Office Politics for Dummies
February 12, 2010 6:49 PM   Subscribe

How do I play the "social game" at work? I was told I needed to do this the last time I was turned down for promotion.

Details: I work as an inbound customer service phone rep. I've been at this job about 7 months. I rock my job: my stats are way above average, my attendance is perfect, my immediate supervisor and teammates respect me. I have applied for every reasonable promotion that's come available, including admin assistant, supervisor, and quality assurance. In my last post-rejection "feedback" session, the gentleman seemed to be trying to explain to me that doing your job well and being inquisitive can sometimes be a detriment to advancement, especially if you are not favored by the correct people. This does seem to be evidenced by some who have "made it."
Is there any way I can make myself more "popular" without losing my integrity? Alternatively, are there other lines of work that don't require grand career ambition but will still land me in the range of, say $30k? Nothing physical, though, as my ankle injury is going to limit me for a few more years.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 to Work & Money (48 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
There are volumes written about how to work your way up the ladder. For an amusing and completely unscientific perspective check out the Gervais Principle. (disclaimer: the link may kill your ambition).

Seriously, different work environments have different cultures. If you were explicitly told in a review to play the "social game" then you are owed an equally explicit answer from your supervisor as to what this means and how it will be measured. Some organizations are also steeped heavily in bullshit, so if someone is giving you a 'carrot and stick' or forcing you to aim at a moving target then you need to call them out on it and ask for some definition. If you continue to get the run around then think about brushing up your resumé.
posted by quadog at 7:00 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

There are two ways you can interpret this person's feedback.

Way #1, the way you seem to be interpreting it, is that you have to know the right people in order to get promoted. In some offices, this is most certainly true.

Way #2, the way I am interpreting it, is that you have to be outgoing and social and charming and make friends in order to get promoted. This is actually way #1, interpreted differently.

It's good that you have perfect attendance, and it's good that your stats are way above average, and if this were school you'd have everything you need. However, it is not; in order to move up in a company, you have to show people that you're the kind of person that can make friends easily, communicate effectively to people you've just met and people you've known for a long time, and generally be thought of as a good person.

in short, don't think of it as being popular. Think of it as being a nice person who takes the time to make friends with the other people you're stuck in a building with. That way, hopefully, you'll realize that being this way and having integrity are not at all mutually exclusive. Unless of course you simply cannot be nice and make friends with new people without feeling like you're selling out somehow, in which case that is probably why you're not getting promoted.
posted by davejay at 7:20 PM on February 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

having stats way above average has always been a detriment to me at every call center job i've had. i was thought to be gaming my stats. i wasn't, i just didn't understand why a password reset should take 4 minutes. when i got similar advice, i started brown nosing a touch and slowing down on my calls/taking less calls/using after call time. the reaction from the higher ups was favorable.
posted by nadawi at 7:29 PM on February 12, 2010

also - it's been a running joke at every call center that the only way to get promoted is to fail your way up. seemed like those getting promotions were the ones who couldn't actually take the calls.

also, also - i wonder if going after so many promotions with your short tenure is being frowned upon. those in charge might see it as you not taking your current job seriously.
posted by nadawi at 7:31 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't think the "social game" is really about popularity. It depends on the politics of your office, but the way it generally works is that no-one is going to give you a leg up unless it benefits them. Managers give recommendations to people they have tacit agreements with, that they'll do them a favor here and there, bend a few rules to their advantage, make them look good, help cover their ass in times of trouble, etc. If they don't know you and have no relationship with you, it doesn't benefit them to help you out.

An organization is a bit like an economy: there's the official market system of contracts and agreements, and then there's the black market, of petty bribes, doing favors and getting paid under the table. A lot of that goes on outside the normal channels, at happy hours or through gossip, and it involves building the trust of people in influence, so that's the sense in which it's a social game.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:45 PM on February 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

It is exceedingly hard for call center and retail employees of large communications companies to break through the initial ceiling. I too work for a very large wireless company in the same area (although probably a different one). I started in retail/customer care and spent three years trying to get into a corporate role and finally landed one and quickly moved up from there.

Basically, you need to make your name known to people in the groups you are trying to break in to. You don't have to become a social butterfly. The people I've seen show are the go getters who specifically reach out to the people making hiring decisions in the groups you want to apply for and ask them how to do it. The vast majority of hiring managers LOVE talking about their teams and also love it when people show an interest in working for them. When I was a sales support supervisor I had people constantly asking if they could do to learn the position such as "shadow" existing employees in the position. Those were always the top of my list when new positions opened up and while they may not have always been hired I always made it a point to let them know when positions opened up.

Note - Make sure your current supervisor/managers are on board with you doing this as it could be detrimental. Also, the fastest way to get instantly blacklisted is to complain or otherwise not be a team player when you didn't get positions you applied for. You rarely know the whole picture of why someone is hired into a position.
posted by Octoparrot at 7:51 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

...being inquisitive can sometimes be a detriment to advancement...
Is there any way I can make myself more "popular" without losing my integrity?

What sort of things are you inquisitive about, and what role does your integrity play in the way you're currently relating to your co-workers?

Sounds like a lot of politics for a call center...
posted by bingo at 8:02 PM on February 12, 2010

Response by poster: Examples of my particular inquisitiveness: trying to "get to the bottom" of things like payroll errors, policy discrepancies; asking those in higher positions what the nature of their career path was; asking if someone has considered "x" way of doing something when operation seems inefficient.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 8:15 PM on February 12, 2010

Yeah, okay. Stop doing all that stuff.
posted by bingo at 8:17 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I just wish I could understand WHY so I could internalize it better? Or maybe that is just another example of a question I shouldn't be asking? ;) Seriously, why is it so bad just to want to know the truth about things I encounter while working that intrigue/perplex me? I used to be told that was a good thing when I was a kid...
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 8:24 PM on February 12, 2010

Yikes. Don't be a trouble maker or rabble rouser if you want to get ahead.

Smile and say hello to everyone, and don't ask questions that suggest that people above you have been doing their jobs poorly.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:27 PM on February 12, 2010

And if you do have those questions, ask them quietly, behind closed doors, with people who actually know the answers.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:28 PM on February 12, 2010

Response by poster: So... status quo is the way to go? That's what I was kind of suspecting but it leaves me wondering how companies ever improve themselves if everyone is so afraid to ruffle a few feathers. But, point taken and I'll relurk now.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 8:31 PM on February 12, 2010

Ok, a couple bites of reality for you...

1. People might react negatively to you being "inquisitive" because to them it might be any number of things, such as implying they are stupid and doing their job wrong, increasing the risk that a loophole they love about their job might disappear, give them less power, make their numbers look worse, etc.

2. You might be getting passed over BECAUSE you are so good. Think difficult is it to find someone who is awesome at customer service and sticks around? At this point, it sounds like you offer more value to them in your current position and thus give them no incentive to promote you.

3. It all comes down to value. What value would you be providing to someone in the position to promote you (or for others who might recommend for such a promotion). The reality of a cut-throat environment like you are in is that nobody will help you unless it helps them more. So find ways to put yourself in a position where you become invaluable and the people who would be managing you once you got a promotion are actively working to get you working under them.

Now, those are just the realities of your current situation. Not all jobs are like this, but many that involve interaction and realiance on others in some capacity are. Particularly at companies with very vertical hierarchies. If you like the industry you are in and have written evidence of your value and things to put on your resume, consider applying for work at a competing company and try to make the jump that way. When asked why you want to leave say you want to work for a company where advancement is based on merit, not just politics.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:44 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Listen to people. Just listen.
posted by bensherman at 8:44 PM on February 12, 2010

Forgot to mention...

For a very revealing/enlightening/somewhat disturbing look at what makes people really tick in these situations, I HIGHLY recommend reading the 48 Laws of Power. It is brilliant.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:45 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The thing is that people in low-level jobs like yours (no offense) are mostly evaluated on the basis of whether or not they do what they're told. No manager is going to say, "Huh, we thought she was just a lowly phone rep, but it turns out she has ideas to make the company run better!" That's just not how it works. You'll get promoted on the basis of how well you follow orders, not how smart you show yourself to be.

There are job situations in which that is not the case (thank god). But you are not in one of them.

This is just what it's like to be an intelligent person in a more or less unskilled job. You have to let go of the idea that you deserve more responsibility, and sublimate your smarts into playing the game.
posted by bingo at 8:47 PM on February 12, 2010 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I like your sharp rhetoric, bingo.


Lowly? Indeed. Unskilled? Check back with me after you do an 8 hour shift or so cold. Just sayin'. Perhaps the skill can't be taught, but it must be acquired.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 8:55 PM on February 12, 2010

Also, seven months isn't a very long time. If someone in where I work was hankering after every even remotely plausible promotion that came along--after only seven months--I'd be perplexed.

I mean, you say you're rocking your job, and you probably are. But being really good at seven months isn't the same thing as "should be a supervisor in your department." Give yourself more time; it might be that you appear to eager to gratify Grand Ambitions rather than focusing on really, truly, thoroughly learning everything there is to know about your current position. Not saying this is where you're coming from but unfortunately it's easy to look like, "OK, I'm smart and I've pwned this job because I am inherently too awesome for it: present me with something sufficiently awesome!" You're probably not like that but your managers have likely dealt with plenty of folk who were, and you get to be seen through the filter of that experience.

Sorry, tl;dr: slow down there! Slow down and you'll learn the rules of these social games.
posted by Neofelis at 9:16 PM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Check back with me after you do an 8 hour shift or so cold. Just sayin'.

I've done that, and a lot more.

But this goes to the greater point, which is that it doesn't matter how much skill is actually involved. What matters is how much skill is perceived to be involved by the people with actual power. They see you as a cog in a machine. You are supposed to be doing A, but you are doing A and also B. That is not what work units such as yourself are supposed to be doing.

I understand your indignation at hearing things put that way, but I'm on your side. That's just how it is. If you want to be rewarded for being inquisitive and critical, then front-line customer service is not for you.
posted by bingo at 9:18 PM on February 12, 2010

By which I mean, "listen to nadawi. Somehow I missed one of her answers and got all redundant. Then left an o off too, which is my least-favorite typo ever. Guess I'll just go to bed.

Yeah but seriously, nadawi. I just wanted to say what she said.
posted by Neofelis at 9:21 PM on February 12, 2010

Response by poster: Also, you're right. I've maybe seen The Hudsucker Proxy one too many times.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 9:22 PM on February 12, 2010

it leaves me wondering how companies ever improve themselves if everyone is so afraid to ruffle a few feathers

Well, a lot of times they don't improve, they just go on being dysfunctional and so it goes.

Could it be that you.. think you know a lot more than you do, as far as what the problems are, and how things could be changed? I did this at a previous job. It took me a long time there to figure out the culture. The place was dysfunctional and a mess, but ultimately it became clear that the options were, just do what you are told no matter how stupid it is and don't rock the boat too much, but always be reliable, and probably get promoted, or rock the boat by getting frustrated when stuff isn't done right and complaining about bad processes and such, and end up more frustrated and not promoted.

The biggest thing that strikes me is, if you are messing with issues that aren't in your domain - did the payroll thing involve you directly? did people ask for your input about inefficiencies? If no one asked and you're taking initiative by getting involved in how they do their jobs, it might not go over well. Lots of people get all possessive about their turf and think their way is always the right way. And then if you butt in and think you know better than they do, it might not go over well. Even if you do know more and are making suggestions that turn out to be correct. It's about boundaries and roles in the workplace. They might not want to see you promoted if they think that, were you promoted, you'd be micromanaging or infringing on others' turf.
posted by citron at 9:49 PM on February 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Do people feel better about themselves after interacting with you, or worse?

If you're asking questions that put people on the defensive, they're feeling worse.
If you think you're smarter than them, they can tell. They're feeling worse.

There's nothing wrong with being smart, quick and competent. But you absolutely have to take other people seriously. Treat everyone like they are a renowned rocket scientist.

If your attitude is, "I did a great job and it was easy for me" nobody is going to remember your competence. What they're going to remember is how bad they felt about themselves. But if you treat them with respect and honor, they will remember how good they felt. Being treated with respect by a smart person is a true compliment. And you can do that and keep your integrity.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:52 PM on February 12, 2010 [12 favorites]

You've got a bad case of Underemployed Smart Recent College Grad Syndrome.

As a junior employee, there's a fine line between applying your problem solving skills to doing your job as well as you can and being a meddlesome know-it-all who lacks credibility. Even when you do move on to one of those positions where your skills will be valued, this is still an important distinction to keep in mind. On preview, listen carefully to what citron and selfmedicating are saying; only tackle problems within your scope, and once you've built up enough rapport with other people then you can collaborate with them to tackle other issues.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but the specifics of your question strike me as if you've never held an unskilled job before (and yes, it's unskilled; I did inbound call centre work too, albeit in another industry, when I was towards the end of high school). The politics of call centre work are just as bad as in fast food. The only difference is that a call centre is better at misleading people about what aspects of their ability will be rewarded because it pretends to be a white-collar job.
posted by thisjax at 10:42 PM on February 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

The best and quickest way to climb up the ladder and increase your earning power is to find another job at another company, in the same industry.

If this does not appeal to you, you need to find the jobs before they are posted, because a clearly defined job posting is meant to screen, and not to determine the best fit.

So, start chatting with hiring managers in departments where you want to work. Find out what they want, and build a rapport.

If there are no other hiring managers than the folks that have been turning you down, it is time to spread your wings and find another job.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:58 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

it leaves me wondering how companies ever improve themselves if everyone is so afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Companies, in general, do not improve themselves. They lurch on with the same problems they had at inception until those problems grow so large they shake the company apart. Same goes for empires.
posted by telstar at 3:22 AM on February 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

That's what I was kind of suspecting but it leaves me wondering how companies ever improve themselves if everyone is so afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

You should keep in mind that every time you're ruffling feathers, it's of those who are in a position to promote you. Policy, payroll, inefficiencies, if you're really adamant about showing the places where the existing management are doing a bad job, don't be surprised if they're not interested in you being a part of their group and outperforming them.

I would sit tight, shut my mouth about things until I got promoted and was in a position to actually change a few things. Offer advice when it is asked for.
posted by Hiker at 4:28 AM on February 13, 2010

God, I remember feeling just the same frustrations at your age, though in a totally different industry. What I gradually learned was that if you're reasonably intelligent and engaged, 'rocking the stats' is the least of the challenges. You're trying to do what's best for the company, but 'the company' isn't paying attention. The specific people who make these decisions see almost everything through me-colored glasses, and will, in a pinch, always throw the company under the bus. This may seem cynical, but the fact is that you are just the same -- not because your nature is inherently selfish, but because it's the only kind of relationship that it's possible to have with the sea you are swimming in. The people around you are in the same situation. Have some sympathy.

Examples of my particular inquisitiveness: trying to "get to the bottom" of things like payroll errors, policy discrepancies; asking those in higher positions what the nature of their career path was; asking if someone has considered "x" way of doing something when operation seems inefficient...

...why is it so bad just to want to know the truth about things I encounter while working that intrigue/perplex me?

The examples you gave were not about general curiosity. They were about showing how smart or right you are. This sort of inquisitiveness is inherently competitive and threatening. The flipside of your constant insistence that you're both smart and right is inevitable implication that the people you're working with are comparatively dumb and wrong. That makes you a threat. Nobody wants to see a threat get bigger.
posted by jon1270 at 4:57 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A lot of these answers leave me feeling I've just downloaded some very basic knowledge from the Matrix that I ought to have gleaned on my own. AskMeFi, once again humbling and insightful. In my own defense, I'm really not some arrogant misanthrope who runs around work trying to make other people feel stupid in indirect ways. Yet clearly this is what my behavior seems to be communicating in org speak. Please, teach me more! Wisdom is my greatest ally.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 5:55 AM on February 13, 2010

See how you asked a question, got some help, and felt good about it? The advice you asked for is helpful. You appreciate the solutions because you recognized a problem and asked for help. Compare that to how you might've felt if someone had pressed the same sort of advice on you before you recognized the problem. The advice would feel like an intrusion, right? Even though someone might've been trying to help, you would've felt as if they were making a problem where there wasn't one before.

'Doing what you're told' is equivalent to the former; you're applying your talents to solving a recognized problem. People will like you if you do that -- not because you're enslaved to the machine, but because you're stopping or preventing some sort of pain for somebody.

Another point, straight from a 100-level politics class, is that problems persist because they are also solutions to some other problem. So when you pick at problems like payroll discrepancies, you're trying to solve the problem you see but you're probably also threatening to unravel someone's solution to some bigger problem that you don't see or understand.
posted by jon1270 at 7:07 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

--People get pissy if you act like in 7 months you can see things that they haven't seen in 5 years and 2 promotions. This is very sensible of them because it implies that they are either blind or stupid. Even if you're right, they'll hate you for it. The solution to this is to point things out (if you must) in ways that make the person look smarter, instead of making you look smarter. Ask leading questions, hint a little bit, and if you're not getting anywhere drop it.

--Nothing can ever go well if you point out anything involving monetary discrepancies to anyone, for multiple reasons. Just don't do it. Don't get involved unless it's YOUR paycheck. Even then, think twice. A lot of monetary shit is bad to the point of illegality which is why people get nervous. You know what else? It's not your money. This brings me to my next point.

--Your attitude, while admirable, is suited to schools, clubs, families, groups of friends where everyone wants to do things well and everyone benefits from a job well done. Yeah, well, this is not your company and they can go get fucked. Internalize this attitude. They don't give a shit about you. You don't give a shit about them. You don't care if they lose a million dollars this year and the CEO gets arrested unless it directly affects you. I repeat, you do not care about this company. They can invest all their profits into underground wind farms. You do not care. It is not your company. You're not profit sharing. You do not give a fuck.

--If you're so smart (and I don't doubt that) start your own business on the side. If you're not ready to do that, look for a move to a smaller company as a sales rep. Even better if you're doing inside sales or business to business stuff. You will be able to learn a lot more about the functioning of the business as a whole which will push your buttons in a good way. If you're selling to other businesses you can learn about those businesses, too.

--Subscribe to the Harvard Business Review, I have a feeling that you'd get a kick out of it.

Good luck!
posted by kathrineg at 7:18 AM on February 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're not actively being arrogant but you're coming off that way. Teamwork is everything when you're trying to move up the ladder. I had this problem in my early jobs, too -- I was so focused on changing the world and solving problems, I missed that some of the "problems" may have been someone else's solution for an earlier problem. In short, I was promoting myself at the very public expense of someone else.

I would do the following:

-Try to change some of your "I" statements into "we" statements, and enlist a fellow worker or two when you're looking at a problem. Shared problem, shared solution = teamwork. Do your very best to restate the problem in positive terms, so that instead of saying "we're trying to fix X", maybe say "we're trying to improve our stats so that Y will happen."

- Remember that there is a grain of truth in any statement about you, however negative. Find it and work on it. Don't be tempted to make statements like "they're just jealous" or "they're just threatened by my success." It's easy to be blinded by your own perceived worth.

- Always, always congratulate others on their promotion or success, give them credit for work they've done, and in general be a mensch. This isn't sucking up, it's being a good person.

- Read the book "Emotional Intelligence at Work" by Daniel Goleman. Invaluable!!!

Good luck. You can grow through this.
posted by mdiskin at 8:26 AM on February 13, 2010

it leaves me wondering how companies ever improve themselves if everyone is so afraid to ruffle a few feathers

Other people have already responded to this, but here's a simple rule you'll always need to keep in mind. At the workplace, there are two types of people: those who put the company above themselves, and those who put themselves above the company.

Unfortunately for you, the vast majority of people fall into the latter category. They are perfectly content for nothing to ever improve company-wise unless it will make their work experience more enjoyable, because they are comfortable in their jobs and therefore have no desire to change anything. Also unfortunately for you, in many cases people are rewarded for working that way, because that attitude can go pretty far up the ladder. Those who have a positive attitude, don't go around trying to change the world, and happily do what they're told are much more likely to get promoted. Think of the workplace as an example of inertia. Most people really don't want to change the way they're already doing something, especially at a low-level, low-paying job.

I'm also one of those people who tends to put company over self, and noticing inefficiencies and otherwise stupid ways of doing things can drive me nuts. I can't identify with people who don't feel this way. I have to fight the urge to try to change things that are outside of my job responsibilities.

Also think of the fact that sometimes "fixing inefficiencies" can result in layoffs. These people are looking out for themselves, and for good reason.

What you need is a job where you are content to just do the job. It doesn't seem call center work is satisfying enough for you, so you keep thinking of ways of fixing things that really have nothing to do with your actual job. And very importantly, pick your battles. The less often you speak against the grain and the longer you work anywhere, the more weight your words have a chance of holding.

You've only been at this place for 7 months, which is not a long time at all. Try to keep an entry level job for at least a year before even trying to get promoted at the same company, because otherwise all you'll look like is someone who is easily bored and not content with what they're offering you. They respect that you're good at your current job - enough that the guy you met with offered you pointers on how to move up in the company - but you need to just sit back and do it for a while longer before trying to move up.
posted by wondermouse at 8:37 AM on February 13, 2010

wondermouse brings up a good point, that this guy really did you a favor by bringing this to your attention. He took a risk on your behalf; you could've flipped out or otherwise reacted badly. A small thank-you note is in order.

Bringing in cookies or other food seems to make one more popular in a workplace. I've never done it because it's a little too feminine for me and I don't roll that way, but if you do, go for it.

I saw two temps get offered permanent gigs, both brought baked goods on a regular basis. Kinda whack but it makes sense--if people look forward to having you around they'll keep you around.
posted by kathrineg at 9:51 AM on February 13, 2010

Yeah, to add to all the good advice that's been offered: your job is never about your "job" as it's described in a position description. It's about making the life of everyone above you easier. Forget what "makes sense" or what could "be improved." That's totally beside the point, at least as long as you hope to advance at the company you're at.

Your actual job is to make the experience of those above you more pleasant. Or, just as importantly, less troublesome. Otherwise, why would your position be necessary in the first place?

Internalize this idea, and you're set. And remember that it indirectly extends to those people lateral to, and below you, on the organizational chart; any unhappiness you cause them will soon come to the attention of your boss, and... see my maxim above.

And oh yeah-- definitely thank the person who tipped you off about being more "social."
posted by Rykey at 10:07 AM on February 13, 2010

Yikes. Looking into payroll problems and policy "discrepancies?"

Here's the trick: people want to feel safe around you, especially if you're to become a supervisor. You can be the best worker of all time and make it so everyone else can sit around on their butts and drink coffee until that begins to threaten people's safety. Whether that be getting in trouble for not working as hard as you (and when you become supervisor, are you going to drive them into the ground, make work no fun with your work-work-work ethic?).

Or even more likely, people want to do a good job, but they know they make mistakes from time to time. They know that occasionally they can be in a lazy mood. They need to feel safe that you aren't going to come around the corner and call them out on stuff. "Getting to the bottom" of a pay issue might be exactly the wrong thing to do if it's sufficient to correct the pay record and remind everyone to be more careful.

If you're giving off the vibe that making mistakes or working inefficiently is not to be tolerated, phew! I wouldn't promote you either, given a choice. You're going to annoy me as a peer, possibly backstab me (however unintentionally) to our shared boss, and drive the people on the floor nuts. I can't say any of those things in a performance review, though, so I have to try to come up with a way to tell you to "relax" a little bit without SAYING, hey, you're TOO good, you care TOO much, your standards are TOO high. Because that would make me look bad, right? Obviously I want high standards (official answer.) In practice, be a human being, would you?
posted by ctmf at 10:45 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can I recommend a book? It's called How to Be Useful and I really really could have used it when I was in your shoes about, uh, two decades ago. (Though I would have scoffed at the title.) Anyway, don't beat yourself up for not knowing this kind of stuff already, a lot of it you learn by doing.
posted by runtina at 10:47 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, from my younger days sometimes hanging out with pool sharks: never beat anyone too badly. Frequently barely win, and sometimes lose. It makes them want to play again, not resent you and quit.

Be better than everyone else, but not too much better.
posted by ctmf at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The thing you need to understand about moving into a supervisory-level position is that succeeding in it will require a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT skill set from the one you have now. Your job, should you be promoted, would be to help other people do their jobs well. That's totally different from just doing your job yourself (and sometimes, the people who are naturally brilliant at their jobs are the worst to be promoted to a supervisor-type role; because everything came naturally to them, they have no idea how to help someone who's struggling get better).

A good way to be considered for a position helping other people do their jobs better is to start demonstrating now that you have the skills to do this.

Step 1: Become friendly with your coworkers
There are three really easy ways to make people like you: give people compliments, ask for advice, and ask them questions about themselves. Compliments don't have to be about work...did someone decorate their cubicle? Dress up nicer than usual? Drive a cool car? Just stay away from giving appearance-based compliments to the opposite sex and pretty much anything else is fair game.

Similarly, there are many things you could ask your coworkers for advice about. Where's the best place nearby to go for lunch? Is there a good store where you could buy a new lamp? What should you get your mother for her birthday? Does anyone have a good brownie recipe? People love feeling helpful, so give them opportunities to do so.

Finally, ask people about their kids. Ask them about their weekends. Ask them about their hobbies. Ask them anything that will give them an opportunity to talk about themselves, and when they do, listen.

Step 2: Be helpful
Having kept Step 1 up for several months, your coworkers should now feel comfortable about you, and since I'm sure they already know you're smart and motivated and good at your job, you've set up a situation where they can start coming to you with problems. When this happens you need to be careful not to undo all of your good work.

When asked for advice, first, acknowledge that the person indeed has a tough problem. Even if you think it's easy to fix, don't say so - it will make them feel dumb for not fixing it themselves. Second, never phrase your advice as a command (e.g. You should do x...) Instead, ask "have you tried x?" or offer a personal anecdote "when I was in a similar situation, I tried x and y happened." Acknowledge that you don't know the full situation, say that you're not sure your advice will help, but that you are sure they'll be able to figure out the solution for themselves.

Step 3: Give, give, give
By now, you may have developed a reputation as someone people can go to when they have problems. You now need to demonstrate that you'll use your power for the good.

First, work really hard at being cheerful and upbeat. Don't be a Pollyanna with your cheerfulness, but people much prefer to be around people who are generally smiling and happy than sad and dour. Your positive attitude is a gift to your coworkers, because it will rub off.

Second, wherever possible, give other people credit. Point out anyone who has improved. Point out anyone who has made a positive suggestion. If you give someone advice and it helps, don't under any circumstances, try to take credit for that. Instead, say that it was all them. Giving credit supports your position as an authority...taking credit doesn't.

Finally, look for opportunities to help others get ahead. The single most powerful thing you could do would be to help someone else get a promotion. Do this, and you will have a serious, serious ally on your side when your turn comes up next.

And a final point to go with all this, don't be afraid to admit it when you mess up or make a mistake. Don't try to hide your errors, don't be afraid to admit you just had a terrible day. You're human, and people will feel more comfortable with you if you admit it, than if you try to maintain a facade of perfection.

Good luck! You sound smart and motivated, and while office politics can be tough, those two characteristics do genuinely matter.
posted by psycheslamp at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

In my own defense, I'm really not some arrogant misanthrope who runs around work trying to make other people feel stupid in indirect ways. Yet clearly this is what my behavior seems to be communicating in org speak.

In fairness, most people you work with are probably victims of the self-esteem movement. As adults, they need constant validation and praise in order to not break down, and even minor negative feedback that's communicated in the spirit of "I'm bringing this to your attention because I believe you're a conscientious person committed to doing the best job possible" will be received as a threat, and even mark you as arrogant in some cases.

This is why it's effective to treat people as if they are world-renowned rocket scientists--they've been taught their whole lives that if you don't believe you're exceptional, there's something wrong with you.

The sad truth is that you're not doing anything wrong, you're probably following the golden rule--you do what you do because that's what you would want if you were in their shoes. But really, the standard for caring, compassionate behavior has been completely colonized by the idea that its about making people feel good about themselves, and it's a huge social problem that's only going to get worse as Gen-Y enters the work force. If you ever saw the movie Idiocracy, it's going to be like that, only with emotionally stunted people instead of idiots.

Hopefully knowing this helps you understand the situation, but there's a risk that it will be harder to turn your nose up and do what you need to do to deal with the people you work with. With that in mind, here's a few links about this subject: Jean Twenge's book Generation Me, and this New Yorker article (it's about kids but very relevant) The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.

Another interesting phenomenon is the the huge interest in books about "toxic people", "emotional vampires", etc. The number of true psychopaths in the population is less than 2%, yet these books are bestsellers. How can we account for this? Isn't it likely that the majority of people who buy them are having fairly normal interpersonal problems, but the threat to their self-esteem causes them to feel like victims of psychopaths? It might be useful to get one of these books, if only to understand how things look from their perspective.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:08 PM on February 13, 2010

I wonder if by advising you to watch your 'inquisitiveness', that gentlemen was trying to tell you to stop rocking the boat. You probably think you are being extremely subtle with your lines of questioning, but I'm very sure the higher-ups in your org know exactly what's not working; I'm sure they know very well that policies are inconsistent, etc. If these issues were easily fixable, they would probably already be fixed. From where you are, you're not seeing the very real obstacles to change - the personalities, the politics, the head office that won't let your branch do anything without their ok. Sorry, but if you look at if from that perspective, your questioning is naive and annoying.

That said, I don't think that you should just accept that you'll have to learn how to jump through shitty social hoops and completely ignore your organization's dysfunctionality to get ahead in this world. There are organizations that will value your intelligence, curiosity and awesome results and they will promote you without demanding that you 'play the game.' Leave this place and start trying to find one now. I would try to get an administrative assistant job at a place where intelligent work happens - the kind of work that attracts more geeks than social capital hoarders. IT firm? Library? Architectural firm? You'll hopefully be able to move up from admin to other things, or just stay in admin and gradually but steadily increase your salary.

Also, I really don't think it's unreasonable to expect a promotion up from an unskilled entry-level position after 7 months (yes, unskilled. a 'skill' in this sense means something you have to go to school for, or complete an apprenticeship to learn). Most especially when you've clearly mastered the job.
posted by kitcat at 6:34 PM on February 13, 2010

To OP: It sounds like you're underemployed for your ability. Go to college or get some career training or whatever you need to do to get into a position with more responsibility and judgment.

To AlsoMike: "The number of true psychopaths in the population is less than 2%"

Yeah, and everyone knows a few hundred people, which means we've all interacted with at least a half dozen psychopaths/sociopaths. And since each one victimizes a lot of people, the percentage of people hurt my sociopaths is much higher than 2%. It's the people hurt by sociopaths who buy all those books, not the sociopaths themselves.

2% is 1 in 50 -- take the number of people who work for your organization, divide by 50, and that's how many evil, nasty people you can expect to have to work with if your organization has a proportional share of them. Of course, they don't tend to distribute themselves proportionally -- instead they cluster in businesses or industries that reward sociopathic behavior, and tend to be screened out of places with healthier organizational cultures. (One of the things I love about my job is the complete absence of sociopaths in any of the departments I work with.)
posted by Jacqueline at 2:12 AM on February 14, 2010

I came in to put in a good word for being inquisitive and making suggestions... but with a big caveat: You need to know what your boss' metrics are.

The way it was explained to me as a new consultant is this: Everyone in your organization has numbers they are accountable for. The way you get into their good graces is to understand the numbers that keep them up at night and channel your powers of observation, creativity, etc. into helping them improve those numbers. Unfortunately those numbers are usually operational in scope, so suggesting long term improvements or ideas that might disrupt the equilibrium of a more or less functional system are going to be met with skepticism or disdain if their intention does not align with their key numbers.

So I have two words for you -- appreciative inquiry. This might be the key to the "social game" that you can play while still maintaining your integrity. Learn enough about the people you work for to understand what they're proud of and what keeps them up at night. Then go about your job, look for ways to help them.
posted by cross_impact at 8:03 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: I have to say, stoneweaver, while I appreciate your passion, the "shut up, you stupid peon" approach I think is exactly what causes such a high turnover in my company, at all levels, not just mine. It's probably true that the fact I haven't completely swallowed it down so far keeps me from moving up in this particular group. But honestly, you say you've been where I've been, you've done what I've done, which is essentially exercising your own human nature, and now you say you HATE people like me? Hey, you made it. You'd think you'd be happy. I'll take a lot of the suggestions here but I'm not going to put my tail between my legs and become some "yes, master" kiss ass. And let the chips fall where they may.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 4:26 AM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Okay stoneweaver. I hope you understand having been "me" that I may have a lot of rage issues related to this that have nothing to do with you. :) Thank you for clarifying everything and post as much as you want. Next time I will not check my threads pre-coffee. Not that I said anything I didn't mean per se but e gads that was harsh. By the way, askmefi therapy has essentially led me to the conclusion you offered: this company sucks AND I need to be more mature, patient, sensitive, and humble. So while I'm looking for another job... I will internalize everything I've learned and make next round better. Cheers! And everyone please add more if I need to know more.
posted by dissolvedgirl22 at 6:29 PM on February 16, 2010

People who successfully climb the ladder don't swim upstream and against the current, especially if they don't 'draw a lot of water'. In order to implement your great ideas you need to get people behind you ( buy-in ), and doing that means fitting in with the culture and rules of the organization.....swimming downstream.

Coming up with great ideas is easy. Marketing, selling and driving those ideas into action is the hard part. People who can do that are the corporate rockstars.

I just read an interesting quote yesterday that may provide a little perspective:

"if normally rational people are acting irrational, you probably don't have the information that they do."
posted by jasondigitized at 10:38 AM on March 11, 2010

Wow, what a great thread. I think I know how to solve my own work problems now. I have 3 underemployed co-workers who work on one project and are alienating everybody with their meddling into other projects--which is supported by the new supervisor who I now see is very nervous about her own position. We are also fearing/anticipating layoffs, so that makes it worse. Maybe I will need to leave, but at least I can understand where they are coming from.
posted by PJSibling at 4:53 PM on April 10, 2010

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