How do I fix my social reputation at work?
April 30, 2012 7:03 PM   Subscribe

What would you suggest for improved social skills, fitting in, decreased awkwardness, and undoing a reputation for being annoying at work? I'd especially love help for nerds with social anxiety who need to fit in with mainstreamy socialite sorts of people.

Where to begin? I did not make the best first impression at my current job. This is an industry that is tightly networked, and I will probably need to meet with these folks down the road. I have only been done with school for two years, and been in this position for one year. I've come across as sensitive, anxious, rigid, guarded and obnoxious. In my previous position I got on well with everyone; they appreciated and accepted me and had nothing but good things to say. At my current position, not so much.

**If you don't want to read my lengthy explanation, please note I put my main goals at the bottom. I've included everything that might be important in getting some awesome MeFi-quality feedback so of course, this is a diatribe.***

Why Have I Had Trouble in This Position?
I decided I wanted to do really well and put myself under too much pressure. This was also a permanent position where the last one was a temporary one. The culture at my current place is a mainstreamy and cliquish one; at the former it was laid back but professional. My boss at the current place had a work style that triggered me emotionally and the previous boss was much easier to work with. Expectations were clear as mud here, and at the previous job they were laid out well. Possibly most significant, at this position no one has our own space. At the previous position I did lots of traveling and could decompress easily. I can be very task-oriented and perfectionistic, and I'm working with folks who are far more people-oriented.

Please note those are all just factors. I know ultimately it is my own actions that I need to address and I can't control the factors that led to me making such an interpersonal mess of my position. I accept responsibility and now I'm trying to do damage control with the consequences.

Although I have put myself in an unpleasant social position at work, in other settings this doesn't typically happen. I have two other social groups besides my friends-only group, and in those two other social groups I am accepted and invited to participate in social things. In both groups I've used self-deprecating humor to mention these personality quirks and in both cases people have seemed surprised to hear about how I've come across in this job. So it is something about how I presented myself, and how I've mixed with those in power, and how I just got really neurotic about all of it.

Part of the problem is the culture is set by "mainstream" and socially savvy personalities... I was more of the nerdy brainiac in school (compared to the gone-Greek folks in power, where going Greek usually means some exclusivity and preppy-ness and knowing some kind of social code that those outside this world don't really get as easily). I get on with quirky people much more easily.

What I Do or Have Done Wrong - Problem Behaviors
I was really sensitive when I started this job, took it too seriously, expected perfection of myself, and I'm sure I was a chore. Plus due to misunderstanding my supervisor got really irritated with me early on when she was forming an impression.

I engage in some mild forms of attention-seeking when I feel ignored. There have been days where I answered questions that people were asking others (not me), and days where I'd make a quick on-topic comment and hear crickets. You're probably cringing by now - and so am I. I'm really rather ashamed of this behavior and ready to change it for good. (I stopped talking out of turn and stopped taking feedback so hard, so progress, but there's still lots to do.)

I'm in therapy to address the underlying issues - depression, social anxiety, ADHD type issues, and early loss that led to being commitment-phobic and afraid of bonding with people. I'm working on my communication skills, but feel a bit like I need to overhaul my personality to make any headway at my current job.

I really need help cleaning up the mess I've made. There's so much I want to fix or change and I don't know where to begin. I know the key is probably to make changes without discussing it and let others just notice the difference. I did this with the sensitivity - as I adjusted to the job I became less sensitive. Eventually I asked if others had noticed and they had. But I need to do much more to fix this stuff. Not sure where to begin.

You remember the supervisor that got upset with me? She has become my boss since I started the job. I do not know how to go about improving the relationship. In the past I have tried and she has denied that anything needed to be done. I tend to be really direct instead of subtle and she works on subtlety. There is a history of communicating in a kind of social code that she expects others to guess. I wasn't socialized in that world so I have trouble with that code.

(A few years ago I wondered if I had some kind of autism spectrum thing but I don't think I do. I think I just have ADHD, social anxiety and nerdy socialization. Which can look Asperger's sometimes. Besides, this doesn't happen in all settings. Just the current work situation - and occasionally work makes me feel so needy and insecure that I can use some of these unfortunate traits with one or two friends.)

My goals
Improved reputation at work
Improved sense of others valuing my contributions
Improved social skills (less ADHD type obnoxious behavior)
Improved perception of me by the boss
Better emotional/social intelligence
Better communication (saying "the right things")
Presenting as less self-absorbed and insecure

I am looking for basic tips for how to be in the world in a more secure way, as well as resources I can draw from - whether they are websites or books. I'm not in a position to spend lots of money on this, but it is very important to me.

Before you ask, I'm not currently trying to find other work, and would like other suggestions aside from that one. My goal is not really to make my current work environment perfect because I fear I screwed the pooch too much for that. Rather, I want to improve it as much as possible, and in the process I'll learn the skills that will help me make a better impression at my next job. Leaving now won't fit with my five-year plan. I don't see any signs that they want me out of the position. I just want to make the "unofficial" stuff better.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
It might be easier to help you with more specific details? What did your supervisor say to you when she got upset with you? She now says there isn't anything that needs to be done to improve your relationship with her - why do you think this is untrue? Can you give us any examples of the social code she uses that she expects others to guess?
posted by cairdeas at 7:18 PM on April 30, 2012

It sounds like you work for an insurance company, although I do not know that to be true. I would love to know. I doubt it would get back to anyone to say it. The moments when you try to give a suggestion as a way to be a volunteer are over. You have a job now. You have a job description to follow and those are the only boundaries you own until your boss tells you otherwise. This means you can do your job much easier, because you probably have enough work just in your job description.

You have just come off the road. I wonder if congratulations are in order. You have a ton of field experience and you probably end up doing fixes on the road to get deals done. Here you are in an office, possibly in a cube, or sharing long tables and wondering what you are meant to do here in the first place. See above. The fact is that you are no longer on the road and you don't have to worry about going to any outside meetings until the day you learn to approach a meeting in the office with the energy that allows you to calm down and be insightful. You must have had clients who would not shut up and let you get a word in. Then you had to wait so long, it seemed so simple from the file, etc. So you forget about being the expert salesman for five minutes and see your job description and use it to your own advantage. You read files on the road to prepare for meetings, and so I don't know why you are not keeping up on files or making your own about how meetings go and document how people contribute. Really, bring a notebook and take serious notes. It will take your mind off feeling like you need to volunteer an answer.
posted by parmanparman at 7:25 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

It will help a lot if you can focus on positive action steps: "bring in donuts and let people have at them," "give someone a random (justified) compliment on their work product," and so on. Refrain from focusing on the "don'ts" you've learned about the hard way.

Make careful observations of how everyone interacts with a specific person - the person who sits closest to your workstation, perhaps - and then try to emulate the things they do that get results you'd want for yourself.

It also helps quite a lot if you ask people for help. People love giving advice and encouragement to others. Find the nicest, most generous person who doesn't obviously dislike you, and ask them for suggestions on how to fit in better.
posted by SMPA at 7:29 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly, it sounds like you need to do some work getting more comfortable in your own skin, and the social stuff will follow. I say this because it actually doesn't sound like, from what you've written here, there's actually a huge problem. As cairdeas points out, your boss says everything's fine, but you're still worried it's not and wondering what you should do. One really good thing to remember when you're feeling self-conscious: no one else thinks about you as much as you do. Most people probably have neutral opinions of you.

I'd say the same for your coworkers. The two examples of "poor behavior" that you say made you cringe don't sound all that bad. I mean, maybe not super-cool Mr. Smooth, but from your intro, I was expecting really boorish or creepy behavior, and this isn't it.

I work in a super social/networky field as well, and I'm a bit more socially adept, but I also have some trouble getting along with certain types of folks that are everywhere in my field. This really stressed me out for a long time, until I realized that we didn't all need to be best friends. If your field is anything like mine, the most important things are that people think you do good work and don't mind spending time with you. Seriously.

Finally, this is SO NORMAL. The transition from college, where you basically get to choose who to spend your time with, and work, where you don't, can be really hard. So don't get too down on yourself. I would suggest just focusing on developing a few relationships with people you like and also work on teaching yourself to assume that everyone else has good or neutral opinions of you until proven otherwise.
posted by lunasol at 7:31 PM on April 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

Bring food. Seriously. Especially if you're female. It's jacked up but it's true.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:33 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

If you're looking for resources, perhaps the old standby of Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People?

A few things:

1. you seem to have a decent idea of behaviors you've done that have been ill-received. Good!
2. the way you get over first impressions is by doing better next time. Not by talking about it. Most people have at least a reflexive unconscious sense that talk is cheap,
3. you don't have to be close drinking buddies with your co-workers. I don't know what's going on with the rest of your office but for my office what matters is that you do good work, get back to people pretty fast, meet your commitments, etc.

If you're concerned about networking maybe invite the folks you like working with and who seem to like you to grab lunch sometime. Then you can talk and maybe ask their advice about working in the field - people mostly like to do mentorship type things, and definitely enjoy just getting lunch w/ a nice co-worker now and again.
posted by Lady Li at 7:54 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

...OP here... I decided that I can risk a little bit. Some things I won't be able to answer, though.

So the supervisor thing. I answered the phone when I first came on at this place, and was worried that I could not answer the caller questions which would result in loss of business. I was thinking of the company's interests. So I directed them to the supervisor. When she finished the call she yelled at me accusing me of trying to make less work for myself.

Similar things occurred with the former boss. Boss and supervisor would both get a noticeable change in their nonverbals when talking with me versus others.

And seriously, due to the ADD I have had a major issue with butting into others' conversations, answering questions they didn't ask me, and generally being more enthusiastic than people want. Most of my coworkers have developed nice friendships and I'm really quite left out, partly due to my guardedness. I'm not included in decisions or non-work discussions, and sometimes I am flatly ignored. Some of that is just not being attentive to the mood (i.e. everyone is working now vs. everyone is chatting now).

It's hard to explain. Something about this job makes me feel like I have no social skills, and I think it has something to do with the mainstreamy vs. quirky worlds described above.
posted by hungry hippo at 7:55 PM on April 30, 2012

I am also the only one on site that has been called into the office so the boss could settle petty things that could have been settled between myself and the other party. (I'm not intimidating and the other party was not conflict-avoidant.) I think that might have been a matter of office politics, but I'm thinking that if I fix my... whatever it is... I can navigate those politics better. I tend to be naive, and sincere more than practicing CYA.

On social code, the supervisor made the schedule one Monday, and I noticed I had a nice schedule. Then she mentioned an action I took the previous Friday that did not please her (chain of command issue, but the chain of command changes depending on the day and moods of the command, and on that day I was following the way it had worked the last time I'd been told anything about it), and a few minutes later I looked and had a harder schedule than before. That is one of the more obvious ones, because everything happened so close together.

Another time she kept bringing up specific paperwork right around the time minor things were going less-than-desirably for me - as if to say this is happening because of your actions. Said paperwork was a case where she expected me to do a job that was officially hers, but it would have made political sense to do it.

I frame this as a kind of code because this person is very intentional in her behavior. Like the yelling over the phone issue - she was not really angry, she just wanted to make a point. She creates her affect a lot.
posted by hungry hippo at 8:07 PM on April 30, 2012

If you want an improved reputation at work, don't ask people to accept you by coming across as insecure, but show that you accept yourself and those around you. You can do this by not being so direct about your insecurities when around others, by smiling and saying "Hi!" when you see someone, and offering to help out others.

Show that you care about the job without needing approval from others. Be on time, rarely call in sick, offer to help out when asked, and let others know that you are willing to help out by saying a simple "let me know if you need any help with that."

Get involved in the community at work. At my workplace, we have bake sales for charities, donation days, and other ways to help out the community. Your involvement matters in these events even if it feels otherwise.

Improve your social skills by smiling often (makes you approachable), developing a thick skin, being able to laugh at yourself once in a while, being able to say appropriate jokes at appropriate times, proving that you can work quietly and independently, but also in a team environment, and learning how to find your voice (don't be silent but don't be obnoxious). For instance, you can start off by talking slowly and at a reasonable volume if you don't already do this.

Be yourself by showing your personality which will make others feel like they know you, but think before speaking in order to prevent people from developing negative perceptions.

Try not to place too much emphasis on yourself, instead, ask others questions about themselves. It will show that you are interested in them and is an easy way to develop work relationships. Speaking of relationships, read Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People" because you want people to like you at work. You don't have to be best friends or even friends, but there are a lot of social and emotional intelligence components that you can find out by reading his book.

Your boss and other management members may take a while to warm up to you and that's okay. I've learned that certain people in the office environment come across as very cold until you get to know them. Some never like you or feel comfortable approaching you, but you have to accept this (I feel uncomfortable with others myself). Prove to yourself and others that you can do the job successfully and you will be left alone. You will be respected for your work even if you are not liked for your personality.

It will take a while for co-workers to warm up to you based on your personality quirks. Don't get me wrong, we all have them, but some of us (such as myself) make our quirks more noticeable because we have an authentic type of personality rather than the opposing type. Unfortunately, I can't find the research right now, but authentic people struggle in certain environments because they are unable to change faces depending on the environment. However, the opposing type is able to flourish socially because they can put on different faces regardless of the environment.

This may be why you are struggling so much. Be confident in your work, after all they hired you for that purpose. And, slowly allow people to warm up to you even though it might feel isolating right now.

Good luck!
posted by livinglearning at 8:12 PM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can't read your use of "mainstream" as anything but "lame and beneath me" in the way that you're using it. Maybe your boss and co-workers have picked up on this as well and are sick of your "oh god, I have to deal with *those* people again?" attitude.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:04 PM on April 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

It seems to me the biggest adjustment you have to make is you're coming from a school environment where you have precise guidelines and milestones and chains of command and things go a certain way all the time to a more fluid environment based on personal relationships and who is in what mood and you don't know how to read that. You seem to be working from the assumption that if you do what's best for the business and follow requirements and all that good stuff, you'll earn accolades and be promoted and so on, but you're discovering that (99% of the time) people will promote and give accolades to people they like.

So, here is an idea: Find the people that seem to be doing well and imitate them. Not literally, I mean, but take them as role models, study their habits, and learn their traits. Your post reads--I wouldn't say QUITE as hardcore as the poster above me takes it, but I get the vibe too--like you're with all these, ugh, normals, and they expect you to blend in and you don't know what to do and you kind of look down on them, which I'd say is the first thing to get over. I guarantee they're weird in their own unique ways, even if it's in the Delores from Dead Like Me sense.

Imitate and join in with social events. If there's a gaggle that goes for coffee regularly and they make a loud "We're going to get coffee, anyone want to come?"-type announcement, join the crew going for coffee (I do this just to bond even if I just get tea). If there's a regular group in the lunchroom, have lunch in there rather than at your desk. If there's a Friday After Work We Get Beers crew that's pretty open, join them.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:46 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Miss Manners.

*You* will be in charge then.
posted by tel3path at 2:04 AM on May 1, 2012

Re: thinking I'm better - that's just it, I feel inadequate around these people, and I have no concept of what I do that makes me come across like I think I'm above these things. That isn't the first time I have heard that sort of feedback - I think my efforts to fight inadequacy lead to elitism somehow. Would the community please point out the choices I have described that appear elitist?
posted by hungry hippo at 5:18 AM on May 1, 2012

I dislike the term "elitist" in describing yourself and your actions because that doesn't appear to be who you are. So, I'm not going to use that term.

But, what I can see is that you have developed a "me versus them" mentality. You describe them as "mainstreamy, cliquish, socially savvy" and yourself as "more of the nerdy brainiac in school."

You also took the job too seriously, expected perfection of yourself, voiced your opinion when not asked, and acted in a very direct manner when others preferred subtlety.

And, because it appears that you have an authentic type of personality, you probably seem very uncomfortable with your co-workers and this is evident to them. You either come across as very nervous and uncomfortable or conceited (sorry). People may develop the assumption that you are difficult to be around or that you don't enjoy their company. This is all just a perception that others may create, but you can change how others perceive you gradually through your actions and words.

Lay low right now and don't force conversations with others. When the time is right, do what I mentioned in these two posts and try to find similarities between yourself and others by saying things like "that's cool, I like that band too" or whatever to show that you are similar to them. This will help both yourself and others. In the mean time, talk to your therapist about this if you haven't already and look for signs that you are more like your co-workers than you are different.

Also, forgive yourself because what you describe is truly not a big deal. Stop feeling ashamed about your actions. I struggle with this too, but I think asking questions such as why did it make me feel ashamed, what do they think of me, so what, and what's the worst that will happen can be beneficial. Besides that, time will help out too.
posted by livinglearning at 5:46 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

What you can do right now is disengage. Concentrate on your work. The thing about bosses is they are like busses, if you miss this one, another one will be along shortly.

Yes, others may have bonded with their co-workers, and you may be lonely, but it's temporary.

There was a guy I worked with and he was just...eeesh. Got on my last nerve. Needy, opinionated and loud. Not only that, he wouldn't rest until I vowed to be his best friend. What I really wished he would have done was go back to his cube, turn down the Mission Impossible ring tone on his phone and concentrated on his job.

You can recover from your previous faux pas, but it's going to take time. Also, stop asking people for feedback, again, needy. Just do your job.

Here is something to remember:

1. Does this need saying?
2. Does this need saying by me?
3. Does this need saying by me right now?

Also, you say you have a 5-year plan. Really? In this day and age? Your 5-year plan should include the possibility that the whole business goes tits-up and you'll be in the market again.

If the job is working for you, then stay. But keep your head down.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:27 AM on May 1, 2012

If your boss had a serious problem with you, she would Let You Know. I think you are wayyy over-thinking it. I agree with others who say that your coworkers' impression of you is probably neutral at worst.
posted by hermitosis at 7:47 AM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If your boss expects you to guess things, she is not a very good boss. I've worked in places where the rules change and the expectations aren't clear and it is difficult. You say that are you are especially sensitive and think that you stick out of the group, but I wouldn't be surprised if other people in your team have similar issues. They just look like they know the whole score!

I don't think that there is anything you have done that you should be ashamed of. Instead of looking at this as a personal failure, look at it like a challenge because of a clash of cultures. And don't forget this: Most people aren't thinking about you, they are busy thinking about themselves, just like you are.
posted by Gor-ella at 8:08 AM on May 1, 2012

Some things you could try:
- Listen well before reacting
- If it's work time, re-read your e-mails a few extra times before clicking Send
- If it's social time, ask questions. People love to talk about themselves, it's flattering. Eventually they will return the favor (and if not, hey, they're just work people)

It always sucks to feel left out, but like others have said-- I'm sure they feel pretty neutral toward you at this point. I'd recommend backing off a bit and putting a candy dish at your desk.

Best of luck! I think you'll be fine.
posted by stompadour at 8:16 AM on May 1, 2012

Nthing that you are way over thinking this. And you know this. So cut yourself some slack already, yes?

Things that seem to help me at work when my goal is to be The Easiest Person To Work With Ever:
-Determining which tasks are busy work and which are critical value items.
If I'm assigned busy work, then I make absolutely sure that my management never spends another second of their time on it once it has been given to me.
-Showing instead of telling when I need help.
If I hit a snag, I avoid saying "this happened, what do I do now?"
Better: "This happened, and I'm going to do this. Let me know if I should change course." If I'm right, they just have to say "Ok." If not, they give constructive feedback.
-If I'm interested in new tasks, or need something (like feedback), I only use this language: "I would love to do/receive [that] if there is ever an opportunity for me to be involved." (No begging, acting upset if I'm passed over, etc. Any outcome is tooootally fine.)
- Tweak your communication style. Make sure that you are super concise & efficient. I read this article from the green at some point, and it helped me trim my emails down by about 75%.

Keep your head up. Hope your feelings about the office improve!
posted by skrozidile at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think that the Captain Awkward advice column is really good at this type of issue.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:31 AM on May 1, 2012

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