three asian staff memebers talk over coffee

Are You Talking Yourself Out of Opportunities at Work?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Most people at work will think you’re fine . . . until you say something that proves otherwise.

Early in your career, it is important to be aware of how other people perceive your professional image at work. What do I mean by professional image? Simply put, it’s the perception that others have of your behavior at work. It includes your attitude and appearance. Most importantly, it covers what you say during interactions with others

Suppose a leader asks Maria’s manager to describe her performance. She could give two different responses:

  • "Maria is productive and driven. She contributes during client meetings and understands our business."
  • "Maria is results-oriented and a high achiever that has a significant amount of business acumen, but she intimidates her co-workers because she shouts at people when she’s under pressure.”

While both responses reflect Maria’s positive attributes, which description do you think the leader will remember? You’ve got it, it's probably the second response.

People are most likely to make a mistake at work during everyday interactions with others (from hallway conversations, to team meetings, to one-on-ones). Here’s what you should pay attention to during your next conversation at work.


Think about it, when you get excited about something, whether you are at home or work, what happens? Naturally, your voice gets louder! The problem is that your excitement can frustrate those working around you.


According to a survey conducted by Olivet Nazarene University, when respondents were asked what annoys them most about their co-workers, 49 percent said it was people that talk too loudly at work. Basically, one out of every two employees is dealing with at least one colleague who speaks too loudly.


I often hear co-workers remark about the energy of people early in their career. While I realize not all employees are alike, the general feedback is that workers in their 20s exude more energy and are impulsive. Bear in mind, there is nothing wrong with high energy. In fact, organizations would like benefit from having more high-energy employees. However, sometimes high-energy people—especially if they are Millennials or Gen Zers—are perceived as being immature.

If you think you are a high-energy person, be observant of how people at work respond to you. If you see colleagues paying more attention to your hand motions than what you are saying, switch up your nonverbal body language.


Case in point: To no surprise, I am a high-energy person. I used to work for a low-energy manager, and I could always tell when my energy was working against me because he would stop listening to me, his eyes would get big, and he’d look at me as if he was watching an action movie—one he didn’t particularly enjoy. I made a point of managing my energy during one-on-one meetings with this manager. I lowered my voice. I would always share two to three updates and ask him one or two questions. I was mindful of my pace and voice inflection. Finally, I made a conscious effort to speak with minimal hand gestures.

Conversation Topics and Word Choice

The most frequent mistake I see people commit early in their career journey is misunderstanding general office talk. Keep in mind, when you are at work, someone is almost always listening. Therefore, try to keep conversations casual conversation and avoid controversial or overly personal topics. Instead, focus on generic interests like the best new restaurants in your city, a concert you attended, or the score of a recent football game. This is especially true when you’re interacting with people you are in the process of building a work relationship with.

Putting It All Together

Bottom line: when you have conversations at work, people will judge whether you are trustworthy. For example, if you work in human resources, there’s a high likelihood that you have access to confidential employee information. If you speak loudly about that info, the focus changes from your professional image to your ethics.

I'm not suggesting you shouldn’t look forward to having fun, enjoyable conversations at work. I am acknowledging, however, that everything you do and say at work matters—especially during interpersonal interactions. Remember, organizations are looking for their next set of leaders, and with leadership opportunities comes expectations about your behavior. Every interaction at work is an opportunity to demonstrate you have potential to move up the career ladder.

About the Author

Kyra Leigh Sutton has 12+ years of work experience. Her background is unique in that she’s spent half of her career in corporate and the other half in academics. Currently, Kyra is a faculty member at Rutgers University’s School of Management & Labor Relations (SMLR) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She teaches a variety of courses, including training, professional development, staffing, and managing the 21st century workforce.

Throughout her career, Kyra has served as an advocate, mentor, and advisor for students and early in career employees. She’s engaged in thousands of conversations, emails, and texts about career matters. She prides herself on giving the advice she didn’t receive early in her career.

You can reach Kyra at [email protected] and LinkedIn.

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Such good advice for us high energy folks--even if we're not milennials.
Thank you, Jacque. I agree with you. I am hyper-focused on early career professionals, but I think we all have to be careful of not talking ourselves out of opportunities. Nonverbal communication and self-awareness are critical and I find myself working on both, daily! ;-)
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Great article: simple to understand and evaluate one's behavior plus share with others as real practical advice that can make a difference. These are things within one's control and self-awareness is the greatest tool we have to achieving the success we desire.
I couldn't agree more Claudia. Often students will ask me how they should build self-confidence. We talk about it, but I also share that self-awareness is the #1 behavior that will impact their careers.
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