The Oil Spill in Your Career: Preventing Professional Disaster (VIDEO)

Jul 20, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

The part of the BP tragedy that keeps me up at night is the fact that so much of what has been destroyed is unrecoverable. No amount of restoration can replace lost ecosystems, livelihoods, or health -- damage we've helplessly watched compound every day. If the disaster has reminded me of anything, it's the importance of recognizing potential problems in advance and having a plan to avoid irreversible damage.

The lesson applies to careers too: some damage can't be reversed. And much like a hidden oil spill, insidious destruction goes on daily in the work lives of many professionals. The contamination accumulates silently, behind the scenes, over time. If you have this kind of oil spill in your career, it will create unrecoverable damage to your work life, your future, and possibly even your health.

I'm referring not to any external element of your environment, of course, but rather to your own patterns of behavior at work. The oil spill in your career is a metaphor for contamination hidden in your patterns, toxicity in the messages about you that your behaviors display every day.

There is good news here: Unlike the BP tragedy, your patterns are entirely under your control. So, to prevent an oil spill in your career, consider two simple tips to manage your silent messages.

Be Predictable
Have you ever worked with someone who was moody, vacillating between emotional extremes? Have you had a colleague who was kind and friendly one day, sullen and quarrelsome the next? If so, you probably learned to read his or her mood, and to avoid interactions on difficult days. You probably also avoided making long term plans to work with that person; you just couldn't be sure what you'd get.

We all have bad hours, days, or weeks at work. Everyone is short on patience sometimes. If the reason for your pressured behavior is obvious, many people will give you the benefit of the doubt, at least occasionally. But if you seem to switch from accommodating to rude with no clear cause, you may become known as being temperamental. If that happens, you will inspire a kind of distrust that is hard to overcome, as coworkers become hesitant to engage with your unpredictability. Nobody will say it to your face, but you will become known as a problem.

The most effective way to prevent this is difficult: you must achieve a level of emotional consistency in the face of adversity. But even if you can't adjust your emotional state, you can always communicate it. It's better to tell someone that you're stressed about a looming deadline, for example, than to let them suffer through your bad mood without understanding the reason for it. Predictability doesn't require perfection, and people are more forgiving when they know you are making an effort. So, get in the habit of being more transparent about the reasons for changes in your mood. At the same time, work hard to minimize your fluctuations.

Be Reliable
Many of us (myself included) have trouble saying no. If a superior or customer tells us to do something, or if a colleague or employee makes a compelling plea for help, we find ourselves inclined to agree. Nobody wants to be the bad guy, and nobody wants to say no to the boss!

This inclination may have served us well in the low-stress, low-output agrarian communities of our ancestors, but it causes us serious grief in today's information age workplace. Everyone is overloaded, everyone is stressed, and everyone has too much on his or her plate already. It may be easy to say you will help, but it's far harder to find the time and energy to do it.

Be careful. If you start missing commitments, you quickly become known as unreliable. Think for a moment about a past or present coworker who made promises he or she didn't keep. How many times did you have to get burned before you stopped trusting that person? It's a pretty small number. And once you had mentally labeled that person as unreliable, it was probably difficult for him or her to recover.

Saying no may annoy your colleagues, but not nearly as much as saying yes and then failing to follow through. Get in the habit of reviewing your priority list before adding more to your plate. Only commit if you can deliver.

If you find this challenging, this video contains more information about how to "Say No Without Saying No."

Your Silent Advertisement
The modern workplace is a stage upon which everyone gets observed. Just as undersea cameras can broadcast the oil spill, your actions will broadcast a message to everyone about how trustworthy you are. This message precedes you into any conversation, meeting, or discussion; it remains behind with your superiors during compensation reviews, discussions of advancement, and decisions about who is on the wrong path.

Manage your self-presentation carefully, and take pains to avoid contaminating your reputation with the poison of bad behaviors. You may not notice the results today, but you will be ensuring a healthy and functional professional future.

Author's note: It is not my intention to in any way minimize the magnitude of the disaster in the gulf. On the contrary, it is my hope that humankind will ponder this tragedy from every angle, and extract as many lessons as possible from it, in order to never repeat it.