Colan advises:
Avoid surprises. If you make a promise that you can’t meet because of truly terrible and unforeseen circumstances, let the person know as soon as possible. Bite the bullet and do not wait until the last minute to tell him or her that you cannot do it. If you are late, call ahead to let the person know when you can meet instead of letting the person wonder where you are. Respond to inquiries and emails within 24 to 48 hours, even if it’s just to say “I got it and will get back to you by next week.” When you use excuses and simply do not let the other party know your status, you are basically saying, “You are not important to me.”
2. Evaluate New Opportunities With Independence in Mind
Are you contemplating changing jobs, or taking on new projects at your current position? Make independence one of your criteria when you’re making your decision.
When you’re evaluating a job offer, it’s especially important to pay attention to two things: 1. the company culture, and 2. the relationship you’re likely to have with your prospective manager.
Company culture is the personality of the organization. It includes factors like the company’s mission and goals, the structure of the workday and week, the office environment and the social atmosphere at work. For example, a startup might have a very relaxed dress code and a casual atmosphere, but ask workers to put in long hours at the office and blur the lines between work and after-work. By comparison, a more traditional company might require you to dress up a bit at the office, but your workday might be more predictable.
When it comes to figuring out how you’d get along with a new manager, pay attention during the job interview and come prepared with your own questions. Ask what their ideal working relationship is, and about the most successful people on their teams.
You’d be surprised how often someone will reveal telling information about themselves during a job interview. Micromanagers may well come right out and tell you that they like to be involved in every part of each project. (“I like to get my hands dirty,” they might say.) And someone who’s difficult to please may describe the failings of their team so far, and express exasperation that no one has managed to last in the role.
There are other signs of a bad boss. They might contradict themselves, or interrupt you, or be late to every meeting. Above all, listen to your instincts. If you can’t see yourself being happy working for this person, pay attention. You can’t be independent at work if your boss is second-guessing everything you do.
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3. Ask About Telecommuting
Unless you’re lucky enough to work at a company that’s adopted a Results-Only Work Environment, you probably have quite a few restrictions on your time at work. Typically, these will include how many hours you work every day, when you’re expected to report to (and leave) the workplace and what you’re supposed to do while you’re there. But if you can negotiate for telecommuting privileges, at least you can conduct some of your workday in your pajamas — and skip the commute.
You might find it easier than you’d expect to convince your boss to let you work remotely on occasion. An increasing number of employers are getting on board with telecommuting, either on a full-time or part-time basis. Benefits to them include saving on real estate costs, boosting employee loyalty and morale and even increasing productivity.
A 2017 survey from FlexJobs showed that 66 percent of workers said that they were more productive working outside the office. If you’ve ever had brought in noise-cancelling headphones to drown out your cubicle neighbor’s chatter, it’s not hard to guess why.
It’s important to emphasize these pluses when you talk to your manager. Your goal is to make sure that they see how telecommuting benefits them. Beyond that, the most important thing is to anticipate their objections. At The Muse, Elizabeth Lowman advises:
Alleviating possible concerns—i.e., concerns about your productivity or IT security issues—should also be a big part of your proposal. Try to put yourself in your boss’ shoes, think about what her biggest questions or hold-ups might be, and be prepared with solutions. For example, propose face-to-face weekly catch-up meetings or weekly task lists to serve as accountability that you’re not just watching daytime TV. Or, suggest working with your IT department to ensure that your equipment is safe. Many companies also have secure VPNs (virtual private networks) that you can log into and enjoy the same security benefits as if you were in the office. Doing your research, especially on these concerns, will show that you’ve thought through every facet of the arrangement.
4. Learn Something New
If you’re not learning, you’re not growing — and if you’re not growing, you’re liable to find yourself with more limited opportunities and less power at work.
Learning doesn’t have to mean investing in formal education, although it can. You can take a class or a seminar, or pair up with a mentor, or volunteer for a stretch assignment that will help you evolve into a new role.
Adopting a growth mindset can also help you see new possibilities for your career.
“Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset,” explains Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, at Harvard Business Review. “They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).”
5. Be Ready to Move On
Do what you love, the advice goes, and you’ll never work a day in your life. But the problem with loving your job is that it can blind you to your own best interests. Even if you’re crazy about your company, its mission and your coworkers, don’t lose sight of the fact that your job is, well, a job.
Employers want workers to be loyal, but it’s not a good idea to start thinking of the company before yourself. Keep your resume updated, your network robust and your skills sharp. And don’t stop thinking about where you want to go next. You never know when things will change and you’ll find yourself back on the job search.
6. Unplug From Work
Another way to be loyal to yourself: protect your personal life from work. That’s harder than ever these days, thanks to smartphones and always-on messaging applications. But unless you’re intentional about unplugging at the end of the day, you’ll never get the rest you need to do your best work.
That means setting your own boundaries and sticking with them. Resist the urge to check email after dinner or when you wake up in the middle of the night. Keep your smartphone out of your bedroom and unwind at night with an actual book, instead of reading e-books on a tablet, which might tempt you to check email.
Take your vacation time and your sick time, if you’re lucky enough to have it. And know when you’re doing so that you’re helping the company, as well as yourself. Taking time away from work will help you be more productive while you’re there. And that will make you and your employer more successful — and give you more freedom.
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What do you do to cultivate independence in your career? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.