Tactics that help ensure you don’t get shortchanged.

Marty Nemko Ph.D.

You may wonder why people less competent than you get ahead while you languish. True, it could be appearance, race, or gender but often, more malleable factors are at play. These unspoken rules for workplace success derive from my new book, Careers for Dummies.

Be quietly assertive. Too overt and you’re seen as too willful but if you’re too passive, you’re not noticed. You hit the sweet spot with such actions as:

  • emailing a draft of a report you’ve written to colleagues “for feedback,”
  • in a meeting, waiting until others have made their points and then you acknowledge the contributions of others and synthesize them or make your own point,
  • requesting the okay to do a special project that would use your strengths and interests, be visible to others, and be of benefit to the organization.
  • asking for a change in job description, workgroup, or boss that would bring out the best in you.

Work well but not too well. If most people in your workgroup work 45 hours a week and you work 55, your peers could stab you, even literally: A group of City of San Francisco carpenters was tearing down a perfectly good fence. The new guy asked why? They said, “There’s not enough work to do and we don’t want to get laid off, so we knock stuff down and rebuild it.” He expressed outrage and the end of the day, he returned to his car to find his tires slit and a note on his windshield, “There’s no I in team.” It’s usually wise to stay within 10% of the workplace norm, and if your desired workweek is beyond that, it may be time to dust off your resume.

Embrace office politics. In an ideal world, we’d eschew such shenanigans but here on Earth, you play office politics or risk excision. Of course, playing doesn’t entail sabotaging your colleagues. It means identifying the official and unofficial power people, figuring out how to please them, and cultivating relationships with a well-placed mole or two who will tell you about any sabotage, and usually more important, sing your praises to power people. That’s far more beneficial than your tooting your own fluegelhorn.

Stay on the gossip vine’s periphery. If you’re at its center, you’ll likely create enemies but if you steer clear, you may be viewed as supercilious, “above all that,” which could spawn saboteurs of “high-and-mighty” you. What’s a middle ground look like? Typically it’s to listen and laugh at gossip but not initiate or spread it.

Manage your boss. All bosses are different and may be different with different supervisees depending on how much they trust the employee and as well as on non-merit-based factors. That said, much is in your control: get clear on what’s priority for your boss, how much reporting s/he requires, and to often ask the magic question, “How can I make your life easier?”

Be low-maintenance.  In many if not most of today’s productive workplaces, everyone’s busy. So the low-maintenance employee is much appreciated. Of course, there’s a time to ask for help or to complain, but less is more.

Retain your personhood. Using the aforementioned tactics carries the risk of your squelching your personhood, your individuality. To reduce that risk, you’re usually safe in making moderate deviations from the norm. For example, you probably won’t pay a price for pivoting from timeless clothing designs or for lobbying to allow well-behaved pets in your workplace. When I visited top ad agency Publicis, the offices were festooned with doggies, a lizard, and fish (yes, in a tank.)

The Takeaway

Of course, every workplace and every employee is different, so rather than view the ideas here as rules, they’re more wisely thought of as tactics to consider.


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