Lara Mulawka

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What to do when you’re over your head in a new job

Perhaps you have a special talent in expanding and embellishing your skills and past experience in a job interview. Whatever the manager asks about, you say “Of course, I can do that!” thinking you’re smart and will figure it out when the time comes. And sure enough, you are thrilled to learn you got the new position. But after the first couple of weeks, you realize you are in way over your head and really don’t know how to accomplish much of anything. What do you do now?

Here are ten tips you can use to help save the day (and save face) when you find yourself in a new job you aren’t completely qualified to do:

  1. Don’t panic if your new job is too difficult

    The more stressed you are the more mistakes you will make. Take a deep breath and break the tasks down into smaller parts. Perhaps there are some parts you are comfortable doing, and that will help boost your confidence.

  2. Admit you don’t know how to do something

    You are better off admitting you don’t know how to do a particular task than taking a guess and doing it wrong. You can always say something like this to a colleague: “We used a different procedure in my former company. Could you explain your process?”

  3. Study up to learn the new job

    Is there a class you can take, either through work or outside the company? An online course? Unless the work is 100% proprietary, someone has probably done it before and wrote a book or at least an online tutorial on the subject. As just one example, if you need to learn advanced skills in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel there are numerous online training classes you can take, or simply click on the question mark logo on the upper right hand corner of the page you are working on to find out how to perform a particular task.

  4. Make a new friend at work

    Perhaps a colleague will take pity on you and will take the time to explain how to do the work. Do something nice for them in return: bring flowers, send a handwritten thank you note, buy them lunch or bake them some brownies.

  5. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

    If you are going to need more time to complete an assignment, don’t say you will have it done in a couple of hours. Better to set expectations upfront than disappoint those who are depending on you, especially if it is a group project.

  6. Use your network

    Perhaps you know someone or have a friend of a friend you could contact who can explain how to do some of your new job responsibilities. Again, do something nice for them in return. And it’s always a good idea to join a trade association, either one that is related to your industry or one whose members share the same profession such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals. Get involved with event planning and programs, and volunteer to help with whatever else needs to be done. Then you will have plenty of people to contact if you need to ask questions or get some training.

  7. Find a mentor

    Even those who are experts in their job could use a mentor for occasional advice on how to handle issues that come up in the office. Find someone outside your department or even in another company who could advise you on how to manage the current situation. If you choose a higher level manager who has been out in the working world for a while, they will be able to make helpful suggestions throughout your career on issues they probably learned the hard way.

  8. Make a trade with a coworker

    If there is someone in your office who knows how to do your work and you know how to do theirs, suggest that you swap tasks—with your boss’s OK. Perhaps there is some annoying report they hate doing every week or they aren’t very good at writing or calling customers to pay their invoices on time. Offer to take these on in exchange for one of your new job responsibilities, until you are able to come up to speed.

  9. Remain self-confident

    There is such a thing as imposter syndrome where you are totally qualified to do a particular job, but you doubt yourself and believe you are big fraud and someone will find out. Always project confidence using the right body language and tone of voice, and make a list of all your past accomplishments to refer to whenever you question if you are capable of doing something in the new job.

  10. Be honest with your new boss

    Sometimes honesty really is the best policy, and you can explain to your new boss that you don’t know how to do something, but you are a quick learner if someone could show you what to do. Tell them you will do whatever it takes to learn the skills required for the new job even if it means working nights and weekends.

And the next time you go for a job interview, try to be more truthful. If you really are as smart as you believe, the hiring manager will pick up on this and might give you a chance even if you don’t have the exact experience. Come prepared with examples of when you were thrown into an unfamiliar situation but you quickly educated yourself and completed the assignment on time and error free. You will thank yourself later.

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