I grew up back in the day where the same maxims for career success still applied, and even contrarians (and smart asses) like myself knew that there were a few lines at work you never crossed. It’s the same sort of stuff that’s instilled in us from our earliest days, reinforced by our parents, teachers and peers.
Be on time. Dress appropriately. Don’t talk back. Recognize and respect authority. Check your personal feelings at the door, repress your emotion, collect your paycheck and wait out the years before you finally get that gold watch.
No one expected to actually enjoy work – after all, it’s called work for a reason. But sometime between the late 60s and the late 80s, something changed; when it came to company culture, business as usual became anything but.
Shooting the Ladder.
The shift in employer expectations around what constitutes the right level of decorum on the job has taken a couple decades, a needle whose movement has been so glacial that the change was often imperceptible, but ultimately indelible, a self-evident evolution evidenced throughout almost every aspect of the employee experience.
We swapped suits for sweats, traded 9-5 for flexible working arrangements and ditched most of our formality when we ditched our physical offices, rigidly defined reporting structures or company hierarchy, and the mindset that work is somewhere you go instead of something you do.
While that might seem like a superficially small distinction, that shift has fundamentally changed the way we approach our work and our careers.
And perhaps nowhere is the impact of this change more readily apparent than in the dramatically different relationships managers have with their reports today, leading to a mainstream leadership style that’s inevitably much less formal, much more flexible and infinitely more friendly than ever before.
Managers, largely, have ditched the stick for the carrot, and chosen to emphasize teamwork and collaboration instead of rigidly defined reporting structures, internal process or policy red tape, and working relationships that ended at the office door. This has been great for workers, particularly given the fact that the line between work and life has become increasingly blurred.
It’s also rewarded employee productivity over office politics, turning internal mobility from something of a nepotistic Old Boy’s oligarchy to a meritocracy where the best workers are recognized and rewarded for the strength of the work they do, not the strength of the relationships they happen to have with their coworkers. It’s no longer enough to just show up and play nice at work if you want to stay on your manager’s good side. Now, you’ve got to actually do a kick ass job at your job, too, if you really want to stand out and get noticed.
The Psychology of Affinity: 3 Keys To Getting Ahead.
This is why, even as most leaders and employers put such a premium on teamwork, the competition for improving your boss’ perception of you enough to beat the cutthroat competition for career advancement that’s still very much every man (or woman) for themselves.
But you don’t have to kiss ass with your manager to have a kick ass career. Trust me on this.
As always, my homeys Merriam and Webster got my back on this one, defining perception as “an awareness of the elements of an environment through physical sensation. The most important components of perception are awareness and the ability to sense.”
Dude. That is some trippy shit, right there, man. But it’s important to frame the perception conversation through the idea that we interpret the actions and feelings of others in different ways, and often those interpretations differ drastically from what was originally intended.
This has led to a bunch of problems, obviously; there’s a reason the moment mankind acquired self-awareness and interpersonal perceptions has traditionally been termed the “Original Sin.” Obviously, if the Garden of Eden wasn’t immune from the malignancy of misperception, there’s pretty much no hope for your office space or workplace.
The good news is, even though it got us banished from Paradise in perpetuity, the power of perception remains among the greatest of human resources, and one of the greatest assets you can have when it comes to making friends and influencing managers on the job.
This involves two challenges: you’ve got to have an accurate understanding of what your manager (and teammates) really think of you, even if this constructive criticism can sometimes be a little tough to handle. Just make sure to remember that this process is focused exclusively on professional performance, so don’t take anything too personally. If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, you can never get any better. So shut up, suck it up and soak up any and all feedback with an open mind.
Once you’ve got this basic baseline, you can focus on achieving your actual objective: improving the perception your direct supervisor and professional peers have about you, your current work and your future potential. To make sure you’re seen in a more positive light, it’s important to utilize your company’s mission, vision and values as a guide, because these are the building blocks of any corporate culture.
And if you’re not perceived as a good fit for that company culture, you’ll never be perceived as a good fit for any advancement or promotion opportunities that might come along. If you can get the culture piece right, the rest of the perception puzzle becomes infinitely easier.
While you should always be you, you might consider being a different you when you’re at work. For instance, even if you hate ping pong, pick up a paddle, put on a smile and play a set. Even if beanbag chairs hurt the hell out of your back after even a few minutes of crap lumbar support, suck up the pain and sink back with the rest of your teammates. Even if you hate open seating plans, plaster that game face on and put on a scene that’s going to be seen – and hopefully, score some brownie points for you, too.
If you work in a more staid, traditional or flat out conservative company culture, conversely, then see that necktie not as a noose, but as a part of your uniform (and as a point of professional pride). Don’t get around your company’s Facebook firewall by picking up your mobile phone; be the one person with enough initiative to learn how to actually use your company’s intranet and internal communication or collaboration tools, instead.
Sure, it’s going to suck for you, but it’s those little things that almost always make the biggest difference when it comes to determining how others perceive you. Just remember: that which doesn’t kill us invariably makes our managers like us more. The one thing that no one likes, of course, is a complainer, so you’ve got two choices: deal or find a new job.
Don’t be the person who always talks about what’s broken. Be the person who’s always busy figuring out how to fix them. The doers are far rarer than the talkers, and far more valuable for employers. too. Common sense, as it turns out, is anything but common. But without it, you’ll never be perceived by your boss as anything but just another total idiot with half a brain and a business degree.
If your boss doesn’t know who the hell you are, or what, exactly it is, you do all day, then chances are you’re not building a business case for career advancement. Of course (as I can tell you from painful experience), being top of mind for your manager isn’t necessarily a good thing. But trust me, you probably don’t want to be perceived as a problem child, no matter how productive or effective you are at your job, since style points count – which is why, on the other side of the spectrum, you probably don’t want to be seen as some brown noser or ass kisser, either.
Building awareness the right way – and making the right impression – involve finding a balance somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Perception, unfortunately, is a slippery slope that’s completely subjective; you’ll never be the ultimate arbiter of others’ opinions, but you can improve your chances you’ll be personally seen as someone worth investing in professionally.
The first step to a successful strategy at increasing awareness while improving perception is to eliminate one of the most common – and potentially harmful – misconceptions governing interpersonal relationships, workplace or otherwise.
While perception is based largely by our senses, don’t be fooled into believing, as most people do, that these are limited to the five you probably learned in school; in fact, our senses far transcend sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.
In fact, neurologists and psychologists have identified our perceptions are shaped by nine and 21 different senses; capitalizing on these overlooked and underappreciated drivers can be critical to gaining the inside edge on awareness building. For example, in the workplace, one of the senses that most defines the way our bosses and managers perceive us is what’s referred to in neurochemistry as chronosense. If you’ve ever wondered how one work day flies by before you even realize it and the next seems to drag on ad infinitum, you’ve already seen this phenomenon in action.
The way we perceive time is a neurological process, and can be highly variable, even when working on identical projects or deliverables. This is where the maxim of “work smarter, not harder” comes into play, and the key to working smart involves aligning your chronosense with that of your managers.
Don’t automatically assume just because you’re the first one in the office and the last one out that face time is going to be perceived (or even recognized) by your boss, or that by constantly being connected and on call that you’re going to be perceived as a top employee. Instead, make sure you understand not only what’s expected of you in terms of deliverables and deadlines, but also that the way you allocate time at work aligns with your manager’s’ expectation (implicit or explicit) of speed and their unique, relative perception of time.
You might soon learn that you’ve been wasting a lot of face time to make a good impression that could better be used by taking on an additional workload and/or completing deliverables faster than expected or even slowing up to match your boss’ sense of time, which can often subconsciously be linked to the quality of work, regardless of the actual end product. Either way, complementing your timing with your boss’ workplace preferences and subjective chronosense can be critical for advancing your career.
This, of course, is just one example to illustrate that while our senses are subjective, making sure you understand what senses most shape your boss’ interpersonal perceptions and focusing on these drivers can mean the difference between being promoted or being forgotten.
A quick tip: when building affinity through our primary senses, psychologists have repeatedly found that speaking at a similar pace (just speed, not necessarily tone or inflection) has the highest coefficient for subconsciously improving interpersonal perceptions, for better or for worse. If your boss is a fast talker, has a slow drawl or is anywhere in between, simply adjusting the pace of your speech to match your manager’s is a small step that can make a big impact on your career.
Sure, you could go the sales guy route and just front by having a nice car, a bespoke suit and power tie or constantly showing off your spending power through lavish dinners, exotic vacations and the other douchey techniques that often rub coworkers and colleagues the wrong way.
Swagger is worth more than all the swag in the world, because it’s something you can’t buy (or fake). While the material accoutrements of being seen as a baller might seem like an easy way to improve others’ perceptions of you, if you don’t have an intrinsic sense of self-worth and self-esteem, then ultimately, these empty tactics won’t overcome an inherent inferiority complex.
Self-deprecation, conversely, often works as a defense mechanism, but rarely as a technique for improving interpersonal relationships at the workplace. Instead, your self-worth and your net worth are inexorably intertwined. But compensation never comes from compensating for your own lack of self-esteem.
Think of your work as a product, and your self-perception as the principal mechanism for marketing that product. If you believe in yourself and take personal pride in what you accomplish, then you don’t have to show off to make your work seem worthwhile. Your value should speak for itself, and if your work consistently exceeds expectations, then you’re creating not only managerial awareness, but also packaging yourself as a professional whose high-end product is worth paying a premium for.
When you feel good about yourself, and the work you’re doing on the job, then you’ve taken the most important step towards being seen as an engaged, satisfied, productive and successful employee; no employer is going to make an investment in your potential without seeing that you’re mutually invested, too. The reciprocal ROI cannot be overstated when it comes to achieving the positive outcomes inherent to improving positive awareness.
They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but that’s not always true – it’s never too late to start changing perceptions in the workplace. Believe in the work you’re doing, believe in yourself, and you better believe your bosses, managers and company leaders will, too.
Because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, if people don’t like you, well, then it’s probably time to start looking for an employer who recognizes what your self-worth is really worth.
By Matt Charney
Matt serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions and is a partner for RecruitingDaily the industry leading online publication for Recruiting and HR Tech. With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.”
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