Sink or Swim: Learning to Thrive in a Competitive Work Environment
Maybe you’re starting a new job and you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the new information and people. Or perhaps you’re in a work environment where every day, you feel like you’re on the starting blocks of a major competition. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in a sink or swim situation at work, you need to learn to swim—or else your job could be on the line.
The first thing you need to do is learn how to fit into the company culture. When you feel like an outsider, it’s difficult to interact positively with others. This creates negative stress, which is the last thing you need if you want to succeed. When you’re a part of the group, you’ll feel much more confident. To fit in, spend time with your coworkers so you get to know them. Observe how they do things in the workplace, and adopt the same processes and practices.
Next, you need to get support. Ideally, you’ll have one or more coworkers you can go to if you need help with something practical, such as how to access a client’s file. However, as Katie Douthwaite Wolf points out in her article “Thrown Into the Deep End? 4 Ways to Survive Sink-or-Swim Training” on The Muse, your colleagues have their own responsibilities. While they’re probably more than happy to help you out now and then, you need to be respectful of their time so they can focus on their own jobs.
It’s also advisable to find a mentor—a seasoned professional who can offer you guidance throughout your career. He or she doesn’t have to work for your employer. In fact, in some cases it’s better to get an outsider’s perspective. Your mentor can provide industry context and advise you on the best way to handle challenging situations. This will enable you to see the big picture and take appropriate action.
Finally, know when it’s time to ask your manager for help. If you’ve run into a problem that you can’t solve or if you need instructions on what your next task is, send your manager a short message. Keep in mind that he or she is busy, so outline briefly what the problem is and why you need guidance. Once you’ve received an answer, send a brief thank-you message and get back to work.
The ability to succeed in a competitive work environment is an important skill, and one you’ll always be glad you developed. By doing so, you can make your career unsinkable—even when the waters at work get rough.