The devil is in the details

People at work often talk about others’ attention to detail. There are positive comments, which we love to hear and enjoy being commended for:

“I trust her, she always checks her facts”.

“It is remarkable the way you care about detail”.

Then there are the negative comments. Sometimes these are told behind the backs of others, sometimes they’re given in a feedback session or performance appraisal, and at times, the final discussion of why someone is being given marching orders:

“He always makes mistakes with the details”.

“She never listens and makes notes of exactly what is requested”.

Getting it right the first time saves time and money

There are many opportunities to sharpen skills that help get the job done the first time round, and it becomes almost a state of mind, a mantra. You should not allow yourself to approximate or guess when it only takes slightly more effort to be accurate. You do not let a report go out without having it checked by a colleague or your carefully proofreading it one more time.

What are the skills and pitfalls to ensure we get it right first time?

Calm yourself in face of anxiety

Often we are overwhelmed by tasks and that’s when mistakes happen. Maybe we are new to a task or a big challenge comes our way. Many of us in today’s workplaces are confronted with challenges beyond our experience, because companies have to take on more than they’re equipped to deal with.

Managers become experts at hiding their ignorance and quickly flick the responsibility to juniors or the staff workhorses (sometimes they’re one and the same!). These are opportunities to develop attention to detail.

Beatrix just started a new job. She’d been warned the team was “dysfunctional”. She braced herself when a manager beckoned her into his office and asked if she was a “problem solver”. Without betraying her mental eye-roll at the generic nature of his question, she inquired what he meant. Sure enough, he had a task for her, using software she wasn’t familiar with.

Beatrix wasn’t happy at the way she’d been requested to tackle a job that clearly no-one else had bothered to do, and she disliked working with unfamiliar technology. Nevertheless, she smiled cooperatively and proceeded to ask a lot of questions calmly, getting facts and not giving in to emotions.

Beatrix felt momentary panic at the unfairness of the manager’s request and admitted she didn’t know the software, but said she was prepared to learn, intensively if necessary. She reminded herself that she had plenty of experience in other areas and that sooner or later she got across what she needed to know. She would do the same in this context. She decided to master the software. She was determined to get it right.

Ask the necessary questions

When you work there are often things to check and get right. Make a point of asking questions. Information comes in surprising forms.

When you’re like Beatrix and thrown in the deep end, you must find out all you need to know. Write everything down if it helps. List your questions or areas of uncertainty. Ask those who know the key answers and find out who can show you the ropes. Get the friendliest or most helpful person to sit with you and walk you through whatever you’re doing. Asking as many questions as possible of a person who has the requisite knowledge develops your understanding and attention to detail.

It’s crucial to ask about the bigger context in which the task is presented. Seize opportunities to learn and get acquainted with more. Not everyone welcomes this level of curiosity and forensic questing for information, but by listening and absorbing what you see and hear, you will learn a great deal which then feeds back into what you are doing.

Continually progress forward

Some people collaborate more willingly than others. It is the cooperative colleagues and ‘time-generous’ managers that you come to respect and admire. 

During her preliminary explorations, Beatrix encountered a colleague who’d sigh in loud exasperation whenever he was approached for assistance, so she quickly passed him up.

Her manager lacked good coaching skills. She spoke plainly and politely if he’d failed to communicate his reasoning. Even when he tactlessly pointed out errors, she speedily rectified them and maintained her concentration.

Keep your questions and reactions constructive. Defensiveness and incompetence frequently go together; if you’re encountering this type of co-worker, move on.

Keep your manager aware of your progress and strategies you are taking to carefully and consciously avoid errors. Your professionalism and accuracy will become your admired strength.

Enjoy your progress and results

You may in fact understand more than you’d credited yourself with knowing. Don’t feel bad about mistakes or when someone less tolerant points out missteps. This is part of your learning and mastering the complexities, as well as understanding the task’s scope. It also means you’ll be an excellent trainer when the baton is passed to you, and someone new is in turn asking all the questions.

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