The real truth about the people you work with

Empathy is one of the key signifiers of workplace success. Exhaustive research shows that when businesses fail, it is often because leaders have stopped focusing on understanding different types of environments and instead remain insulated in their own domain. And the Harvard Business Review shows that empathy is key to successful product design. 

To leverage empathy as a competitive advantage, The Fortune 500 obsesses over personality type. Young, promising executives take a test to discover their own personality type and they receive training to understand personalities of those around them.

But there’s also a slew of other kinds of behavioral research that helps you understand what your co-workers are doing and why. Here are some of my favorite examples:

Givers are at top and bottom of the ladder.
I have said many times that in order to be successful you need to help other people. Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, adds an interesting twist to the idea of being kind at work: givers are not only the most successful people, they are also the least successful ones. They are found on the very top and the very bottom of the career ladder. “Takers” and “matchers” are in the middle.

Men are rewarded for faking an 80-hour work week.
There are a lot of ways to get out of doing work. Delegate. Cut corners. Overestimate the time a project will take. The list is endless but the results are the same: you get credit for carrying a huge load while doing a lot less work. And those people who are adept at faking long hours get the same promotions as their workaholic counterparts. If those people are men. Women are much less likely to fake long hours and instead, women ask for accommodations, such as shorter hours and less travel. And women are penalized for asking. Of course.

The child prodigies are suffering. 
A major downside of being a prodigy is that everyone expects you will grow up to become a genius. But the skill of being a child prodigy is qualitatively different from the “skill” of being a creative genius. Child prodigies master an adult domain that has already been invented and defined, whether it is perspective drawing, mathematics, chess, tennis, or music. On the other hand, the adults we classify as creative geniuses are individuals who have invented or discovered something new, something that changes their domain. (So for those of you feeling the need to wallow in schadenfreude, your time has come: those little upstarts suffer once they realize how shallow their talent really is.)

Your peers are in intimate relationships with each other.
Men are likely to mentor women they want to sleep with, and this is probably good for women, as long as they don’t capitulate. (Women have more power when men want sex from them. Duh. But here’s the research.) The people most likely to find a lover at work are those with unusual work schedules. Wondering who it is? When laughter breaks out in a group of people, each one will instinctively glance at whichever other individual they feel closest to in that group. This is a good way of spotting who is secretly sleeping together at work.

People in their 40s are a wreck.
All of them. For one thing, our salaries top out around age 40, but that’s just the time when our financial needs ramp up, often to pay for college. On top of that, most creative breakthroughs happen in our 30s, and our lowest point in the happiness scale is at age 46. This is true for apes, also, which makes researchers think we are biologically set to have a slump in middle age. However our 50s are—for people in a wide range of cultures—a time of re-calibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. So all those people who are getting kicked out of the company for being too old are about to start feeling a lot happier.

Senior executives have open networks.
The number-one predictor of success is how open your network is. If you spend time with people who all know each other, you are not exposed nearly to the level of ideas as someone who spends time with a wide range of people from different walks of life. It’s a spectrum: the further to the right you go toward a closed network, the more you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further left you go toward an open network, the more you’re exposed to new ideas. (Good news is you can get this type of power network even if you hate networking.)

People who wear the same thing every day have good focus.
Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are both known for a repetitive wardrobe, and their laser focus on their company’s product. These men, and others, have said they don’t want to use their brain power to choose what they will wear each day. And that’s an explanation people are increasingly open to when their co-worker seems to never change clothes. (And it’s why, when you see me in 1000 pictures wearing my vest –

-that I have four of so I always have a clean one for the city and a full-of-leaves one for the farm –

you can conclude that I’m just being my regular old high-performing super-focused self.) However there’s a difference between having ten of the same outfits for ten days and having one outfit for ten days. The biggest difference, of course, is smell. Gross, yes, but also a good way to understand your co-workers because you can smell their mood. Really.

People reveal their thinking patterns with their eyebrows.
Mac Fulfer, an expert in jury selection, says your eyebrows match with certain personality traits. For instance, he shows how people with straight eyebrows appreciate facts, ones with curved arches learn best from real-world applications, and those with angled brows like to be in charge.

This type of emotional intelligence is a key factor for being able to construct a career that works for your life. The more you are able to understand people around you, the more you are able to get what you want from them. And, done right, striving to succeed at work makes you a better person: Because if you assume your co-workers are thinking good thoughts, it’s likely that they will think good thoughts about you.


30 replies
  1. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Thanks Penelope – great post! I like how you used it as a platform to weave together lots of interesting research.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    What I’ve experienced is that men are rewarded for projecting competence no matter what. And I think that’s why men will fake the 80-hour week, because it makes them appear more competent. It helps if they have the bravado to wave their hands vaguely over their methods of getting things done.

    I prefer to project honesty. It has hindered my career in that I tell truthfully what I can and can’t do, and not to fake the big work week. What has made me successful despite that is that I am damned good at something in my industry that few know very much about, but every company in my field needs sooner or later.

  3. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    One more thing. I love clothes. I mean, I’m a conservative dresser but I enjoy the feel of fabrics and the work that goes into interesting details and quality construction. I like shopping for clothes; I bought two shirts on my lunch hour today. I also enjoy the process of choosing an outfit for the day. I do it the night before, actually, as part of my bedtime ritual. It takes all of five minutes. And spending that brain power helps me feel prepared for what the day will bring.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Seems like there should be a different rubric for those of us who love clothes, no? Like maybe we are happy because we get to express ourselves creatively every day. And being happy at work comes with a whole bunch of benefits.

  4. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    In my experience the 40s were a rip-roaring mess, and the 50s are straight-up wonderful. It helps if you can get to 50 in decent physical shape, BTW. Also, your boys’ blue eyes (sparkle heart).

  5. Aldamar
    Aldamar says:

    Eliminating all distractions for a certain period while working, it is one of the most effective ways of doing things. Therefore, put locked the door, put a poster, turn off the phone, close the mail application, disconnect the Internet connection, etc. Obviously you can not remain in hiding forever, but you can be twice as productive while you’re at it.

    Of course it is important to interact with your coworkers, but when you need to stay focused on a task, it is best to isolate them.

  6. CdrJameson
    CdrJameson says:

    Interesting difference between ‘givers’ & ‘takers’.
    Gives a good way to look at some situations.

    Perhaps why small businesses do better than large ones? Fewer ‘takers’ between the top and bottom layers?

    Seems clear that ‘givers’ benefit companies overall (possibly at a cost to themselves) whereas ‘takers’ cost the company at a benefit to themselves, so over time any company with too many ‘takers’ will simply collapse.

    Also why performance-related pay/metrics are generally a disaster. They explicitly discourage any kind of ‘giving’ behaviour.

    • Kat
      Kat says:

      Without performance related pay metrics no one will know who did the actual work. That kind of workplace will be a taker’s haven. Taking someone’s credit will not be subject to review.

  7. Cáit
    Cáit says:

    This post reminds my INFJ self why I miss working outside the home: watching and understanding my co-workers.

  8. HousewifeByChance
    HousewifeByChance says:

    The conferring of competence by overstating hours worked and feigning industriousness certainly seems true based on my experience – and you’re right about it being the providence and privilege of men (and I’d add to that women without children). It almost feels like mothers, particularly those hitting their stride in their 30s and 40s, should just give up. So many odds are stacked against them that every impulse to keep at it or fight back just feels like a losing battle.

  9. David
    David says:

    I joke that men at work just carry a file and look ticked off and in a hurry and no b one ever stops them to ask what they’re doing or why they look so intense.

  10. jestjack
    jestjack says:

    Great article…..especially like the take on “givers and takers” and have experienced the whole “leadership failure” scenario. A very insightful article….

  11. TC
    TC says:

    I once got a temp job with a small electrical service company in Worcester, England. One of the estimators there was an older man who only had two sets of clothes. He wore each for 2 weeks solid, then would shower and change to the other outfit. He smelled so bad it was incredible. I used to put a piece of paper over my mouth and nose when I had to talk to him. It was traumatizing.

    The owner asked me if I would accept a full time position with them and I refused. I told him – I could only work with this man because I knew it was temporary. They ended up hiring a woman to replace me that had 10 ferrets in a 1 bedroom apartment.

  12. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think I’m pretty good at empathy. It’s not difficult for me to imagine someone else’s circumstances and identify with it. In fact, I think I’m susceptible to relating too much. I think it has to do with my listening skills. I’ve been told I am a good listener. I’ve been told that by people who don’t really know me. If you’re too busy talking, how is it possible to empathize?

  13. Nick Hughes
    Nick Hughes says:

    Whilst men are more likely to fake an ’80-hour week’, overall I think women tend to work more efficiently. Regardless of this, workloads are insane and employers need to address this issue and play fair with employees. It is not about seeing who has the biggest workload, it is about how this is managed and delivering the right results.

  14. Mattien D
    Mattien D says:

    People often misunderstand each other.
    “That guy over there who doesn’t really talk to others and really keeps to himself while he’s working” might be the most efficient employee in the office.
    But does he get credit for it? Probably not.
    Or maybe he gets a pat on the shoulder now and then from the manager.
    But since that guy doesn’t get any support from anyone because he’s just not that social, the chances of him making a big career are quite slim.

    About the “wearing the same thing every day”:
    Many companies have standard uniforms for their employees.
    Although the main reason for this probably isn’t to not to let their employees use their brain power to think about what they will wear every day, i do think Jobs and Zuckerberg have a good point that is just as beneficial for said companies as looking representative.

  15. Tom
    Tom says:

    Great post.. I always love learning about body language, and it was especially interesting to learn about it from a business perspective

  16. Lilly
    Lilly says:

    I found the part of this article where you reference that men being more likely to mentor women they want to sleep with. I have seen these scenario several times consulting at different businesses. You can always spot the guy who is overly helpful and smiley with the attractive coworker.

  17. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thanks for the post. I want to comment about givers. My senior associate told me to ask for help from my friends. I was too shy to ask for help before, so this week, I asked for help from my teammates. All of them replied, and one has already done what I was requesting so she sent the document to me. Maybe being a giver also means giving others the chance to help you.

  18. Mika Hakkinen
    Mika Hakkinen says:

    Yep–men fake all their hard work.

    It’s amazing the number of lies you tell yourself to make yourself feel better.

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