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The Importance of Doing Simple, Basic Things in the Workplace

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Knowledge and skills will help people get hired, but what sets successful workers apart is the execution of simple, basic things at work.

Knowledge and skills will help people get hired, but what sets successful workers apart is the execution of simple, basic things at work.

When the deadlines were tight, an old boss of mine used to say, “Just get it done. You can tell me how later, but just make sure it gets done.”

The workplace is a vast galaxy of action items, deliverables, KPIs, metrics, and a never-ending cycle of deadlines. You venture on your own spaceship to find different worlds, you tag along with your co-workers on their own journey of discovery, and your boss waits for you to get to the finish line—to borrow more from this space exploration metaphor, he waits for you to land on an earth-like planet—which would be considered success.

Sometimes, his ask will be more ambitious, and he’ll want for you to discover a whole new solar system; plus, he hands out a pretty short deadline, just in case you needed to feel more pressure.

But to hell with this hyperbolic metaphor. Let’s not kid ourselves. The office, nor the workplace, is not rocket science.

(Except, of course, for the people at NASA, SpaceX, and actual rocket scientists.)

The point here is that bosses want results. And sometimes, whether we like it or not, it’s black-and-white for them. For us who enjoy the process, we’d love to give him and the rest of our team the juicy details of how sharp we were for catching this and how awesome we were for discovering that, but it is the outcome that often defines us.

Our output (like our grades in school) determines whether we get a pay raise, a likely promotion, or maybe a notice of “deficiency.” To borrow from software development phraseology, “good engineers ship.”

But some bosses do care about the process. They’re also interested to know how you work—did you bother to ask help from those who were at your disposal? Did you consult this and that person? Were there things that could have sped up the process? Or saved on resources?

They’re not entirely carefree about the how. And, as I’ve discovered throughout my years of working as someone’s subordinate, they care so much about the simple, basic things.

Communication

You will hear or read this from all of the how-to guides you can ever find—communication skills are important if you want to be successful at work. Some less-talented people get promoted over the actual savants just because the former know how to get a message across.

These are the people who sound good in meetings or at least have the confidence to speak up. These are the ones who speak in simple but effective language. All of the bosses I’ve ever had emphasize the importance of good communication, and these are just a few nuggets I’ve collected from them:

  1. Being upfront with someone on what is truly needed;
  2. Keeping colleagues updated;
  3. Keeping emails as short as possible, if you can;
  4. Talking or meeting with someone instead of lengthening an email thread;
  5. Not being trigger-happy with responses—being patient with your own thoughts and others’ inputs;
  6. Following up with intent and asking specific questions.

These six nuggets are just a few of my learnings over the first decade of my career. They’re very simple—each of these is far simpler than learning JavaScript or Ruby on Rails—but they get the job done. These are very helpful lessons.

When was the last time you did a self-evaluation of these six things? As I’ve mentioned at the beginning, our results come to define us. It doesn’t matter if we attempted to use a complicated programming language or applied a new design framework into the work that was expected of us if, in the end, we don’t produce what was needed.

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It also doesn’t matter if our environment was adopting Agile methodology, using Lean Six Sigma principles, etc., if our lack of communicating properly was wanting.

Measuring Success and Efficiency

According to prominent organizational psychologist Adam Grant, “Success doesn’t measure a human being, effort does.” Adam knows a lot about work and how people work. His publications, accolades, and accomplishments are too many to mention. His take on ‘measuring’ therefore does not need further debate or explanation.

But allow me to share what I learned about measuring in the workplace. The bosses of today enjoy metrics. Some appreciate quantity, some worship quality. Other managers emphasize efficiency—and in general, bosses love to harp about quantity, quality, and efficiency. The reasons are obvious, but at face value, these three things can be measured. Some examples in the form of questions would be:

  • How many products and services did you sell this month?
  • What was the abandonment rate at checkout when you launched the new API?
  • How many patients complained about their food?
  • How much did you save on construction costs after the redesign?
  • What was the average processing time of clients who needed to renew their driver’s license?

Questions on quantity, quality, and efficiency are all over the workplace. Wherever you are, whichever industry, paid by capitalists or by taxpayers—“measuring” matters a lot. Here are a few basic things I learned about measuring:

  1. Be black and white, avoid fluff, don’t mislead your audience.
  2. When presenting graphs and numbers, use large, visible font.
  3. Predict questions your boss might ask. He or she may have already told you what to present, but there will always be insightful, unexpected follow-up questions—get ready for those.
  4. Be transparent about the process you took when you measured. Disclose your assumptions and acknowledge inaccuracies.
  5. Unusual numbers or figures deserve more context. Be ready for an essay’s worth of an explanation.
  6. Use as few slides or pages as possible—you can always prepare an appendix for more details.

A lot of these points have to do with presenting measurements because you don’t really keep these things to yourself. When your manager asks for numbers, you can always have them on-hand or prepare them.

I realized that although some of my roles in the past were not exactly “number-intensive,” my boss would always ask me, “How’s the x project going along? What percentage?” Responding with “it’s almost done” or “we’re still trying to figure out how to—” are both okay answers, but I realized later on that they didn’t satisfy much.

Responding with generics meant that it was all about trust. Trust is important, but you have to provide some tangibility and accountability to your work—and what better way to do this than give your boss cold numbers?

Setting Expectations

When you continue to perform well, expectations will be high for you. Along with communicating properly and measuring the right way, you also need to set appropriate expectations.

Setting outrageous, over-bearing expectations (especially when you’re new and off to impress) is obviously a big no-no. And setting too easy, low-hanging targets will make your boss’s eyebrow come together while he thinks, “Don’t we pay this person enough?”

Workers underestimate the value of setting expectations. We are all aware that we are accountable to our co-workers, our boss, others who depend on our actions, all stakeholders of our output—but not many pay attention to the value of setting the right expectations. Here are some of my learnings:

  1. Some hurdles are bound to pop up (natural disasters, an issue with a vendor, a surprise event)—account for these.
  2. Provide specific reasons for the expectations you set.
  3. Talk concisely about how you’re going to get the work done (even if you haven’t figured everything out yet).
  4. It pays to expect the worst that could happen. Plan B’s and C’s come in handy.
  5. Being unsure is okay—be honest that you haven’t quite figured everything out yet.
  6. Don’t be afraid to drag deadlines along—but be transparent, accountable, and reasonable.

These six nuggets may sound like some corporate BS, but it matters to be held accountable at work. You are accountable to yourself, but be always mindful of people who depend on your work to be successful themselves.

Working Together

“We’re better together,” says one famous CEO in one of his all-hands meetings. I can’t recall a single boss who didn’t tell me to “work as a team” or collaborate with other co-workers.

I’m neither pro nor against working at the office. But so far, hybrid work (working in the office part of the time and at home part of the time) has been awesome for me, and I appreciate the privilege I have as someone who can opt to work outside the office as long as it’s consistent with my employer’s rules (nurses and policemen can’t work hybrid, for obvious reasons).

But there’s definitely something about “working together” that we all take for granted. Countless books on leadership, teamwork, organizational excellence, etc. are in bookshops (and they are NOT cheap, e.g., Strengths Finder by Tom Rath, which sells for almost $40 at Amazon).

Not all workers have quite figured out how to work well with others—something that, if they just paid some attention to, would help them succeed. Here are a few things I learned about working together:

  1. Don’t contribute to office politics chatter. Let them be. Get to know the players, but don’t play the game.
  2. Understand your colleague better. What’s making him late on all his commitments with you? Does he work in an understaffed department? Does he have higher priorities on his list?
  3. Let others shine. Sure, you can take credit when it’s warranted, but acknowledge others’ contributions. Try to even be more of a listener in meetings when you’re so used to speaking up—maybe others will be able to talk.
  4. Understand your colleague’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t emphasize their weaknesses, but instead help them out (without being too obvious about it).
  5. A bigger team doesn’t mean things get done quicker just because more hands are available. There’s an optimal number of team members to execute a specific task, and you’ll know it once some people are just not essential. Give these people their time back.
  6. Trust that your colleagues will get their part done. That said, prepare for a backup plan in case they don’t deliver.

Running organizations is something complex, and one article just can’t cover everything. That said, I found these six learnings to be valuable in my work, and they continue to work for me.

Talent Is Overrated; Execution Is Underappreciated

I hope these simple insights of very basic things in the workplace—communication, measuring, setting expectations, and working together—were of some value to you. And yes, these are things that you learn in school. The next time someone tells you, “Ay, college is useless” or “your education doesn’t define you,” remember these simple, basic things that make work better and easier.

You don’t always have to be the best coder, best designer, or most talented speaker in your workplace. Sometimes, all you need to be is be very good at the most basic things. Talent is indeed overrated, and we put too much of a premium on A-players. Steve Jobs certainly could not tolerate B-players himself, but perhaps A-players were simply ones who delivered on their promises?

Execution is highly underappreciated in our society, and not just in workplaces. Knowing how to communicate well, how to measure things the right way, how to set expectations, and how to work well with others are things that you expect to see on LinkedIn Learning courses which some people dismiss as complete BS and buzzword bonanzas.

But these are basic actions. Everyone can learn them. Not everyone may be equipped with the charisma needed to be a chief marketing officer, nor the technical savvy to become a senior software engineer, nor the dedication to become an attending neurosurgeon. But guess how all of these people rose up the ranks?

Luck, maybe. And also opportunity. But also the very basic things.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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