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New to Your Firm: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

By | Dec.15.15 | Daily Dispatch, Legal Careers, New Lawyers, Professional Development

Performance Evaluation

The interviews and the wining and dining are behind you. You’ve accepted the position and joined your new law firm. You’re excited by the opportunity, but you worry about your initial performance. You promoted your skills, experience and expertise pretty strongly in the interviews. Will you be able to live up to expectations?

We’ve all felt performance anxiety in new situations. A little nervousness is probably a good thing, as it keeps us focused and alert. But if there’s too much stress, you can undermine your productivity, success and satisfaction in your new role. What can you do to mitigate that feeling that you’re “just not good enough” and tackle your new legal responsibilities with confidence?

We’re often our own worst enemies when we’re new. Here are tips to help you be more comfortable, confident and successful in your new position.

The Importance of Mindset

One of the reasons for performance anxiety is the mindset you bring into a new situation. Carol Dweck, Heidi Grant Halvorson and other researchers have shown that our in-going mindset has a huge impact in how we anticipate and experience new situations.

Simply put, in new situations people often focus more on performing than learning. Or as Halvorson puts it, we focus more on “being good” than “getting better.”

Obviously you want to do well in your new job, but focusing too much on performing can cause you to approach the initial legal work as if it’s a make-or-break test of your natural skills and abilities. You’ll either succeed spectacularly or fail miserably. No pressure there.

With a performance mindset we also tend to:

  • Focus on rapidly completing new tasks instead of building new relationships. In our haste to accomplish things, we may not take the time to establish the connections that make us successful over the long term.
  • Try too hard to make a great first impression. Striving to be either the smartest or most loyal person in the office often ends up making us look either arrogant or like a suck-up.
  • Be reluctant to ask questions that might make us look bad. Instead, we waste time with endless Internet searches or, worse yet, rely exclusively on our past experience. Most of the time the information we really need to be effective is inside the heads of our officemates.
  • See co-workers as evaluators first, collaborators second. It’s hard to relax when you think you’re being judged all the time.
  • Avoid taking risks and making mistakes. In the heat of the moment, we often convince ourselves the safest way to perform is by not performing at all.

All of that just adds unnecessary pressure that undermines confidence and removes all the fun and excitement of the new role.

The Better Alternative

Fortunately, researchers have found that there is a better way. A simple shift to seeing new situations as learning opportunities instead of performance tests can reap huge benefits. More specifically, a learning-oriented mindset:

  • Gives you more energy and enthusiasm for your new job. It’s likely that you sought this new role because it could provide you more challenge and growth. Embrace and emphasize the excitement of discovery over the stress of performance, and you should enjoy your new job more.
  • Diverts your attention away from your performance fears. If you’re mentally focused on learning from others, you’ve got less mental “bandwidth” to worry about how you’re doing.
  • Helps reframe mistakes and stumbles as just part of the learning process. You’ll stress over them less if you see mistakes more as helpful feedback than the “big reveal” of your less-than-perfect abilities. 
  • Makes a great first impression. Approaching people as learning opportunities causes you to ask questions and listen intently, which shows deference, respect and humility. These are far more effective at making a good first impression than trying to prove you’re the most successful person in the room.

How to Embrace a Learning Mindset

How can you approach your new job with a learning mindset? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Identify what you want to learn from your new role. What skills do you want to improve? What new knowledge do you want to acquire? How will these help you achieve your career goals? The more you can make these salient and important at work, the more you will focus on learning over performing.

2. Approach others as teachers, not evaluators. Ask yourself what you can learn from others at the firm. Who can help me get up to speed quickly? Connect me with critical resources? Help me make sense of organizational dynamics and politics?

3. See every experience as a learning opportunity. Whether things go well or poorly, reflect on what you learned and how you can do better the next time.

4. Mental rehearsals are almost as good as the real thing. If you’re nervous about an upcoming performance, practice in front of the mirror or in the car on your way to work. Anticipate what might happen and experiment with what you might say or do in response.    

What to Do When You're New by Keith Rollag5. Enter new situations thinking “I’m excited” instead of “I am calm.” Harvard researcher Alison Wood Brooks has found this approach helps people enter new performance situations with an opportunity mindset instead of a threat-oriented mindset.

The more you can approach your new position as an exciting learning opportunity instead of an endless “American Idol” performance, the more comfortable, confident and successful you’ll be.

Keith Rollag is Associate Professor and Chair of the Management Division at Babson College. “Success” magazine recently declared his new book, “What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations” (AMACOM) one of the “10 Best Books of 2015.” Follow Keith on Twitter @KeithRollag.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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