The Frugal Guide to Workplace Competitiveness

Photo by the UMF -

Anxiety about unemployment remains high, even as unemployment rates themselves creep slowly downward. How can cash-strapped workers stand out without breaking the bank?

The Crowd at the Top

If you believe a recent Freakonomics Podcast, then credential inflation has gone nuclear. The theory goes that when there aren’t enough elite jobs for elite applicants, the elite applicants shoot lower, displacing the mid-level workers, who have no place to look but down into low-level jobs. And there’s no place to run for the folks on the bottom rung of the employment ladder as more qualified applicants push them out.

As I’ve written elsewhere (“Fear of a Winner-Takes-All World”), lots of people worry that we’re headed for a world where nearly all the rewards will go to an increasingly rarified group, and the entrance requirements to this club will only go up. The belief that we’ll need more and more education, certifications, and credentials just to get through the front door seems like a short road to a world where almost every one of us can be priced out of the labor market.

But before I became thoroughly depressed by this dark vision, I reflected on the people I know who are succeeding and do good work. They have degrees, sure, but those degrees aren’t what makes them valuable, at least not as I see it. Meanwhile, I know many people who are degreed, but aren’t great performers or even people I’d trust. What makes the difference? Not the length of the string of letters after their names. No, it boils down to a few simple skills and attitudes that I think we’ve all heard, but that aren’t universally practiced, even by supposed elites. And the good news is that adopting and polishing these basic behaviors costs little to nothing outside of some time and resolve to change.

As Good as Your Word

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

So many little breaches of integrity go unremarked. I bet you know someone who habitually says “I’ll call you Tuesday,” but Tuesday comes and there is no call. Although annoying, I don’t usually count such people as malicious as much as careless or inconsiderate. To do it once gives me pause. To do it habitually is to suffer a major loss of face in my book. Of course, far greater transgressions are possible, but if someone won’t do little things right, what confidence can we have that they’ll manage the big things with care?

Beyond ingraining the attitude that what we say matters — that it’s no small thing to be trusted by our family, peers and colleagues — is that people fail at the task of keeping their word in two distinctive ways. The first is that they’re not even aware when they’re making commitments. Perhaps they implicitly assume a “maybe” in front of a statement like “I’ll call you” or “we’ll do lunch.” But to think that the hearer will make a similar assumption is dangerous at best. So, the first way to get better at keeping one’s word is to become keenly aware of when someone could reasonably believe you’re making a promise. If there’s any doubt whether it will be taken as a commitment, or any uncertainty whether you will follow through, then don’t say it.

Integrity also fails when we lose track of our agreement somewhere short of completion. “Oh, I meant to call you, but I forgot.” Suppose we take this statement at face value, it’s still a way of wiggling out of being wrong. It’s shorthand for “I didn’t lie to you when I said I’d call…I just didn’t remember.” To my mind, this is little better, because it demonstrates that a person has no reliable system for carrying promises to fulfillment. The answer to “I forgot” isn’t better memory — it’s better record-keeping. If you make a commitment that you can’t complete right now, I urge you to write it down somewhere you’re sure to review on a regular basis, whether that be a planner, a phone, or just a cocktail napkin.


Want to develop a job skill that’s going to be in demand no matter where you go? Learn to really listen. Therapists may have a lot to say, but they do the most good when they’re silently supportive. In fact, quality listening skills are so rare that people often seem shocked after their first session. Frequently I hear my clients exclaim “Nobody stopped to really hear what was going on with me.”

There’s no need to get an advanced degree to improve your listening. The most important shift is to confront your own need to talk and to ‘steer’ the discussion. It’s all too common to be thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next. If you want to listen better, you’ll need to cut that out straight away. Make room in your head for the other person’s ideas and you may actually hear them.

Communicate Clearly

Listening is the ability to get the other person’s meaning with precision. The counterpart to listening is clear communications. While many books have been written on this subject, the best teacher is practice. Go over your text, your emails, and your conversations. Look for unclarity, ambiguity, and long-windedness. See if you can improve on your own work. If better face-to-face communication is your aim, organizations like Toastmasters International are a great resource.

Master the On-Time Arrival

Airlines aren’t the only ones catching flak for tardiness. Being on time seems to be one of those abilities that some people have, and others struggle with endlessly. While lateness may have many causes, the chronically late often fail to estimate how long things take, and fail to learn from their repeated mis-estimations. Other people fail to take into account how their lateness hurts others, thus lack the emotional push that would get them moving.

Develop and Demonstrate Ability

So far I’ve listed a lot of basic, maybe embarrassingly simple, ways to be more effective and less annoying to people around you. But how are all these good habits going to get you hired? While you can (and I do) put these positive qualities right on the resumé, you can get even more traction by developing a specific skill to expert level, then demonstrating to the world what you can do.

In my own life, writing for business was a skill I discovered quite by accident. It didn’t occur to me how much other people hated writing and how bad many of them were at it. At that time I already had a blog (which was personal, but didn’t cast me in an unprofessional light), and then I documented a minor feature of the Firefox browser — just as a brief demonstration of my writing style. In short order I was working full-time as a technical writer and loving it.

The web makes it easier than ever to share your work with potential employers around the world. Write a blog, create a photo gallery, or make a YouTube video. Whatever your skill or trade, you can find a creative, dramatic way to demonstrate that you’re passionate and skilled at what you do.

Give of Yourself

There’s not much positive about being unemployed, except perhaps that you have free time on your hands. As desperate as you may feel being jobless, the willingness to give of your time and abilities carries with it several powerful advantages. First, if you can volunteer at something that exercises your job skills, you can gain exposure and demonstrate your abilities, as discussed above. Second, people love generosity. The fact that you’re volunteering marks you as someone who contributes to a cause — something any employer would want to know. Third, being productively engaged boosts your own self-esteem and reminds you that you are useful and valuable, even if employment eludes you for the moment.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

No Comments Yet on “The Frugal Guide to Workplace Competitiveness”

Would you like to start a discussion on “The Frugal Guide to Workplace Competitiveness”?

Overseen by an international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe, provides peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2002-2023. All Rights Reserved.