Make office politics work for you

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Everyone stop working right now. Ask yourself these questions:

1. Does my boss like having one-on-one meetings with me?
2. Do my co-workers like going to lunch with me?

If you cannot answer yes to both these questions, then you are focusing on the wrong stuff at work. It doesn't matter how well you do your job. If you can't get along with the people at work, no one will want to work with you.

Larry works at a company where new employees are on a one-year probation while they do four rotations. Larry has had reviews after three of his four rotations. The third reviewer told him he is unprofessional. When Larry asked other reviewers why they had not told him this they said, “Management told us not to.”

Larry's interpersonal skills are so lacking that the company decided early on that they want him out after a year. Larry realized it was too late to save his job, but he thought there might be hope for his ego, so he went to a lawyer. The lawyer said it is not illegal to be a bad manager or to run a company poorly.

Larry's problem is that he cannot gauge how people expect him to act in a given situation. And he cannot adjust how he conducts himself depending on the circumstances.

For some people, this skill comes naturally — they are chameleons who can mirror other peoples' moods. Chameleons know what to say when their boss's pet gerbil dies and they know what to say when a co-worker suggests a date. Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer, for example, acts differently when he meets with Wall St. analysts than when he meets will Dell customer service reps.

Some people have one way of conducting themselves and have no idea how to change for a given situation. These are the people who make inappropriate jokes at a client meeting or are too stiff and formal at a company picnic. Chameleons generally disgust these people, but I've got news for you: chameleons don't get fired for being unprofessional.

Most people who hate office social dynamics think people have to change who they are to succeed. But good social skills at work are really a reflection of empathy for the people around you. Anyone who is being their best self — kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others — will instinctively do the right thing at the office.

If you are being your best self, it won't matter that there are difficult personalities at the office. So stop blaming the people you work with for being misfits and morons. People with good social skills can get along with almost anyone; I'm not saying you have to like everyone, I'm saying that you have to make them like you: Figure out what matters to them, what makes them tick, and then speak to that when you interact.

I think you will find, though, that once you get someone at work to like you, you will like them back. When the ugly guy asks you to dance, he is only ugly until he asks you and then his discerning taste makes him more attractive.

So back to Larry. He is young, so he asked his parents what to do. They said, “You can't change other people, but you can change yourself.” (If Larry's parents wrote a career advice column, I would read it. This is good advice for almost any interpersonal problem — at work, at home, anywhere.) So he is seeing a career coach to help him with interpersonal skills: Good idea.

Work is not only about “getting things done” but also getting people to like you. I applaud those of you are hard workers. But let's face it, most work is easily replaceable, especially when five hundred people would love to have your job. Your personality, however, is not so easily replaced. So get people to appreciate you for your interpersonal skills — and you will not only have job security; you'll probably have a spot on the fast track.

5 replies
  1. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    I have a comment about the article “Making yourself more likeable at work.” I disagree with something you wrote. I am a chameleon at the work place, I generally get along with everyone; from the cleaning crew to the president of the company. But I do find it difficult to absorb the comment you made about not blaming the misfits at work, that I should find out what makes them tick and find a way to interact with them. I worked in an environment where the boss referred to us as her “children” and she demanded us to wait on her at her every request. This was a government job in an IT department. There was no getting to know her to find out what makes her tick and the same went for all the “minions” that followed her.

    I tried to bend and find something that we may had in common, but when a family members passes and the next day you arrive to work and all you get is “Oh how is everything?” and two seconds later they cut you off in conversation and proceed to speak with someone who they felt was more important. Why would you want to invest in people that could care less about you? That job reminded me so much of high school, 30-50 yr old playing games with people like they were in 7th grade. Picking on certain people just because they had different views or opinions. You don’t want to create a healthy work environment you basically stating that if you work with a bunch of misfits and idiots, its you that should change, not mentioning anywhere in your article that sometimes someone with the best intentions is still not liked, no particular reason…just because.

  2. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    “Chameleons generally disgust these people, but I've got news for you: chameleons don't get fired for being unprofessional.”

    No, they get fired for bungling the infrastructure upgrade, or skirting federal regulations and costing the company millions.

  3. Devon Shane
    Devon Shane says:

    Oh Jackie, don’t be bitter. I am sure that just as many socially incompetent people “get fired for bungling the infrastructure upgrade, or skirting federal regulations and costing the company millions” as the chameleons do! If a chameleon does make a big mistake, they will be more likely to handle the awkward situation well and say what needs to be said to sooth leadership concerns. I think Penelope is right that giving people around you what they need socially is a way of being compassionate and is very helpful in terms of climbing the ladder and keeping your job, do you really disagree?

  4. jessica
    jessica says:

    I am working with three people who are all speaking one language I do not understand during working hours. They openly told me they do not like me. The owner of the business favored me. Still I am not happy. As far as I know, I tried my best working with them. Still they do not like me. What will I do to work with them harmoniously?

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