The problem with being nice is that it is not very interesting. It's the people with dirt to dish who are magnets at the water cooler.

But if you want your boss to like you, give him compliments. I know, that sounds like I'm telling you to brownnose. Instead, I'm telling you to find genuine ways to compliment your boss.

I never knew how important it is to compliment a boss until I complimented mine, mostly by accident. My boss gave a speech packed with bad news to employees, and I knew it had been hard on him. So after the meeting, I stopped by his office to tell him privately, “You delivered the bad news really well. People were shocked, but they listened to you, and you made them hopeful.”

His face brightened, and he said, in a surprised voice, “Really?”

I realized immediately how much my input had meant to him. How surprised he was to know I thought he did well and how much he respected my assessment. It seemed pathetic, really. I had thought he was a more confident guy than that. But that's the thing about complimenting your boss: It's disarming and makes your boss think of you as an equal

Studies show, in fact, that powerful people think that people who praise them are smarter and more likeable than those who don't. This may be because powerful people receive fewer compliments than the rest of us.

Not surprisingly, it is the job of powerful people act as though they don't care what anyone else thinks of them. But everyone likes — and needs — compliments, and one reason for the dearth of them at the top is that men give fewer compliments than women, and we all know who dominates the top ranks.

So start crafting your compliments now.

But don't brownnose. The difference between a genuine compliment and a desperate brownnosing attempt is empathy and insight. If you understand what worries your boss, and what she is trying hardest to achieve personally, then you will easily spot opportunities for praise. Don't just say “good job” for the sake of it. And don't just say “good job” either. Carefully craft a compliment in an area that is particularly important to your boss.

Why? The most effective compliments are very specific. And creative words are more memorable than standard words, according to research by Mark Knapp of the University of Texas. Praise of character is the most rare and most memorable praise of all. For example, “Nice job of being compassionate while you were laying everyone off.”

That said, your boss needs to view you as a trusted resource. This means you need to be able to give him bad news as well as good news. I will never forget the employee who told me, “You know how everyone laughs at your jokes at the staff meeting? Well, the jokes are not that funny, but since all those people report to you, they laugh. You should stop with the jokes.”

I was crushed to hear that I was not funny. But it would have been worse if I had been allowed to go on and on. (Though sometimes I tell myself that I really was funny and that particular employee just didn't get my humor.) Still, this person's subsequent compliments meant more to me because I knew she was honest.
I also remember when a boss pulled me into her office and said, “Joe (not his real name) is accusing me of leading him on romantically. This is a serious accusation since I am his boss. Do you think other people perceive me as leading him on?”

I was floored that my boss would ask me this question. Especially since she may have already been in a legal mess. But I was flattered that she trusted me to give her an honest answer. (The guy was a nut case.)

So give genuine compliments, but offer insightful criticism, as well. And remember, if you compliment your boss, she'll view you as a smarter person than she did previously and begin to take all your comments more seriously.

Here are some areas of your work that you should think about when deciding if it’s time to find another job. (Give yourself three points for an a, two points for a b, one point for a c.)

1. Your boss:
How often do you have lunch alone with your boss?
a. Every week at your favorite restaurant.
b. A few times a year at your boss’s favorite restaurant.
c. Once a year when your boss is apologizing for missing your performance review.

2. Future prospects at the company:
You get a big, very important assignment due in two weeks. You
a. Get unsolicited coaching from your boss because she wants to make sure you succeed at the project and get a promotion.
b. Put off the work until the last minute because you find it difficult to please your boss and you worry that you will fail.
c. Work very, very hard, but generally have no idea what you’re doing. In the end, the project is a colossal failure and your boss makes a point of taking no blame.

3. Sense of belonging:
The theme of your company party is dress as your favorite movie star. You
a. Tell your boss you resent stupidity at company parties. But you make the best of it and dress like James Dean so you can get a thrill from wearing jeans and a T-shirt to work.
b. Lobbied for a come-as-you-are party and lost. So you show up to the party but don’t dress up. You stick out like a sore thumb, or at least a sore loser, but your co-worker joins you, so good food can make things acceptable.
c. Avoid the party in full because last year the CEO drank too much and started making passes at people in your demographic.

4. The public’s perception:
Your phone rings fifteen times in one hour. Who’s on the phone?
a. Headhunters, because you are so high profile in your job that people are starting to talk about your future in the field.
b. Your friends because they know you make your evening plans in the afternoon, when work gets slow.
c. Your mom because you told her if you don’t get a new job soon you’re going to kill yourself.

5. Personnel policies:
You wake up with a throbbing boulder attached to your gum. You
a. Leave a message for your boss that you’ll be at the dentist. Receive an email from your boss the next day expressing genuine concern.
b. Call human resources to find out if you have a comp day left. When you find that you have none, declare that you’re working from home and then go to the dentist.
c. Go to work with blood dripping from your mouth. Wax nostalgic about the good old days when you had sick days at work and health insurance to pay for them.

6. Company stability:
Your company is in the newspaper today. The company just
a. Beat Wall St.’s revenue expectations.
b. Canned the CEO and hired a top turnaround specialist
c. Laid off 50% of the staff and sent a list of the jilted to the press

7. Office stress:
Your co-worker just got dumped by the guy she thought she would marry. Now she
a. Asks you if you have any friends who are available.
b. Cries all day, stopped doing her work and now you have to pick up the slack.
c. Informs you that she stole a bunch of electronics from her ex and is storing the stash in her cube. She adds, “If he comes by with a gun, don’t worry. He’d never use it.”

8. Office environment:
Your office space is:
a. Bright and sunny with nice carpet; you wish you could entertain your dates here instead of at your apartment.
b. A claustrophobic cube but at least it’s ergonomically correct.
c. Rotating. There’s one computer for two people and you use it when your co-worker goes to the bathroom.

9. Location, location, location
Your company is located
a. Three blocks from your dream house and you walk to work.
b. In a state you promised yourself you would not live in for more than five years.
c. A five-hour plane ride from the home where your three kids live.

10. The Starbucks factor:
How many Starbucks cafes are within walking distance from your office?
a. Five, because employees at your company are raking in the dough and everyone knows that where there are high salaries there are $4 cups of coffee.
b. One, but the cafe has big, cushy seats for falling asleep in the middle of the day.
c. None. To get through morning meetings you must resort to the No Doze pills of your college days.

11. Company perks.
At the end of your midday workout you:
a. Toss your sweaty clothes into the company’s health club laundry and your clothes are laundered and in your locker by tomorrow’s workout.
b. Go to the company cafeteria and load up on subsidized carbohydrates.
c. Hit the bars; work is so slow that there’s no reason to go back.

12. Salary
During your performance review, your boss
a. Gives you a map for the next five years that will rocket launch your career.
b. Informs you there is a salary freeze for everyone not related to the CEO.
c. Tells you that his own boss gave him a horrid performance review and asks if you would put in a good word for him.

13. During a business trip with the CEO
a. He uses the time to mentor you about the ways of deal making and then sits back and watches you close the deal of your life.
b. You book a flight on an obscure airline with two plane transfers to save money and find out the CEO is flying American, for twice the price, to get frequent flier miles.
c. The CEO invites you back to his hotel room at midnight, and when you decline, he says he’s insulted that you would think it was for anything but business.

14. You hold a team meeting in your office and
a. They surprise you with a birthday cake even though you didn’t tell them it’s your birthday.
b. Everyone shows up late except for the person you have been trying to fire for a year; she showed up a day early.
c. Your office is so small that the meeting has to be moved to a conference room, but there are none available because everyone’s office is too small so you cancel the meeting.

Scoring yourself:

10- 14 points
You are probably so upset about your job right now that you can’t even pull it together to launch a hunt for a new one. So instead, invest in a therapist. Try to figure out why you have stayed in this job as long as you have. Figure out why you put up with so much crap in your life. On some level, you probably enjoy it, which is why you got yourself into this mess in the first place.

You are probably bad at setting goals for yourself, because if you had any goals, you’d realize you’re not meeting them by staying in your current job. Make an honest assessment of what the two or three most important things in your life are. Figure out what you need to get them, and focus on that. Surely, part of your plan will entail getting rid of this current job.

It’s a bad economy, but for someone like you, that can’t matter. You still need to find a new job. Think about taking a step down in salary and responsibility in order to get into a better working environment. Many of the people who score very low in this test will say that they keep this job in order send their kids to camp, buy a flat screen television, etc. But your kids need a role model who is happy in their job more than they need camp. Besides, you can find a discount camp once you settle for a discount salary. And for those of you who justify your awful job in the name of wonderful electronics, remember that you spend more time at your job each day than you do in front of your television. So you get more mileage out of a job that makes you happy than a job that makes you able to buy a TV.

15-24 points
You are probably not the happiest worker in the world, but your job can be salvaged. You need goals and you need boundaries and once these are in place you will be able to put together a good job among mediocre opportunities.

Get a clear image of what you would need at this company in order to be very happy. For most people, feeling challenged and appreciated are the most important aspects of their job. So take a look at those areas first. Then examine your long-term goals and make sure that what you are doing at work now is setting you up to achieve your goals in the future. It’s a lot easier to put up with workplace BS if you know that your job meets your big- goals.

As long as you deliver a little beyond what your boss asks of you, you will be free to request additional projects that interest you and perks that enable you to continue high-level output. Let your boss know what parts of your job you like, and what parts are difficult for you — either because you hate them or because you need more coaching. Also, be sure to tell your boss how she can help you to succeed at work. She’ll appreciate this request since the better you perform the better she looks.

Reassess your situation in three or four months. If you score higher on this test next time you take it, then you are headed in the right direction. If your point spread stagnates, you need to start asking yourself some questions: Are you unable to create change because you are timid and unsure or because you are in a job that will never improve? If you think the truth lies in the latter then make a plan to jump ship. But remember that things are not so bad where you are, so look before you leap. There’s no point in jumping when there’s no other ship in sight.

24-30 points
You have a great job. The only problem you have is that you took the time to take this test. Did you not realize that you would score in the ranks of the happiest contingent? Do you not realize that you are in the worst economy in decades yet you have a great job at a great company?

Before you get yourself into trouble, learn to evaluate situations with a sharper eye. To continue your career path in the direction of success, you will have to trust your instinct. Right now, your instinct is not great — perhaps clouded by chronic self-doubt. For you, it’s important to be able to look optimistically at a situation that deserves optimism.

You are probably too unsure about your current position to have expressed proper gratitude to your boss and co-workers. When you have a good situation at work you should let people know you appreciate them. And, you should let happiness about your job shine though during the day. Your office is a nice place to be, in part, because the people are happy. You should contribute to this atmosphere by letting people know that you are happy, too.

Also, take time to learn from your boss, who seems to be very good at managing you. Few people get the chance to work for someone who cares about their career as much as your boss cares about yours. Watch what she does so that you can give people you manage the same level of support and respect.

Finally, make sure you have a clear vision of where you want to go next. You’re in a good position to get what you want out of your career, but first you have to know what you want. One of the keys to ensuring a successful career is to have a mentor. So talk to your human resources department (or your boss, if it’s a small company) about hooking you up with a mentor. It sounds like you work at the sort of company that would be happy to provide this service.

Your success at work is dependent on your accomplishments, not your ideas. So can everyone please stop being so petty about whose ideas are whose?

A very small number of you are strategists and inventors. For you, your ideas make or break your career. So don't bother reading the rest of this column. For the rest of you, face the music: You are not paid to come up with ideas. You are paid to execute them.

So let's say you're a marketing manager and you have a great idea to spam the whole world to get them to buy soap. Spamming is not an innovation, and selling soap has been done before, too. The person who is a genius will be the person who can make a spam campaign work. That would require direct mail expertise, figuring out which product is most likely to sell, setting up fulfillment capabilities.

Let's say the spam campaign is a success. Who's the genius? The person with the idea to spam or the person who actually increased soap sales? Let me tell you something, in this economy, few companies can afford an “ideas guy”. Companies are hiring people who generate revenue: executors.

Look, I'm not saying the world doesn't need ideas. Ideas are great. And in the perfect world, everyone gets credit for the ideas they have. But the world isn't perfect, and people steal ideas at work. And while we fight off large imperfections like fake (Enron) companies, race discrimination and massive layoffs, getting credit for an idea is pretty small peanuts.

Yet still, I hear people complain about a stolen idea as if it was their first-born child. And sometimes I think maybe it was. Maybe the people who worry about a stolen idea the most are the people who have the fewest ideas. Ask yourself if your problem is not really thievery but scarcity. If you don't have a lot of ideas to begin with then you shouldn't bother trying to be known for your ideas. It's not who you are.

Most people who complain about stolen ideas peg their boss as the culprit. If you're in this category ask yourself this question: Is your job in jeopardy because your boss thinks you have no good ideas? In that case you probably need to start documenting your ideas on paper. But I have news for you: your boss probably doesn't like you if she recognizes you so little as to steal your brilliance and accuse you of lacking ideas. In that case, you can grovel for credit, but you should probably try to find a job working for someone else.

And here's a tip for when you're looking for that next job: Don't bother listing your great ideas on your resume. No one cares. Employers want to see resumes with quantified accomplishments. Replace “thought of opening a new sales channel” to “opened a sales channel and increased revenue x%”.

Maybe your boss steals just a few ideas, but is generally a good boss. In that case, ignore her ethical transgression. You have a limited number of times you can tell your boss she is bothering you. Use those times for instances when you will make more money. If your bonus is tied to having an original idea, then by all means, point out the idea that your boss stole so that you can collect your money. But if the only thing that a stolen idea harms is your ego, then get over it.

Besides, the best way to get a promotion is to make your boss love you. And you can make your boss love you by making her feel smart. If your boss feels smart it doesn't mean that she thinks you are not smart. Don't be so insecure. It should be enough that you know that you have good ideas.

It's the Penelope Trunk Q&A column. I like to think my columns answer the questions that people don't ask but should. But today I'll answer the questions that people really ask.

Most popular question: How can I switch jobs and not take a cut in pay? Of course, the answer is that you can't. But people never ask the question like that. Instead they write six paragraphs about their situation at work, their spouse, their 401K, and then they ask me how they can avoid suffering.

Switching careers is hard. Only rarely do fifteen years in your earlier career count for anything. Usually, you start a new career on the bottom rung because your knowledge is not worth much. So you must weigh the terribleness of eight hours a day in a career you don't like vs. having to tighten your budget strings. Here's an idea, though: In your new job, where you know nothing, spend your time at home learning about the new profession so that you don't have time to go out and spend money you don't have.

Second most popular question: How do I become a freelance writer? It's a riff on the first question, really, but hey, it's a bad economy and lots of people are unemployed in their current field.

Here's how I became a writer. I started writing when I was six and wrote nonstop, about things no one cared about. Then I thought, I like to write, I should get paid for this.

So I went to graduate school for writing and the first day, the teacher said, “If any of you can imagine yourselves doing anything but writing, you should do that. Writing is hard, and lonely and full of rejection and you'll never make any money.”

I stayed in school (I had a fellowship — who can give up free money?) but after school I got a job in marketing at a Fortune 500 company. And I made a lot of money.

But I kept writing. For ten more years. I wrote after work and when my jobs were slow, I wrote at work. I used my vacation time to send writing to publishers who rejected me. But then they stopped rejecting me. And slowly, I realized that I could support my family with my writing. So I took the leap. (And, note, a huge salary cut.)

If you think you want to be a writer, first pay heed to my teacher's advice. If you still want to write, remember that most writers spend years and years writing before they get published. So keep your day job until you're sure you won't starve.

Third most popular question: How can you say that people with messy desks are ineffective at work? (This mail is in response to a column.) The answer to this question is that in the column I reported on a study that showed that co-workers perceive that people with messy desks are unorganized. The point of the column is that you can say you work fine with a messy desk, but studies show that your co-workers will never be convinced.

You'd think people would read this and clean their desks. But instead of cleaning their desks, they write to me, to tell me the study is wrong.

The defensive mail about messiness and the scared mail about career changes all reminds me of how difficult it is to be honest with ourselves. Most people get stuck (under piles of papers, under the weight of a lucrative career) because they are scared of seeing what is really best for them. It's easier to see fear of change in other people than it is to see it in ourselves. But seeing it in readers makes me more determined to face it head on in my own life. So, thanks again for all your mail. Please keep writing, even if you just want to yell at me.

Here's a way to kill your career: Have a messy office.

Here are things that people with messy offices say: My work gets done; I know where everything is; People are too concerned about appearances.

All these things could be true. But here is what is also true: If your desk is a mess you look like you're totally out of control.

The FBI has known for decades that you can judge someone by their workspace, which is why the FBI has special investigators who visit the offices of criminals. The FBI doesn't publish their data on this type of investigation, but the University of Texas does. And a study conducted there found that people with messy offices are less efficient, less organized and less imaginative then people with clean desks.

Some of you who are stubborn (and delusional) are saying, “So what? That's not me.” But even if you are definitely sure that you are as efficient in your messy office as your neighbor is in her clean office, your co-workers don't see it that way. The study also found that people perceived messy workers to be inefficient, unimaginative workers.

A messy desk undermines your career in subtle ways. If you are the owner of the company, you give the impression that you cannot handle your position and the company is in trouble. If you are in middle management, when someone is giving away a plumb assignment, she does not think of you because you give the impression that it will go into a pile and never come out. Even if you get every project done well, the perception will be that you don't.

Still not convinced? Would you ever go to work in striped pants and a striped shirt? Why not? You could still do your job. But people would not perceive that you could still do your job, because appearances are powerful, and someone who dresses in a goofy, unconventional way does not inspire confidence. Appearances matter, and the desk in your office is as important as the clothes on your back.

Managers, take note: This study goes both ways. So if you are thinking of promoting someone, you are probably making the wrong decision if the person's desk is a mess. Either they are in over their head, or they do not care, but either way, they will not instill confidence in the people below them. In most cases, messy desker should be passed up for someone who is neat.

Take a tip from GE, a company known for developing outstanding managers throughout its ranks. GE requires everyone to have a sparkling clean desk each night when they go home. This makes sense — GE attempts to make everyone a potential manager by preventing people from undermining themselves.

Some of you might call this rule draconian. I can hear you now, “A messy desk is an expression of who I am.” This is probably true. I believe that a messy desk is a reflection of what is in someone's head. But you need a clear head in order to be creative and efficient in ways that make your work a reflection of your best self.

So take some time this month to clean up your office and create an organized system for maintaining cleanliness. If GE refuses to keep messy desks in its ranks, then you should, too. Start with your own, and then take a look at the people who report to you.

It's salary review season. Most managers conduct performance reviews at the beginning of the year, and most performance reviews entail some sort of salary review. Don't get your hopes up for a raise though. In this economy, many companies have a salary freeze, and no one's coming out of the cold any time soon.

By all means, prepare rationales as to why you should receive a raise. But in the likely event that your boss cannot budge, suggest ways that your boss can reward you for your good performance without giving you a raise.

On the company balance sheet, a raise is very expensive. It's a fixed, recurring cost, and the additional benefits and taxes make the raise even more costly for your company. Your suggestions should be one-time expenses, which are easier to justify to the holder of purse strings. Better yet, suggest something that is free to the company.

1. More vacation days. Go for the gold: ask for three extra weeks and bargain down from there. Take a long break now, while the economy is sluggish and opportunities are scarce.

2. Flex time. You could work one day from home. Or, if you are like 80% of office workers, and you know you'll get nothing done from home, ask your boss if you can work four long days and have one day off. This is a good time to hone your work/life balance.

3.Training. Be creative with this request. Recognize one of your weaknesses and find a top-tier class to deal with it – Try public speaking (TAI Resources is great — and thousands of dollars a day), or leadership. (Tony Robbins is $10K plus airfare to some chi-chi island.)

4. Another salary review in June. This promise is free to your boss, and an easy way to get you off his back right now. Get the promise in writing, but realize that a promise for a review is still not a promise for a raise.

5. A laptop to take home. This is a good request to make if you have a crappy computer at home. Tell your boss you will work from home and this will help her justify the expense to the keeper of the purse strings. (Do not actually do any work from home, though. After all, you didn't get a raise. Instead start that pet project — see #8)

6. Stock options. Stock was a joke in the “?90s because it was so overvalued. But today it's not likely that you work at a company where the stock is overvalued (if you do — fight hard for a raise!) So ask for some stock now, before accounting rules change and stock grants cost your company money on the balance sheet.

7. A plumb project. Look around the company for a project coming up that will make big impact on the company's bottom line. Ask your boss if you can manage that project. It won't get you a raise now, but it'll set you up for a big one down the line.

8. A pet project. If there's no big project you can ask for, what about conjuring up your own project? Figure out what skills you need to add to your resume and create a project that will get you those skills.

When you are negotiating with your boss for a substitute for a raise, the thing to remember is that recessions don't last forever. So instead of focusing on salary now, use this time to put yourself in a good position for when the economy improves. The raise will come a little later, but you will be in line for a bigger one.

I am sitting outside Starbucks waiting until 10 a.m., when I am to meet the CEO, who is waiting for me inside to talk about who-knows-what before we visit a client. I do not want to be one minute early in case I run out of stuff to talk about. He greets me with a huge smile, an energetic handshake, and a two-shot latte. “I got one for you,” he says. I do not tell him this will force me to get up from the meeting 20 times to pee.

He tells me he redid the entire presentation the night before.

He says, “How was your weekend?” I say, “Fine.” Why would he care what my weekend was like? And if he did care, he definitely would be unhappy to hear about it. I ask him how his weekend was because I am trained in the graces of human conduct. He says his brother got in a car accident.

He tells me about his brother. He tells me his brother is depressed and has not been functioning for years. No one knows what to do. He thinks the medication caused the accident.

I take a sip of my latte. What to say? I say, “It must be really hard on your family.” Yes. This is good. Compassionate yet vague.

CEO: Yeah. Depression is so hard to understand.

Me: I know. I have experience with it. People’s first instinct is to say, “Get up. Go do something.”

CEO: Do you know this from other people or personal experience?

I take another sip. Why is he asking this? Why is he having this conversation with me? I decide he needs a friend, and there is no one else he can talk to. I say, “Both.”

At this, he tells all and more. What drugs his brother takes. Why his brother won’t listen to anyone. He tells me his sister is also depressed. He tells me she used to be a real go-getter who could go for weeks without sleep.

I get the whole picture now. I tell him that actually, I know a lot about this stuff. The drug his brother is taking is usually prescribed for depression, but it sounds as though he and their sister are manic-depressives, and his brother’s reaction to the drug was typical for a manic-depressive. I tell him his brother and sister sound like they are at opposite ends of the same hereditary mental illness.

The CEO is wide-eyed. I am worried that he will think I am insane. I say, “Did you read that article in Fortune about CEOs who suffer from mental illness? I think it’s common.” I say, “I think, actually, that you are manic-depressive too, but you are manic, which is great for running a company.”

He says nothing.

I say, “You are lucky.”

He says, “Maybe not. You never know when you will be hit with something like this — when you wake up one day and can’t get out of bed.”

I am pleased that I used my coffee time with the CEO to bond — which is what all the how-to-be-great-at-work books tell you to do. And I think I made a good impression as being someone who has a well-rounded base of knowledge.