By Thaimi Fina

For students embarking on their first job or internship, communicating with colleagues and supervisors can be intimidating and uncomfortable.  However, mastering this skill is crucial for building and maintaining lasting professional relationships with your co-workers. Strong communication skills can also help you to stand out as a genuine and confident person at your workplace.  To emphasize this point, here are three situations where it is imperative that you speak up and communicate effectively.

1. When you need help or guidance.
So, you’re currently working on three projects with quickly approaching deadlines when your supervisor stops by your desk and asks you to take on one more.  “Sure!” you say enthusiastically.  Cue panic response.  To make matters worse you have no clue how to accomplish this project and your supervisor provided minimal direction.  OK, now we’re really panicking.  This situation happens more often than you would think and it’s important that you learn how to adapt early on in your career.  To resolve this dilemma I propose the radical solution of (you guessed it) communicating!

Avoid burning out with a plate full of unfinished projects by talking to your colleagues and seeing if they could help.  Perhaps one of them could assist you in making progress on one project while you diligently work on another (learning to delegate is also a valuable skill to hone in the workplace).  Or maybe they have experience in deciphering your boss’s enigmatic assignments and can provide valuable insights into the project.  If your co-workers are also clueless about what your supervisor expects, I would encourage you to speak with your supervisor and ask for clarification to ensure that you meet and exceed those expectations.  Communicating with colleagues and seeking their assistance in your work shows your team members that you value their input and prevents you from becoming overwhelmed by your workload.  This collaboration could also spark new ideas, promoting innovation and producing even stronger outcomes than if you had attempted the project on your own.

2. When you’re bored or unsatisfied.

So, the work that you’re doing has become repetitive and boring.  You feel unchallenged and don’t feel that your skills are being utilized to their full potential.  As a result, you’ve become disengaged, cranky, and you dread coming to work every day.  Now, more than ever, it’s important for you to SPEAK UP!  (Perhaps in a more tactful way than Peter Gibbons did in Office Space…)

Whenever I speak with students in our Toppel Internship Program who don’t feel challenged enough by their internships, I always encourage them to ask for more.  If you’ve had your eye on a project your colleagues have been developing, don’t be afraid to ask if there’s any way you can help!  Most people are not going to turn down an extra pair of hands because, let’s face it, we’re all stressed and a little overworked.  Asking to become involved in more challenging assignments also shows initiative and demonstrates that you are a team-player.  As an intern, there may be limitations to the projects in which you may become involved.  The interns that I always find most impressive are the ones who overcome those limitations by creating their own projects.  Brainstorm new initiatives that could benefit the company or identify ways to improve the company’s current way of doing things.  You could pitch these ideas to your supervisor and offer to take the lead on the project.  By communicating with your supervisor and finding challenging projects to keep you motivated, you will begin to feel more engaged and establish yourself as a more valuable employee.

3. When you’ve messed up.

Alright.  So that dreaded moment of imperfection finally happened, showing everyone in your office that you are indeed (GASP) human.  You missed an important deadline, you came in an hour late, or you failed to catch a significant error in a report.  Whatever the mistake was, your response is likely to be consistent: you’re freaking out.  First and foremost, my advice to you is: relax, breathe, and stop beating yourself up for it because trust me it was bound to happen sooner or later.  Once you’ve composed yourself, it’s important to deal with this incident head on.  Avoiding your supervisor or pretending that it didn’t happen will only reflect poorly on you and cause others to perceive you as immature or apathetic.

Set up a time to meet with your supervisor or colleague in person (a phone call, text, or e-mail can all be perceived as avoidant tactics and make it difficult to deduce your tone).  Be honest.  Tell your supervisor what happened and genuinely apologize for your mistake.  Before you go into this meeting, it’s also important to think about how you can fix or improve the situation or reduce the risk that it will happen again.  Present these ideas to your supervisor to show him or her that you have reflected on your mistake and are developing an action plan.  This also demonstrates that you are learning from your mistakes and are less likely to repeat them.

After this conversation is complete, that’s when the real communication begins.  Remember that actions always speak louder than words.  Put those words into practice.  Double check your work.  Set three alarms if you have to.  Keep better track of your deadlines by purchasing an agenda.  Whatever action plan you devised, follow through with it!  Everyone makes occasional mistakes at work, but it’s how you recover from them that distinguishes a strong employee from a weak one.

Communicating with higher-ups will always be somewhat intimidating and uncomfortable.  However, I hope that these examples have shown you the value of speaking up and how it can truly transform your experience in the workplace.  And like any other skill, it’s not going to hone itself.  So start now!  Speak your mind in a tactful and professional way and see the difference it can make in your career.