Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
Tony talked to me about his perception of many of those we worked with. He noted their individual communication styles, what seemed to motivate them and how they made decisions. “Do you ever notice how the district director really chooses his words carefully, while the vice president is more open and willing to just talk with us casually, like a real person?” he asked. I nodded. I really liked the VP’s personality and communication style. “Well, I think it’s because the director really isn’t comfortable giving us false information, so he carefully chooses his words. But the vice president, he’s totally comfortable with just saying whatever he needs to, with a big smile, whether it’s true or not.” I was surprised that Tony’s take on the two men was so different, and obviously more accurate, than my own. I wondered why a guy who did most of his work in a cubicle, with minimal interaction, had even bothered to think about these things. And beyond the thinking, the fact that he was so discerning, that he was able to see so deeply into the personalities and characteristics of these people, it frankly floored me. In addition, Tony had carefully observed how our key leaders communicated and interacted with employees, so when they sent out memos, gave speeches, or visited the office to check in on the staff, Tony was reading between the lines, discerning the reality behind the corporate-speak. He wasn’t judgmental or critical as he described this to me. If anything he was flat and unemotional—like a psychologist with a patient on the couch—he just observed carefully and noted their behaviors.
- Over the years I’ve met many more “Tonys” who strive for a deeper understanding of the people with whom they work. They are able to deal more productively with a broad range of individuals, they are able to navigate office politics more effectively, and all of this helps them gain a more accurate and thoughtful perception of the particular corporate culture within which they work. I have come to view this ability—really a set of skills and capabilities—as the single most reliable predictor of one’s career success.
- It’s tempting to oversimplify what it takes to read people well. Humans are complex creatures and to truly discern an individual’s motivations, fears, wants, needs, perceptions, habits, and attitudes can seem overwhelming and inherently imperfect. This is why so many people just overlook what’s happening beneath the surface of human actions. It’s easier to just put your head down and focus on doing good work, hoping that will be enough. Often it isn’t.
We want to do and be and experience many different things, and generally our strongest motivations at any given moment focus on what we are lacking or feel unlikely to achieve. The promotion you are striving for (and unsure of) is a much more dominant motivator than the annual bonus that is almost certain to occur. We tend to want most that which feels just slightly out of our grasp. So when you are trying to understand a person’s strongest motivations, ask yourself what it is they seem to want that is just not quite achievable right now. Often these deepest motivations are not openly shared with others. For example: Highly ambitious people often feign a lack of interest in the career climb (“I have a passion for doing this job well, I’m really not focused on the next one.”) while in fact they are planning their progress like a chess game, always three or four moves in advance. Their most INTENSE desire is the NEXT step up the career ladder.
Those who are paranoid about losing their job or something else of value at work such as status, bonuses, influence, etc. often overcompensate to hide their uncertainty. (“I’m not worried about it at all. Whatever happens, happens.”) Those who yearn for greater personal recognition often go out of their way to recognize the accomplishments of others. They may appear to downplay any recognition that does come their way (“It wasn’t me really, this was truly a group effort. It’s not about me, it’s about the team.”) when in fact, in terms of their deepest motivation, it’s all about them. So take the time to pay attention. Seriously. Take—the—time . . . to pay attention.
The reality is that it doesn’t actually take more time to read people, but it does take more energy (mental and emotional) and it can be frustrating because the outcome is uncertain and there is often no particular “aha!” moment where your objective is achieved. So it can be overwhelming to think that suddenly you are supposed to be a “mind reader” with everyone you meet, and you’ll almost never know how well you are actually doing. But if you choose to ignore this, or adopt a just-do-the-work mentality, you are putting your career progress at risk. If you don’t read people well, you’re climbing up a wobbly career ladder. Blindfolded.
When a third opportunity became available Ryan was about to dutifully submit his résumé through the internal application system when a colleague noticed and said, “They’re never going to let you out of this job. It would be too much of a risk.” The colleague went on to explain that the previous two people who held Ryan’s current position had made serious blunders that cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ryan was the first person anyone could remember who seemed to have the ability to manage so many fragmented marketing projects at once and always deliver on time, on budget. And Ryan’s current manager had almost lost her job because of the previous failures. So Ryan, because of his excellent performance, had incredible job security. But he was going nowhere at Thane Logistics. This new information completely changed Ryan’s perspective. It didn’t make him any happier, but finally things made sense. He still wasn’t pleased with the outcomes of the two missed promotions or the reason behind them, but at least he didn’t feel crazy anymore. He could have easily made plans to eventually leave Thane Logistics, but he really liked the company, the culture, it was a convenient commute, and he wanted a long-term career there. While Ryan had never bothered to think much about “office politics” or the underlying motivations of those he worked with, this experience was almost like flipping a light switch for him. “It was like playing a game of chess,” he says, “and suddenly realizing that there is a whole different game under the game you’re playing.”
Ryan decided that he needed to figure out how to play the “game under the game,” so instead of immediately applying for the third opportunity he began doing his homework on everyone who would be involved in the decision-making process. He talked to others who worked with them closely, and he observed them more carefully in every meeting and in other interactions. Ryan engaged in a lot of conversations, asked a lot of good questions, and listened carefully for what was being said and what was not being said. Without going into detail regarding everything Ryan did, here is a summary of what he was eventually able to learn: Yes, his manager was VERY paranoid about Ryan moving out of his current position, but she wasn’t willing to admit it. In addition, his manager had just had her second child, and the child had serious health issues. So naturally most of her energies were focused on her child, and this made it even more important for her to not “rock the boat” with a staffing change. His manager was exhausted and stressed out, but working hard to keep all of this hidden. She didn’t want her career at Thane to suffer because she was a “weak link.” But his manager wasn’t the only roadblock. Ryan came to understand that his ability to “keep the trains running” had some business leaders thinking of him as more of a tactical executor and less of a strategic and innovative thinker. One of the core skills that Thane business leaders were looking for in every new director-level employee was strategic and innovative thinking. This didn’t appear on the formal job description but it was clearly an important area of focus for them.
- So Ryan came to understand that he had two problems to solve:
- Help his manager feel more comfortable with his transition to a new role, and
- Help other Thane Logistics business leaders gain confidence in his strategic and innovative thinking capabilities. And Ryan’s big “aha!” moment was to realize that he needed to solve problem number two before (or at the same time as) solving problem number one. He could have easily fallen into the trap of just solving the issue with his own manager, then running up against the brick wall of problem number two.
If you are going to delve deeper into the motivations and behavioral tendencies of the people you work with, you have to minimize your own emotional reactions and set aside any and all preconceived notions, judgments, and expectations. This may be harder if you’ve worked with these people for some time, because you’ve already formed opinions about them. The moment you decide that someone is “nice” or “a jerk” or “passive aggressive” or “fake,” or make any other judgmental assessment, or have an emotional reaction, you minimize your ability to really see that person. Even positive emotions can block your clarity. This is one of the fundamental reasons why most of us don’t really see other people clearly. We make quick judgments or have strong emotional reactions, then become blinded by them. Highly confident people can be blinded by their certainty that they are impressing those around them. Timid and shy people can be blinded by their concern for what others are thinking about them.
- You will not be able to accurately observe and assess someone if you are:
You have to be a dispassionate observer of workplace behavior.
One of the best ways to read people and minimize your own emotional/judgmental reaction is to be a third party observer rather than engage directly. When you are personally having a conversation with someone it can be very difficult to stay fully engaged while at the same time being somewhat distant and objective. Over time, as your observation skills increase and objectivity becomes your natural state, this will become easier. But as a starting place, you’ll gain much more useful information by stepping back and observing others, rather than engaging with them directly.
Since you are observing people you work with on a regular basis, you should begin with awareness of their typical behaviors in a variety of settings. Your curiosity about these people should be almost obsessive (but no stalking please) as you notice how they speak, how they dress, how they act and interact with others. How they sound, and even how they smell. Over time patterns with each person will emerge and form a “baseline” for future observations. You’ll stay attuned to notice deviations from the baseline, which can be highly illuminating. One of the best ways to establish a baseline is to observe people in a variety of situations. During meetings, presentations, discussions, etc. you can observe how people communicate, how they dress, how they interact with others, and their general tone or demeanor. Workplace social events often present a fantastic opportunity to “people watch” and observe interactions when everyone is a bit more relaxed. Just noticing who attends, who doesn’t, and who makes an appearance but quickly fades away—all of this can be helpful. Notice who is comfortable sitting with the “powerful,” and who gravitates to the opposite end of the room. Notice who loosens up quickly (and what that behavior looks like) and who stays buttoned up, both literally and figuratively. You can even establish a baseline for conference calls, emails, and other activities. Some people freely share their thoughts, ideas, and questions during group phone calls, while others tend to hold back unless specifically prompted to contribute. Some people respond quickly to every email while others might take days. Some send out lengthy email messages with an (unrealistic) expectation that most people will actually read their dissertation. While others send out brief one-sentence email blurbs. The point here is to pay attention and recognize the normal day-to-day style of each work colleague so that you can recognize when there is a change from their typical behavior.
As you establish a baseline for each key person you work with, you’ll become more sensitive to those times when they deviate from the baseline. You’ll notice the typically tardy colleague who suddenly starts showing up early for every meeting. You’ll notice the “chatty” coworker who seems unusually quiet. The person whose emails suddenly become short and abrupt, who starts oversharing on conference calls, etc. These deviations from the baseline may or may not have significant meaning, but it is important to recognize them when they occur. And then explore further to ascertain the meaning (or lack thereof).
When you first begin focusing on this effort to become more deeply attuned to the people you work with and establish a baseline for each of them, you will probably find that it is easy the first few days, but it’s hard to keep up the level of attention. Many of us are so used to being on “autopilot” in the workplace, not really tuning in to our coworkers, that it is easy to quickly fall back into the old pattern of behavior. Especially when you are overwhelmed with the daily onslaught of work pressures. But if you keep up the effort and push through the initial difficulty it will eventually become one of your natural habits. Remember, you aren’t putting on a mind reading sideshow, so you don’t need to make a snap judgment. All of your observations, over time, will help you establish the baseline.
- When you are observing people it is often the extremes in their behavior that are the most telling. Look for extremes in clothing, hairstyle, grooming, and the way they dress. Look for extremes in mannerisms, habits, and vocal qualities. If the extremes are clearly intentional (clothing, tattoos, wild hair, choice of car, watch, jewelry, etc.) then this tells you something about the image they wish to project outwardly to the world.
- Masking our emotions to get along at work, at home, and in social settings isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we pretend to be interested, or we laugh at an unfunny joke, or we hide our annoyance behind a bland smile, etc. These gentle deceptions allow us to work effectively with people we might not especially care for (and/or who might not especially care for us). Masking allows us to socialize with strangers and take the time to get to know them before deciding the degree to which we are comfortable being transparent. Masking is in many ways the “social glue” that helps diverse groups of people work together productively. But those who are most productive and effective are able to see through the masks of others. Of course, most people are not perfect at masking their true feelings and thoughts. The subtle masks we create for one person are often perfectly obvious to others. When you observe a person interacting with someone else, sometimes you’ll be able to detect the mask they’re putting on for the other party. Or when you see someone sitting alone, especially in a crowd or other environment where they are not concerned about being individually observed, they will often drop the mask. Sudden stress or tension or a surprise can also cause the mask to drop away, at least briefly. As you observe facial expressions, don’t get too caught up in what it means when someone glances downward or sideways, or when their brow furrows, or when they bite their lower lip, or any other specific change—these can have many possible meanings—your purpose is best served by first noticing the facial expression within the context of everything else you are observing, then allow your mind to respond instinctively. What do you THINK is really going on in the mind of this person? Often your immediate gut instinct (if you set aside your emotional reactions and have taken the time to be a good observer) will be more insightful than anything your conscious mind could have produced. With some focus and practice you can learn to read what are called facial micro-expressions. These are brief flashes of true emotion, when the mask drops for an instant, less than a second. These micro-expressions typically only show up when we are trying to hide a very strong feeling that is in conflict with the mask we’re showing outwardly. The expression of true feelings will suddenly and briefly flash across our face, then be gone.
- If you really know a work colleague well, you should be able to answer most of the questions in each of the four categories below.
- Work Habits and Preferences: What are this person’s typical patterns in terms of communication, timeliness, and meeting deadlines? What are you comfortable depending on from this person? What can you definitely not count on from this person? What does it typically take to persuade or change the mind-set of this person? How does this person react when they make a mistake: open disclosure or cover-up? What kind of people do they prefer to work with, and why? What kind of people do they avoid working with, and why?
- Personality Projected at Work: What persona do they want to project to others at work? How close is this to how they are actually perceived by others? In most situations do they tend to be comfortable and at ease with others, or careful and guarded? Do they tend to take control, or expect others to be in charge/make decisions? Do they tend to align/agree with others, or to instinctively find reasons to disagree? Do they tend to confidently promote their own perspective, or seek the ideas of others and gain consensus?
- Professional Ambitions and Limitations: What motivates and drives this person at work? Are they more driven to avoid pain/failure, or more driven toward achievement/acquisition? How would you rate their level of intensity/action-orientation? What has been their greatest work-related pain/failure? What is this person most paranoid/fearful about at work? What is their “tell” when they are not comfortable, or being less than totally truthful? Does this person know how they are truly perceived by others at work? If so, how do they feel about that perception? If not, why not?
- Personal Activities and Goals: Outside of the work environment, what is most important to this person? How do they spend most of their nonwork hours and energies? Is their nonwork personality different? If so, why? What has been their greatest life pain/failure? How has this impacted them? What do they not want others to know about them at work? What does this person worry about most? How does this person’s family perceive them? Who are this person’s nonwork best friends and how are they perceived by those people?
- There are several actions you can take that will help to reinforce these concepts and ensure that you truly apply them:
- Identify the core group of individuals who will have the greatest impact on your career progress: superiors, peers, and subordinates.
- For the next week, take advantage of any opportunities for third-party observation of those in your core group: business meetings, conference calls, presentations, workplace social activities, etc.
- During the week, thoughtfully observe body language, facial expressions, typical conference call behaviors (if relevant), and work toward development of a baseline for those in your core group. Notice when any of them deviate from the baseline.
- Take every reasonable opportunity to ask questions that will provide you with deeper insight regarding those in your core work group.
- Select one person at work with whom you tend to have intense emotional reactions (frustration, anger, intimidation, attraction, etc.) and for one full week make an effort to observe this person while setting aside all of your judgments and assumptions. This may or may not make a difference, but the exercise will serve you well nevertheless.
- Simply remind yourself throughout the next week to—take—the—time to observe people and their natural behaviors throughout your day. You will be amazed at all of the little things you’ve been missing as you rushed through your oh-so-busy life.
As much as any business tries to instill the feeling among employees that they are the “most important asset” for the organization, the truth is that they are not important—it is their output and contributions to the goals of the business that are important. As human “resources” we all serve a purpose, and that purpose advances the goals of the business. Once we no longer serve our purpose (or can no longer do it cost effectively) then the business will cut us from the herd.
This doesn’t mean that employees aren’t important, of course they are. But no one is served well by pretending they are “family,” except perhaps the business itself, which creates a sense of bonding and loyalty on the part of the employees. So the business can reduce unplanned turnover because employees are more loyal and they assume their loyalty will be returned in kind. But when a company needs to restructure or downsize, loyalty to employees is rarely a consideration. Again, this shouldn’t be perceived as bad or unethical or even mildly frustrating. It is just the natural state of business culture.
At work there are no friends or enemies, just imperfect people trying to do their jobs well.
Tony seemed to find a way to deal with just about anyone in a friendly and constructive manner. He seemed genuinely interested in every one of them. Yet he also seemed to clearly see their flaws—he just didn’t let the flaws get in the way. I on the other hand was in the habit of figuring out who the “jerks” and “morons” were, avoiding them at all costs, and keeping to my small group of trusted friends at work. I hated the idea of “office politics” while Tony accepted it as a fact of work life. He didn’t get involved in any of the office intrigue, but he didn’t ignore it either. And he was smart enough, and aware enough, to never let the politics surprise him or hurt him.
Everyone plays politics at work. Some hate the game, mostly because they suck at it.
The human dynamic in business becomes more complex because there are both competitive and cooperative pressures. Plus these are people with whom you might not normally choose to associate. We select our personal friends instinctively, and can easily choose to “unfriend” them, but work colleagues are often foisted upon us. In this unnatural tribe of coworkers, the human dynamic allows some to gain advantage personally or for a cause they support, sometimes at the expense of others. It may not seem fair or right. Shouldn’t doing an exceptional job be enough? Unfortunately it’s not. The hard truth is that you must learn to do a great job AND navigate the complex human dynamics. Like dancing a beautiful ballet in a minefield. If you ignore the land mines, or do nothing but complain about them, you’re likely to lose a few toes. If you deny (or merely express frustration at) the politics that may be going on around you, and avoid dealing with it, you may needlessly pay the price for your disengagement while others gain advantage.
The best way to develop strategies to deal with the political behavior going on around you is to first be a good observer and then use the information you gain to develop a deeper awareness of the working network you operate within. This will also help you develop a network of positive alliances and office “friendships.” So where do you start? First, you need an understanding of the formal and informal hierarchy. The formal structure is usually easy, just take a look at the organizational chart.
- Take some time to think through the informal hierarchy—within the broad organization as well as within your particular work group.
- Who has real influence to make things happen? Why?
- Who has authority but doesn’t exercise it? Why are they passive? (Are they trying to foster leadership in others, or are they afraid of accountability, or is it something else?)
- Who is respected? Why? (Longevity, innovation, helping others, business results?)
- Who seems to be really good at navigating the human dynamics within the organization? (Watch and learn from these people.) These are questions you should answer over time.
- Unless you have had years of experience observing this particular group, you should think through these questions and then spend time noticing the interactions of your colleagues at meetings, events, work discussions, etc. You can even ask others about their perceptions of particular people, but be sure to do so in a totally benign way—don’t telegraph a positive or negative perception of your own. Too often people tend to mirror the perception you telegraph, or at least soften their own expressed opinion so as not to be in conflict with what they perceive your opinion to be. So ask neutral open-ended questions like:
- “What is it like to work with Sandra?”
- “How are things going on the new project with Bob?
- “What’s the culture like in your department?”
- “How have things changed since your new leader started?”
- Of course, you have to be thoughtful about how you ask these questions and with whom you are speaking. In the workplace there seems to be a common underlying paranoia that doesn’t occur in natural friendships or families. Typically, if you ask a family member to “Tell me about Uncle Bob,” you won’t get a paranoid reaction (unless Uncle Bob has some dark secret that no one is supposed to talk about). But in the work world even the simplest questions about other people can generate paranoia. Over time, as you gain a better sense of where the power, influence, and natural respect of others exists within the organization, you can also start to pay attention to the social networks:
- Who gets along with whom and who clearly doesn’t?
- Are there obvious groups or cliques?
- Who has the most trouble getting along with others?
- Who is a “loner” and how do others view them? (Some loners are respected, some are viewed with curiosity or suspicion, others are ostracized.)
Again, the deeply valuable answers to these questions will come over time, through patient observation and interactions with people in many different situations. As you observe and deepen your awareness, you can also begin to build your own social network within the organization.
- Don’t avoid powerful people in the organization. You may be surprised at how friendly and accessible they can be (because so few people are comfortable talking to them). Make sure your relationships cross the formal hierarchy in all directions (peers, bosses, executives) and start to build relationships with those who have the informal power.
- Build your relationships on trust and respect—avoid empty flattery.
- Be friendly with everyone—don’t align yourself exclusively with one group.
- Be a part of multiple networks—this way you can keep your finger on the pulse of the organization.
When Jenny, the midlevel manager with poor (really, nonexistent) political skills, was first approached by her director to discuss the challenges she was having with her team, she was probably somewhat embarrassed because she understood the value of having deeper insight into those around her, but she wasn’t used to being coached or mentored. She had always been an exceptional performer in every previous job—hence her rapid career progress—and had always exceeded the expectations of her employers. So this was a new experience for her, having someone identify a “gap” in her performance. And, not surprisingly, she was defensive and impatient and wanted to rush the process, close the gap, and never have this happen again. It took a fair amount of discussion for her to accept that there was no quick fix. But to her credit, Jenny began to apply many of the ideas just described. She came to a much deeper understanding of the dynamics within the group she was managing, and eventually someone outside of the group helped her understand the frustration they were feeling because none of them had even been considered for the management position. Right or wrong, it was as if the entire group had been dismissed, and they naturally took this as an affront. And even though Jenny was not part of that process, she was the focus of the group’s frustration. Being aware of this didn’t solve the problem, but it was a big step forward.
Some negative people can be turned. Generally speaking you can positively influence those who are difficult if the root of the problem is because they see you as a threat, misunderstand your motivations, or feel slighted by you in some way. When you engage positively with these individuals, ask good questions and actively listen to them, they will often begin to turn. If you truly engage in an effort to mend fences and genuinely want to help them with their priorities, these people can eventually become allies. Sometimes they become your strongest allies. But there will be individuals who can never be turned, and should never be trusted. There are workplace cultures seemingly designed to breed sharks and chew up the angel fish. And the broad culture of an organization is almost always more powerful than the intent of any single individual, so it is important that you understand it.
One thing to consider as we delve into some of the more common organizational diseases (metaphorically of course) is that an exceptionally healthy company may actually provide you with LESS opportunity to differentiate yourself. If everything is going well and everyone is positive, productive, and motivated by the company mission, this is probably a great place to work, but a tough place to really stand out. However, when a company has “issues,” this gives you an opportunity to differentiate yourself based upon your approach to the challenges. Just something to think about.
Here are the three most common organizational culture diseases, along with a few quick points for early treatment: The Cancer of Employee Apathy, Impotence of Flaccid Leadership, and The Constipation of Low Productivity.
- The Cancer of Employee Apathy A cancerous cell has lost its connection with the body’s internal governing mechanisms, growing on its own, ignoring what is best for the host. Employees who have lost a connection with their organization’s mission and purpose have the potential to become as detached as a rogue cancer cell. One or two disengaged employees may not impact the business significantly, but if a critical mass of disconnected employees arises, this can quickly grow into a debilitating corporate tumor.
- Early warning signs include employees:
- Regularly making snide jokes and sarcastic comments about senior leadership.
- Proudly ignoring company directives, policies, and rules of behavior.
- Unwilling to speak up and express a strong opinion in order to avoid a problem or poor decision. They see a “train wreck” coming and let it happen.
- Complaining that there is no future working for the company, unwilling or uninterested in trying to make it better.
- Taking home office supplies or other company property for personal use, and feeling no sense of guilt or remorse (unless they get caught).
- When you are working in an environment with some of these characteristics, the key to effectively navigating the political landscape is to understand that virtually every person is motivated primarily by their own self-interest, not what is ultimately best for the company. You don’t have to echo the common anticompany sentiments, in fact you shouldn’t, but you should be sensitive to common employee frustrations and do what you can to address them. Solve problems, don’t vent your (even reasonable) frustrations.
- Early warning signs include employees:
- The Impotence of Flaccid Leadership: Something about the modern work environment seems to erode the confidence and competence of some leaders. Perhaps they have difficulty asserting authority within matrixed working groups—an increasingly common structure in which numerous departments and individuals (with separate formal leadership) contribute to a project or business task. Perhaps they struggle when assigned to a team in which no one is given a clear mandate to lead. Maybe they feel constrained by the need to compete for the most talented workers. Maybe it’s the Millennials, they seem to reject authoritative leadership.
- Whatever the root cause may be, you know your organization has an issue with flaccid leadership if:
- All decisions are driven by group consensus and there is no clear individual accountability when something goes wrong.
- Major decisions are continually adjusted whenever someone expresses a strong alternative point of view. The voting booth never closes.
- Team accomplishments are celebrated, but exceptionally strong contributors do not get the individual recognition they deserve.
- There is a general feeling that no one is really in charge. It may be tempting in an environment like this to step in and fill the leadership void, but be careful. Unless you have been given a formal leadership role, others in this culture may react with disdain if you step up and out of “your place.” Even if you have been assigned a formal leadership role and have determined that more assertiveness is necessary, go slowly. The careers of many strong assertive individuals have floundered when they have come up against the cumulative power of a large group who have become accustomed to flaccid leadership. Start slowly, assert gently, give them time to adjust to the new world you are creating for them.
- Whatever the root cause may be, you know your organization has an issue with flaccid leadership if:
- The Constipation of Low Productivity: Given the pressures of modern work and the fountain of productivity-boosting books, articles, and apps, it seems shocking that there could possibly be an issue with productivity anywhere in the business world. But in fact there are many businesses where projects get stalled; workers spin their wheels waiting for information, components, or clear direction; or employees are in fact busy bees but not working on the right things. So much of our work is dependent upon the contributions of others, it doesn’t take much for one person to diminish the productivity of a whole team.
- You know your organization is straining to be productive if:
- Employees do not all have clear goals and objectives, tied to direct business impact.
- Late projects and tasks are the norm, not a rare occurrence.
- Employees tend to wait passively if their progress has been halted by another employee’s failure to meet an expected timeline.
- Responsibilities within work teams are unclear or contradictory.
- Failed projects are quickly shelved and forgotten, rather than carefully analyzed and used as learning experiences.
- The good news with this type of working environment is that you have plenty of opportunity to differentiate yourself by being a great example of personal productivity. When your work is delayed because someone else has missed a deadline, you can gently nudge them, and if that doesn’t work then poke a little harder. The most important thing to be careful of when you are trying to make changes within a culture like this is to not let everyone dump their responsibilities on you. They will be more than happy to help you be more productive by doing some of their work for them. Avoid this at all costs. Instead help them all to do their own work by suggesting new ideas, processes, and strategies while making a firm commitment to get your own work done on time, as promised. In the same way that we all experience occasional sickness, every organization at times will experience one or more of these three common diseases. You may notice an outbreak in a particular department or working group, or even with just a particular individual. Remember, the key to treatment is to take early action before you have an epidemic on your hands.
- You know your organization is straining to be productive if:
- In addition to the three relatively common diseases highlighted above, there are other cultural manifestations that are more rare, extreme, and difficult to navigate. Each of these can present unique challenges and different “rules” for office politics, so you should always be on the lookout for:
- The Cult of Personality
- The Culture of Contraction
- The Coliseum Culture
- The Perma-Grin Culture
- The Inbred Culture
The Cult of Personality is an organization that seems to revolve around the ego of one key leader. North Korea under Kim Jung Un would be the most extreme example, but there are plenty in the business world including Anna Wintour, Marissa Mayer, and Donald Trump. There is only one way to survive emotionally and psychologically in this type of culture. First recognize that everything—everything—is about propping up the leader. Then observe carefully what the leader expects from underlings and do your best to comply with those expectations. And accept that your efforts may never be enough. The leader may never, ever be fully satisfied. Or may never give you the satisfaction of knowing that he or she is satisfied. You can recognize the craziness of this type of culture and still make a conscious, reasonable decision to work there, because sometimes the price you pay is worth the benefits you receive. If you are exceptionally well paid, or gain extraordinary experience and/or industry contacts that would be unavailable anywhere else, sometimes it makes perfect sense to work within a cult of personality. But—and this is a BIG but—you should always have an exit timeline and strategy. Never, never let yourself think that this is your long-term career. Many people fall into the trap of the personality cult, becoming so used to the odd requests and unreasonable demands that they forget what the real world is like and how real humans treat other real humans. Over time, a cult of personality WILL erode your own psyche, so work there if you choose to—as long as you have a plan to eventually get out.
- Beth managed to work in this environment for three full years, but she was only able to do so (and stay sane in the process) by following three rules for working in a Cult of Personality:
- Know exactly why you’re doing it and know your endgame (including timeline).
- Trust no one, and understand that most are playing the same game you are. The rest are TRULY nuts.
- Give the Personality all the ego stroking he or she demands, but expect nothing in return. Do not expect consistency, reliability, or integrity. The leader in a Cult of Personality has learned over time that he or she does not have to follow the same rules as everyone else. From a career advancement standpoint my general advice would be to run like hell from any of these people— UNLESS there is a specific career-enhancing reason to stay.
- The Culture of Contraction typically pervades an organization that has gone through a big layoff, or a series of layoffs, or other business downsizing. Most of the surviving employees feel paranoid and wonder if they will survive the next round of cuts. Fewer people are left to do the same or increased amounts of work.
- Typically in an environment like this:
- No one complains openly. Everyone complains at home.
- People are very protective of their “territory”—meaning projects, responsibilities, or any other task in which they bring value to the company.
- The best and brightest are very actively looking for another job.
- Every word of every leader related to the future of the business is overinterpreted and carefully parsed to determine the “real meaning” of their message.
- The key to career advancement in a Culture of Contraction is to find as many ways as possible to create genuine value for the business, especially value that is not easily duplicated by others. Do not feel bound by the limits of your formal job description. If there are ways for you to create business value and differentiate yourself from other employees, get approval from your manager and move forward with it. Even if you do not feel that your own job is directly threatened you should be actively looking for other job opportunities. Your résumé should be polished and ready to send out. You should try to find at least one interview-worthy opportunity every quarter, more often if possible. Even if your head is still fully engaged in the work of your current employer, you want to be fine-tuning your interviewing skills (through actual interviews) and gathering up evidence of your workplace contributions. The best time to find a job is when you have a job. Do not share the details of your job search strategy with anyone at work. Even people who really like you may turn on you when they feel that their own job might be threatened. It is certainly possible to advance within a company even when there is a culture of contraction, but it is very difficult. They may be pleased to have you as a contributor, and happy to have you bring even more value—but PAYING you more for the greater value may not come as easily. So take every opportunity to document and reinforce the value you are bringing to the business and don’t ever miss a single opportunity to “sell yourself” when in the presence of senior leaders.
- Typically in an environment like this:
The Coliseum Culture is an environment seemingly designed to maximize the competition between employees, pitting them against one another in an effort to drive maximum productivity and profits. In a culture like this you will see public “scoreboards” and notifications highlighting the contributions of individual employees. Everyone will work overtime to gain exposure because being anonymous means no one will notice if you’re gone the next day. Sometimes a Coliseum Culture is combined with a Culture of Contraction, essentially having people actively competing against one another for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie. What is most important to survive in a Coliseum Culture isn’t being the very best, it’s making sure there are at least two or three people who are clearly worse than you are. Think of these people as your “canaries in the coal mine.” If things go bad, you know they’ll be gone before you are. If you look around you and cannot see any obvious canaries, guess what . . . you’re the canary.
The Coliseum Culture will chew you up and spit you out if you aren’t clear on the particular rules of the game you’re playing, and if you aren’t tough-minded and determined enough to ensure that you win. On the positive side, those who do win are often very nicely rewarded. The Perma-Grin Culture exists within organizations where negative thoughts and commentary are simply not tolerated. Where everyone smiles and treats one another kindly, and everyone loves everyone. This may seem perfectly pleasant and positive, but taken to an extreme it can be horribly stifling. Especially if you aren’t naturally the perma-grin type.
In a Perma-Grin Culture, when they show you the door, it is always with a kind word and a sincere smile. But they do lock the door behind you once you’re out. Don’t expect the culture to accommodate you. You should flex to align with the culture.
The Inbred Culture stems from an organization with (typically) a long storied history which all employees can recount with pride; firm adherence to long-standing processes, procedures, and work methods (which are often outdated); and an internal language that sounds foreign to outsiders. These organizations often take a perverse pride in their insular environment and are often populated with leaders who have spent their entire careers within the business. General Motors, Brooks Brothers, and Dupont are just three examples of deeply inbred corporate cultures. Their internal language abounds with catchphrases and three-letter acronyms any normal person would find unintelligible. The first key to success in a culture like this is to understand it. Study it. Learn the history and talk to senior employees about the “good old days” of the company. Fully absorb the language, habits, and thought patterns of those who have been immersed in the culture for decades. The second key is to accept that you are not going to change the culture. The careers of many business leaders have been derailed when they thought they would be able to shift the long-standing culture of an inbred organization. While there are a few notable exceptions (Abercrombie & Fitch, Harley-Davidson) your best bet is to find ways to align with the culture rather than change it. Generally the only way an inbred culture ever changes is when there is a dramatic turn of external events that threatens the very survival of the organization. When fundamental change is necessary for survival, then sometimes the necessary change will occur. Sometimes.
If you fail to understand the business culture within which you work, or within a prospective employer, this can put a brake on your career progress.
Remember that the true culture isn’t necessarily what people say it is. The true culture reflects how people actually work with each other, not how they think they should act and react. And the most successful people in business find ways to align with the work culture, not by giving up who they really are, but by flexing their work style and natural habits.
- Learning to navigate the culture and politics of your own work environment is going to require both a mind-set shift and development of new capabilities.
- What is your own attitude toward office politics? Is it an annoyance to avoid? A frustrating necessity? Or can you embrace the reality that almost every activity with other people has an element of human politics, at work and in every other area of life?
- What is your perspective on workplace friendships? Do you understand they are not actually friends, but just friendly work colleagues? Do you have strong relationships with friends and family outside of work? This can help to keep your perspective clear.
- Do you have a broad network of connections with friendly work colleagues throughout the organization, not just limited to your natural day-to-day interactions? If not, what can you do to begin expanding that network?
- How well do you really know the end-to-end business model of your company? Do you understand how all the key departments work together to achieve business objectives? What makes your products or services unique? What are the main business growth drivers and potential threats to that growth? If the answers to these questions are not clear to you, what can you do to deepen your knowledge of the business?
- Do the following:
- Become a student of your business model, work to develop a broad and deep understanding of every department, function, and process that impacts business success.
- Identify those in your business who seem to be really good at navigating the human dynamics within the organization and begin to model their behavior.
- Begin playing “positive politics” immediately by taking every opportunity to help others more than they expect to be helped. Go out of your way to (authentically) recognize the good work of others.
- Play close attention to the political dynamics within your organization and work group:
- Who has the formal power? The informal power?
- How do difficult decisions get made?
- Who is held accountable, and who isn’t?
- Notice who seems to be unaware of the “politics” within your work group and the errors they make.
- Are there any specific individuals who are particularly challenging for you? How might you employ positive politics to develop a more productive working relationship?
- In terms of career acceleration, there is profound value in “owning” your circumstances fully, completely—totally. Not just your fair and reasonable share of the responsibility/blame, but placing the entire load on your own shoulders. This is not about beating yourself up for past actions, bad decisions, or poor choices. This is about seeing yourself and your world clearly, without self-doubt or self-recrimination, in order to prepare for the challenge ahead.
There is a degree of deep confidence you see in people who are fully aware of, and comfortable with, their own faults and failings. They are “comfortable in their own skin” so to speak and we often find ourselves drawn to them, at ease around them, because there is no pretense, no bloated ego, and no self-loathing. The closer you can get to this particular mental and emotional state, the better prepared you will be to face the challenges ahead of you. Remember, this isn’t just about dealing with the bad situation—it is about reacting to the bad situation in a manner that serves to enhance your career trajectory. The problem itself may be somewhat (or completely) out of your control and you may not feel as if this situation is exactly a career booster. It may not be. But your reaction to the situation can definitely provide acceleration, and that is where you have complete control. Instead of focusing on what happened TO you, focus on what you did (or failed to do) to create the difficult circumstances.
- Ask yourself:
- What did I do, or fail to do, to create or contribute to these circumstances?
- Why did I do this?
- What have I learned from this situation?
- How will my mind-set be different as I move forward? Pay particular attention to the “why” question above. Keep the focus on you, your assumptions (Why did you make them?), your blind spots (Why didn’t you see it coming?), and your lack of effort, preparation, or discernment. Often the deep answers to “why” hold the key to preventing similar difficulties in the future.
In most business cultures there is a unique cooperative/competitive dynamic. We all have to cooperate with each other in order to achieve our business objectives, but we are also “competing” with each other to advance our own careers. In business, a rising tide does not lift all boats equally. Some get more credit for a successful project, some less. Some get larger bonuses, sometimes for reasons not connected to actual work performance. Some get promotions, some don’t. And again, this isn’t always driven purely by competency. So while it is important for you to INTERNALLY accept total responsibility for difficult circumstances, be thoughtful about how you communicate this externally. This is not meant to imply that you should consciously try to shift blame to others, but be careful about letting others off the hook. You can take responsibility and hold others accountable for their failings. Taking the hit does not mean letting others off the hook.
When it comes to employment there is no luck, good or bad. There are no accidental circumstances. There are no victims. Everything happens for a reason. And just because you are surprised, or are treated unfairly, does not mean that you can abdicate your own responsibility for the situation. You have made choices. And even when you felt that you were trapped into only one option, if you think clearly, you probably made choices that resulted in the “trap.” There is no career luck, good or bad. No accidental circumstances. No victims.
- Think how this can impact your career going forward.
- To what degree have you fallen into the habit of blaming others for circumstances over which you actually have a significant level of influence or control?
- As you tell your career story to others, how often do “villains” appear in the story? If there are villains, there must be a victim. And you’re not a victim, are you?
- Who do you know in your career who does an admirable job of accepting total responsibility for all of their career circumstances? What can you learn from them? Take some time to think deeply about your life and career, the challenges you have experienced and the choices you have made.
- Remember these three key lessons:
- I created these circumstances, and that may be painful to acknowledge.
- I will create my new circumstances, which may be good or bad.
- I am responsible for a plan that leads me to a positive outcome no matter what the external circumstances might be.
- As I spoke to the group I could see them looking a little confused as I explained that there are four sources of energy that can help employees feel more engaged, motivated, and focused at work. The four energy sources are:
- Emotional Energy: Feeling recognized and valued as a unique human being, able to freely express thoughts and opinions in a “safe” environment.
- Aspirational Energy: Having a positive sense of potential growth and continuous improvement of career circumstances.
- Physical Energy: Being healthy and fit while working in an environment with natural light, fresh air, water, and easy access to healthy foods.
- Mental Energy: Staying challenged with work that requires intellectual engagement while also allowing for regular “downtime” to recharge the mind.
Pay grades and salary ranges are structured to dampen any desire you might have to negotiate for higher compensation. Internal job promotion processes and limitations (must be in your current role for X years, must have approval from your direct supervisor, etc.) are designed to inhibit any aggressive career climbing tendencies. Modest career expectations are set, patience is rewarded (sometimes, sometimes not), and everyone is expected to get in the career line, like obedient steers in an office cattle chute. So if you are one of those people who want to do more and be more—a lot more—the corporate grind can wear you down.
- Think for a moment about how your own energy is impacted by your work environment.
- Your Emotional Energy: Is it hard to be recognized and valued as a unique contributor? Are you able to express your opinions openly in a “safe” environment? Can you truly be yourself, or do you need to put on a “work face” in order to get along?
- Your Aspirational Energy: Do you feel stalled or flatlined in your career ambitions? Are your ambitions kept in check by business policies and procedures? Is career progress unpredictable or irrational?
- Your Physical Energy: Does work diminish your health and fitness? Are you sedentary, sitting for hours at a time? Are you indoors with little or no sunlight? Do you have easy access to fresh food and water? Do you eat for health and energy, or to reduce stress?
- Your Mental Energy: Is your work mentally stimulating, or can you do most of it on autopilot? Are most work requirements systemized and predictable, the same day after day, not requiring you to use your full mental capacity? If you find yourself at a place where you clearly see that your career “fire” isn’t what it used to be, you probably want to make a change, but it can be hard to know where to start. When in doubt, start with physical energy—this is the foundational energy upon which all of the others depend.
Most of us at work don’t commonly experience dramatic moments of massive rejection. Instead we endure occasional “micro-rejections” and while these small moments may not individually be debilitating, for some people their long memory of disrespectful remarks, whispered comments, and unspoken disapproval (real or perceived) can have a cumulative negative effect.
Experiencing rejection or the negative judgment of others is a part of almost every successful career. In fact, the more successful you want to be, the more challenging situations you will have to face. Most exceptionally successful people are confronting fear and hesitation all the time, because they’re constantly pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone.
While the “butterfly” instinct is to avoid difficult people at all cost, this only gives them more room to maneuver against you. So a Rhino will sit near them at meetings, not at the other side of the table. A Rhino will give them compliments in an open forum so that others hear them saying nice things about the other person. The Rhino won’t lie, but may say things like: “You’ve got an experienced perspective on this.” “I appreciate how much you care about this.” You get the idea. Without going overboard, these compliments are intended to let others know you have an appreciation for this person. It will make their behind-your-back negative comments seem small and spiteful. Should this person offer any criticism publicly, be sure to thank them and let them (others really) know how much you appreciate the candid feedback. But try not to argue the point in public. Instead try something like “You’ve made an interesting point and I really appreciate the candid feedback. I want to think about it, to make sure I give this the level of thought it deserves, then we can talk further.” A Teflon Rhino deals with difficult colleagues publicly by expressing kindness, appreciation, and professionalism. Even in private the Teflon Rhino understands that in the mind of an extremely difficult person, this is all a human chess game. So be careful about every move you make. Eric’s biggest mistake was in assuming that there could be a win/win outcome, because that was his personality type. And inherently positive people often get steamrolled by backstabbers in the workplace because they don’t understand the win/LOSE mind-set. But you have to assume that some people will always take every opportunity to defeat you, step by step. So get close. And never let them know that you are aware of their behind-the-scenes activity against you.
Rhinos tend to avoid letting others at work know their inner frustrations because they can never be sure which side other people are really on. And they know that in this particularly ugly part of the workplace poker game, loyalties can easily shift. Most people want to be on the side of the “winner,” so if it appears that the difficult colleague is getting the upper hand, this is the direction most will gravitate to. Don’t let this frustrate or depress you, it is simply human nature. We are all drawn to perceived strength. At the same time, even if you can’t express your own frustrations, you can see the signs of frustration in others. Look for a subtle roll of the eyes when the backstabber takes credit for a project she only briefly worked on. Or indications that others are getting impatient with the backstabber. You can get closer to, and align with, these people. And if they begin to openly express their frustration you should listen attentively, but don’t join in. This is still a chess game. Don’t vent, just bite your tongue and take a deep breath. The same goes for sharing your feelings with your boss; when it comes down to it, to your supervisor (and to companies in general) it only matters that employees are performing. Any personality clashes you’re having with a colleague tend to be low on their priority list. What they appreciate is the person who can work productively with difficult people, not the person who whines and complains about backstabbers.
Never let a colleague’s comments ruin your day. Don’t let the bastards beat you down. In fact, you should take pride in the fact that they are unable to intimidate you or throw you off your game. Instead you should focus on elevating others to show the dramatic contrast between your style and that of the difficult person. If someone comes to you and tells you about a colleague’s negative comments about you, shrug it off with a laugh and say, “I’m going to have to spend more time with her so she gets comfortable sharing these things with me directly. That way we can have a productive conversation.” If they criticize you publicly, at a meeting for example, you can laugh and say with gentle sarcasm, “Don’t hold back, tell us how you REALLY feel.”
You probably do great work in your particular field of endeavor. If not, fix that problem first. But let’s assume that you are exceptionally competent and doing a great job. That’s great, but a lot of other people are doing great work too. You work hard and go the extra mile. So do a lot of other people. You make important contributions to the business. Other people, ditto. So how do you make sure that your achievements and contributions are recognized by the right people in order to maximize your potential for career progress? Because if you don’t find a way to toot your own horn, your strong performance can get lost in the orchestra of other horns blaring loudly. In today’s hypercompetitive world, where no one wants to get caught up in the next round of layoffs, and everyone is competing for the fewer promotion opportunities available, it is not enough to just do good work. You have to go out of your way to make sure the right people KNOW your good work and your exceptional capabilities.
Billboards are designed to grab attention and deliver a quick message before each car speeds past them. Think of physical attributes as your “daily billboard” that advertises to everyone who comes into your presence or quickly passes by.
Career climbing is not a team sport. Rather than thinking that self-promotion is obnoxious, the most successful career climbers accept that it is a necessary part of managing one’s livelihood. Even though success is often a team sport in the corporate world, getting the individual recognition you deserve is something you will have to drive. This means documenting or archiving samples of your work and also making sure that key leaders are aware of your individual contributions. Don’t expect that the value of your work will speak for itself. And don’t be afraid to “advertise” any individual recognition you receive, as long as you do it in a subtle and gracious manner.
When you know that someone has done an especially good job and is perhaps uncomfortable tooting their own horn, go out of your way to toot it for them. This should be authentic and gracious, not an obvious attempt to gain recognition for yourself. But doing this can generate tremendous goodwill and also help to minimize any perception that others might have of you as a self-promoter. If there is a project for which you have done significant work and made a genuinely positive contribution, go out of your way to mention the efforts of others on the project. Again, this needs to be in the form of genuine appreciation. But the natural impact will be to also have others highlight your own contributions. If you go out of your way to generously highlight the good work of others, there is a natural reciprocation that often occurs. They will feel compelled to return the favor at some point. However, occasionally you will recognize that someone in the work environment is nothing but a “recognition vampire.” They suck up all possible recognition and give nothing in return. Once you recognize who these people are, never again give them even a tiny drop of your recognition blood. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the concept of self-promotion, particularly if this is something that is not inherently comfortable for you. As you begin to put some of these ideas and thoughts into action, and as you start to see positive results, hopefully you will not only embrace the value of self-promotion but will actually come to enjoy the show. That is the most critical development—not just doing it as a necessary chore, but actually beginning to enjoy the theatrical element of your career growth. This is what will give you the maximum acceleration.
Be somebody who makes everyone feel like somebody. I’m not naturally outgoing, extraverted, or funny, especially at the office. I’ve been told that people used to assume I was always working on some big problem in my head because of my furrowed brow and the slightly pained expression on my face. And I can get easily bored by a conversation, letting my mind drift away to more interesting things while the other person drones on. Eventually they notice and of course this annoys them. Some have said that I’m not very approachable and not good at small talk. Plus I’m horrible at remembering names—Tony was great at remembering names and regularly used everyone’s first name, like “Hey, Beth, how’s your afternoon going?” or “Charlie, could you follow up on the weekly metrics report?” or “Dan, sorry we missed you last night, hope you can make it next time.” You get the idea. Goddamn friendly bastard. I saw firsthand how Tony’s personal warmth and likability enhanced his career. Plus, in addition to seeing the tangible value of being more charming at work, over the years I’ve also noticed something strange and unexplainable—the truly charming people are not just more pleasant to work with, they actually seem to be luckier than the rest of us. I’m not kidding about this, there seems to be some sort of metaphysical relationship between personal charm and good fortune. Of course maybe when we are nicer to people they are nicer to us, and this sometimes looks like good luck.
Because true charm is becoming more rare in today’s workplace, there is a greater potential to differentiate yourself based upon your exceptional people skills and habits.
It is possible to clearly see the flaws in others without judging them harshly. One of the common characteristics in exceptionally charming people is that they see the rest of us, they REALLY see us, and we often have a sense that they see our flaws as well as our good qualities. And yet they still like us, still find us interesting, still want to spend time with us. This unique perspective—seeing flaws without judging them harshly—is a fundamental element of the truly charming person. In many ways charm is really simple. It is the art of letting people know that you feel good about them, without embarrassing them or asking anything of them in return. Whether you are a CEO of a major corporation or just starting your first job out of college, your personal warmth toward others can serve you well. It will not only enhance the likelihood of career progress, but will make the journey more pleasant for yourself and others.
Is there someone in your professional or personal life you would view as being particularly charming, not just when interacting with you but with a broad range of other people as well? Just observing these people a little more carefully can be instructive. Have you noticed how they always make direct eye contact when speaking with you? Not in a creepy stare-you-down way, but when they engage with you, they REALLY engage with you. There is no sense of distraction or thinking about something else while talking to you.
So if you are focused on enhancing your own level of personal warmth and charm as you deal with others, first see them without judgment, then engage fully, without distraction. Full engagement means when you talk to them, let everything else go for that brief moment in time. If you are so distracted by something on your mind that you can’t fully engage with the other person, then at least apologize. “I’m sorry to seem so distracted. I have a few challenges that are occupying my mind, and it’s hard to let them go.” Even if you continue the conversation from that point, at least you’ve been polite enough to acknowledge your less-than-complete engagement.
Essentially what Bob learned (or had to relearn) was to treat everyone with fundamental courtesy, politeness, and kindness. There will always be some people in the workplace with whom you do not have natural rapport. There may even be people you actively dislike. Go out of your way to be especially respectful to these people. Not necessarily because they deserve it, but because others will notice your good manners. They will especially notice it when you are polite and gracious when dealing with difficult (or impossible) people.
A comfortable confidence comes from someone who is simply at ease with themselves. Not intimidated by others, and not intimidating to others.
Weeks later Bill mentioned this turn of events to a colleague, who replied, “Yeah, when we need to get Sheila to do something, or to change her mind, we ask Sonya for help. We call her the boss whisperer.” Sonya didn’t have any particular method or inside track regarding her boss Sheila. Instead, she simply had a way of communicating and talking through challenges that Sheila found to be productive, positive, and sometimes even enjoyable. Sheila was just as harsh and tough with Sonya as she was with anyone else. But instead of being intimidated or frustrated, Sonya was able to relax and smile and continue the dialogue. It helped that Sonya had great respect for her boss and the agency she had built almost single-handedly, and her calm confidence in the face of Sheila’s “I have spoken” demeanor seemed to work wonders. Sonya was charming and likable and exceptionally persuasive because Sheila liked her and enjoyed their conversations. Even their arguments were enjoyable. So Sonya had no specific persuasion techniques—she had a connection. That is probably the core definition of charm.
- How to work with your boss/ How to manage up:
- Understand the Boss Bubble: Because they have power over others in the workplace, every boss operates within a “bubble” that tends to diminish the accuracy and authenticity of the information which makes its way to them. Many people will try to make sure the boss doesn’t hear “bad news” even if this is information the boss needs to make effective business decisions. Many people will celebrate the boss’s ideas and actions even if they don’t actually support them. They will laugh at the boss’s jokes even if they aren’t especially funny. Your goal isn’t to judge the bubble but to study it for your particular organization. Make sure you understand how well insulated the boss is, or isn’t.
- Study the Boss: Observe carefully how the boss interacts with others, how the boss prefers to absorb information—some want verbal highlights, some want detailed data in written form, some want time to read in private, some want to discuss openly with groups. And some want a combination of these, or something else entirely. Study how your boss takes information in, and then study how he or she delivers information to others. Also observe to determine just how competent your boss really is, how well informed, how effective. Is there anyone else in the business who has a great relationship with the boss? What can you observe about their interactions with that person? Notice any pet peeves the boss may have. Again, your goal isn’t to judge but to gain a deeper awareness.
- Ask Smart Questions: Based on your study of the business and observations of the boss, you should be in a position to occasionally ask smart questions that subtly communicate to the boss that your depth of knowledge goes deeper than expected. For example, “I read your letter to the shareholders in our annual report and wondered what we’re doing now to address some of the strategic threats you mentioned?” A question like this, asked at the right place and time, gives the boss a chance to talk about something he or she has probably been thinking a lot about, and also lets them know a lot about you. Another example would be: “I’ve noticed that our competitors are investing a lot of resources into new technologies. Is that something we are considering? Or do you have a different perspective?” When you frame the question this way, you aren’t implying that the competitors are doing something better, just giving the boss a chance to talk about his or her thought process.
- Create Unexpected Value: You have to do great work in your assigned area of responsibility, that much is a given. But you should try to find other areas in which you can create value for the business, or value specifically for the boss. If a leader mentions that she wishes that she could get more feedback from customers, you might find a way to connect with a few customers and get feedback for her. If a leader expresses frustration that during the monthly Q&A sessions with employees, no one asks the tough questions that people are really wondering about, next time you could ask such a question (carefully, not too tough). Every situation and career are unique, but you can always find ways to create unexpected value that will be noticed and appreciated by the boss.
- Align Your Communication Style with That of the Boss: After you have spent time observing the boss’s behavior, you should have a strong sense of his or her typical communication style. Some people speak very directly, even bluntly, making quick points and expecting quick responses in return. Others tend to ramble in a friendly give-and-take conversational style, and might actually be put off by someone who is too abrupt. Some use lots of data and others tell a lot of anecdotal stories. Some leaders are exceptionally polite and proper, with an excellent vocabulary and perfect diction. Some frequently spout off malapropisms and others swear like sailors. You don’t have to copy the boss’s communication style, but you should know it and align with it in a way that feels natural.
- Diminish the Natural Tension: There is always going to be a natural tension between someone with power and the person over whom they have the power. And typically that tension makes both individuals a little uncomfortable. Yes, you are probably more uncomfortable with the natural tension than your boss might be, but just be aware that the discomfort on his or her part is there. And when you can find natural, appropriate ways to diminish the tension (it will never go away completely) you will find that the boss very much appreciates it. This may mean finding opportunities for humorous commentary during meetings. It may mean engaging with the boss during after-hours work events. This very much depends upon the boss’s individual personality, but your objective is simply to find ways to help the boss become more comfortable with you.
- Be Sensitive to Colleagues: As you develop a stronger working relationship with your boss it is not uncommon for other employees to take notice, and some will be put off, maybe even a bit jealous. It is important that you are sensitive to the perceptions of others and not create the impression that you somehow have special access to the boss or special privileges or special knowledge. Even if in fact you do have some of these things, you should work to minimize the problematic perception of other employees. Do not boast about your conversations with the boss, do not adopt an air of informality around the boss when others feel the pressure to remain formal. If a boss notices that others perceive you to be “favored” in any way, many bosses will immediately stop any conversations or activities that contributed to the perception, and your boss-whispering days are over.
- Know When NOT to Engage: There are going to be issues and circumstances that you simply should not address with the boss, no matter how strong your working relationship may be. In other words, you always have to know your place. Business leaders often have to balance issues of confidentiality and legal compliance with the desire to be open and transparent. In addition, anything related to personnel tends to be sensitive, so if two other employees are having a conflict in the workplace, don’t assume that it is your place to try to resolve it with the boss.
- Help the Boss Win: Once you have a better understanding of your boss, you should be aware of his or her own career goals, and other things they want to accomplish in the workplace. Sometimes there may even be non-work-related goals that you can help with. If the boss mentions that he has always struggled with learning golf, and you know of a truly great golf instructor, you can certainly mention this. At work, if you know that the boss has specific goals, or just a general desire to look good to his or her own boss, anything you can do to help will certainly be appreciated. All of these suggestions should be implemented with the charm and pleasant demeanor we have been discussing in this chapter. It should never feel—to you, to your boss, or to others—like you are “working” the boss. Any whiff of this, and the whole process will shut down quickly.
“I was so ambitious years ago, I knew what I wanted and I wanted it now,” he said. “I was so drawn to the possibilities, I don’t think I even wanted to see the reality of the situation. I was impatient. And when things didn’t go as planned, I wanted so badly to get away from my mistake, quickly, to get away from the frustrations, again I think it sort of blinded me to the reality of the situation,” Hal said. And that was the moment when he began to gain real clarity. He recognized that he didn’t see a lot of the negatives and difficult aspects of the potential future employers because he didn’t WANT to see them. His impatience to move on was blinding him.
Sometimes when confronted with a difficult decision we allow ourselves to be blinded by our desire for money, recognition, power, love, sex, validation, new experiences, or something else we deeply desire (or a combination thereof). So the first step in making any tough-and-profound decision is to question your own mind-set. Question your deepest desires.
Are you being driven by a deep need for recognition or validation from others? Or the fear of embarrassment? Or the desire for money? A profound longing for love or acceptance? A wish that others would know your pain and feel sorry for you? A need to prove yourself right? Or to prove others wrong? Fear of failure? Fear of irrelevance? You are the expert on you, and when you acknowledge your deepest desires related to a potential decision, this gives you the opportunity to set aside that desire, at least briefly. Ask yourself if there is anything you are not seeing because you are blinded by your desire.
When you think of the Star Trek character Spock, the first thing that comes to mind is probably his commitment to logical decisions devoid of emotion. If you think about this a bit more deeply, because of Spock’s lack of emotion he based his decisions on information, and he would typically wait until he had all the information he needed in order to make a reasoned, fact-based decision. Most of us would not argue with the wisdom of fact-based decisions, and most of us have an “inner Spock” who tries to guide us. But we sometimes let our emotional desires convince us that we already have enough information, when in fact there are usually many opportunities to gather more information.
When it comes to making significant career-impacting decisions, sometimes you have to be a detective. Not everyone is always honest with you. Not everyone has your best interest in mind. Companies will often avoid telling you the whole, unvarnished truth about their organization if they think it might dissuade you from wanting to work there. Individuals will selectively omit information that does not serve their cause. Some people will just outright lie to you in order to achieve their objectives. So, to be a good career decision maker you should ask yourself: What are people NOT telling me? What motivations might others have to give me less than accurate information? What could go wrong? What is the worst possible downside?
When career adversity strikes, many of us are initially stunned and inert. We aren’t sure what to do, feel confused and uncertain, and often spend a fair amount of time in denial, contemplation, desperate bargaining, and, finally, sometimes panicked action. Most people wait too long to jump into action and the action they do take isn’t enough. Then when something they try doesn’t work they tend to get stuck again in a stunned pause, overthinking and inert again.
- Researchers have found that even during natural disaster situations, most people react with a delayed, lethargic response (“no need to panic here folks . . .”) and these people actually have a greater tendency to perish. The survivors tend to be those who take quick, targeted, and massive action.