No matter what industry you work in, chances are that you have some ambition to progress professionally in your field. With the economy going strong, getting a promotion may be on your mind.
If that’s the case, there are certain things every man can do to get ahead at the office. Unfortunately, hard work and skills aren’t enough to propel you forward on their own; true meritocracies rarely exist, and therefore most men need to arm themselves with different tactics to find a path forward in a competitive world. In the recent book Workplace Poker, author Dan Rust argues that you need to learn to play the game of office politics well in order to continue rising through the many challenges a career can present.
Before we get started, it’s important to note that to make the list below work for you, you have to be open and honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. You are in control of your actions, your knowledge, and your approach to the world, which is the first tenant from our What It Means To Be A Gentleman Today article. If you haven’t read it, you might want to. The 11 main points of that article are all relevant to the office environment. Furthermore, many clues about how to get ahead in your office are already there, if you take the time to search out and observe them.
To kick it off our list of ways to get ahead at the office, let’s start in familiar territory:
Dress the Part
It’s no surprise that we’d start here, right? Dressing well is our stock and trade, and we firmly believe that perceptions about you as a person will affect your success at the office. Most people like to think that they don’t judge other people based solely on what they wear, but the truth is that appearances matter. It’s no secret that people naturally gravitate towards other people like them, so start by identifying some of the core sartorial characteristics of the office you work in. Ask yourself:
- What do the most successful people or the people who have progressed the quickest wear to work?
- What about the people who don’t seem to be going anywhere?
- What role do grooming choices play in appearances?
The best place to land is somewhere just below what the most successful people wear. While we’d never advocate setting aside your own style preferences entirely in favor of mimicking the office uniform, you can adjust your wardrobe choices to match the formality of what you are seeing successful people in the office wear. However, it’s best to adjust your wardrobe over time, since an abrupt change (from chinos to a suit, for example) might make your aspirations more obvious than you’d like. For general guidelines about how to navigate the most common workplace dress code, Business Casual, check out our video below. For a full explanation of dress codes, check out our Dress Code Primer here.
Plan to Get Ahead the Right Way
We all know that guy who has bulldozed his way to the top of the org chart; he’s probably a narcissist with exploitive, egotistic, and jealous tendencies. Unfortunately, having an overinflated belief in one’s superiority, skill and importance can be one way to get ahead; they have to believe they are special in some way to get as far as they have without justifying their grandiose claims. Narcissism is defined as being a personality disorder, but that doesn’t mean that the painful characteristics of narcissism aren’t present in all our lives in some way.
The question is, HOW do you want to get ahead? Do you want to be respected, admired, and considered to be credible? If so, then be mindful of how your actions and expectations will affect your career path. Brown nosing the boss will not go unnoticed by your colleagues, and you want to avoid (knowingly or otherwise) developing a reputation as someone who doesn’t deserve what they get. It will catch up to you eventually, especially if you want to advance in the same organization. Expect and ask for recognition and promotion that is commensurate with your quantifiable achievements and skills.
Minimize Gossip & Negativity
A certain amount of gossip and negativity is expected in every workplace, especially when office politics and big changes are at play. Commiserating with colleagues may help build the social structure of your office, but actively participating in spreading gossip or encouraging negativity can quickly become part of your reputation. You may find yourself cut out of conversations if you are not perceived to be professional and trustworthy with sensitive information, which will certainly be a barrier to future advancement.
Instead, try to focus on the positive, and remind yourself that the short term gain of gossip and negativity in the moment could be sabotaging your long-term career aspirations.
In the office, behaving “professionally” should be pretty self-explanatory: show up on time, be well-rested and prepared, do your work well, observe the niceties of your office, and abide by the guidelines set out by HR. However, professionalism shouldn’t end just because the work day is over. At work happy hours, parties and events, while they encourage relaxation and socialization, it’s best to keep up the professional facade to maintain your reputation. Drinking minimally, avoiding controversial conversation topics, and leaving at an appropriate hour are all good habits to form.
That used to be the extent of maintaining “professionalism” at work, but these days, reputations can be destroyed in a single event, and it might have nothing to do with work. Here’s a great example in which one person’s thoughtless tweet ruined her career and her good name in one fell swoop. You don’t want your name to become synonymous with one poor choice. It may seem extreme, but in today’s world, Big Brother is no longer just a fictional character in an Orwell novel. Your actions are no longer immune from public exposure when everyone has a camera in their pocket and there is a security camera on every corner. It’s not an easy ask, but if you really want to protect yourself, you have to consider that every public action or statement is being observed and documented. Furthermore, excuses such as “just kidding”, intoxication, and the “heat of the moment” just don’t cut it anymore when companies have their own reputation to protect.
Don’t Abuse the Perks of Your Job
Chances are your work might come with an interesting perk – international travel, free products, or great connections. One of the easiest ways to prove you aren’t promotion material is to abuse the perks or benefits of your job. Don’t party during business travel, sell freebies to make extra cash, or pretend you’re sick in order to get an extra vacation day.
If it’s not explicitly against company policy, think of it this way: if you would be embarrassed getting caught, then you probably shouldn’t do it in the first place.
Be Willing to Embrace Change
This might be one of the most important points on this list. Change is a constant in the workplace; new technologies, innovations, reorganizations, mergers, and changing demand are just some of the big changes that can and will affect your work. Being unable to embrace change will render you unpromotable, so take a hard look at how you’ve handled it in the past.
If you think about your colleagues, who do you consider the most difficult to work with? It’s probably someone who is resistant to change within their sphere of work. A slight deviation from the standard practice can send them into a tailspin. Change or die, right? You do not want to be this person if you want to get ahead at the office. Resistance to change prevents growth, learning, and taking on new challenges, all of which you will need to do to get promoted. Embracing change will put you on the good side of management, who often don’t have much choice in the changes they hand down. Furthermore, being the first to embrace change can put you ahead of the game relative to your peers, and help insulate you when it comes time to trim stale wood around the office.
If dealing with change is your particular Achilles heel, then we recommend a bit of additional reading in the form of Spenser Johnson’s famous book Who Moved My Cheese?. After nearly 20 years in print, it is still considered the quintessential business guide that lays out a simple way to take the fear and anxiety out of managing change.
Adopt the Model of Someone Who Has Already Done Well
While blazing your own trail can be incredibly satisfying, sometimes replicating a well-worn model is the best way to move forward. Especially in large organizations, there are usually people about who have a career progression that you’d like to emulate. Most people are flattered if you ask them to tell you about their successes, but if a direct connection with that individual isn’t possible or prudent, then observe what they’ve done. Read their LinkedIn profile to identify their stepping stones, observe how they build relationships with other people, what they wear, and listen to how other people talk about this individual. Identify a handful of things you can replicate, and get to work.
Don’t Be Indispensable
This may sound counterintuitive, but being an indispensable member of your team can have some serious disadvantages if you are looking for a promotion. If your boss can’t manage without you, then they are much less likely to actively help you seek another opportunity. The challenge with indispensability is that you often don’t have control over it; at small companies or in highly specialized niches, you are probably the only one who does a certain kind of work.
If you’re faced with a “what would we do without you” scenario, you can make progress with your aspirations by making your career goals clear and creating a plan for how you will help transition your work successfully to the next person in your role. It’s unreasonable to expect that people will stay in a certain role forever, just because they are good at it. If your boss is still reluctant (or outright hostile) to a move, then it may be time to Embrace the Jagged Path.
Embrace the Jagged Path
Getting ahead at the office is rarely linear. If you are feeling stagnant in your current role, whether you are “indispensable” to your boss, budget cuts are hitting the headcount, or resistance to change is a hallmark of your department, you can still get ahead – you just can’t expect anyone to help you. Much like searching for a new job, you have to get yourself into the best possible position to be promoted, even if that means it’s outside of your department or division. Cultivate a wide-ranging network by nurturing connections through mutual projects, teams or inter-business organizations. Take on a business-driven optional project that will give you some visibility to management, such as a research initiative into a new technology or a partnership. Use your personal time to help develop your skills, such as taking on coursework in an advanced degree, learning a new technology, or going to relevant workshops.
Finally, don’t be afraid to make horizontal career moves; they may lead you to a department with far better opportunities than your own, and moving around generally comes with some form of financial or title recognition commensurate with your increased experience.
What tactics have you used to get ahead in the office? How do you balance the essential characteristics of being a gentleman with making progress in your career? Let us know in the comments.