It seems rather straightforward when stripped down to the purest form of human action. Get up. Go to work and do your job. Repeat the process until the weekend. That is what we do. And, if that were all we needed to accomplish that would cover the first four keys to successfully navigate the workplace. But human beings are complex. Not only do we bring our physical selves to an experience, our aspirations, relationships, and emotional states also crossover the threshold when we come to work.
We Engage Fully
All over the world, millions of strangers interact on multiple levels held together by the one thing most of them would prefer not to do if they had the choice. For most, being in the same place "doing a job" is not a strong enough linkage to one another, and as a result, workplaces morph into social clubs where you find your tribe and partners. It’s also the place where a person develops or sharpens their character, conflicts arise, norms are challenged, and people either rise to meet the demands of the job or failing to do so risk their employment as well as falling in the eyes of their peers.
This labyrinth, full of open and covert negotiations, competing interests, and intertwined lives has the potential to be one of the most entertaining, and fulfilling experiences of your life. Wait. What? Thrilling, and enjoying? We're talking about work, right? Yes, we are, and it's true. Having been in the business world for a long time, I’ve experienced my fair share of environments; working in the private sector, at large corporations, and in academic settings. I've held leadership positions in some and in others had no title or significant management responsibilities (i.e., a follower). I've also been in more than a few conversations about the boss, the coworker, the environment and the work itself. Successfully (but, not flawlessly) navigating happy, hostile and dysfunctional situations has been one of the hallmarks of my career.
Learning how to get the most out of workplace relationships is one of the more critical skills to hone. Doing so will be invaluable to you as you climb the career ladder. And, should you decide to set a new path as an entrepreneur, this ability will serve you well in that capacity too. Now let's dive into the keys that will help you to overcome the obstacles that can sabotage your rise to the top.
#1 - The Clique
It can be hard to identify this as a potential issue initially because the participants are often welcoming, extending a hand of friendship in a new environment. Who wouldn't want that when you're the newbie? Well, don't be so quick to align yourself with any one person or group. Treat your new job, at least in the first few weeks, the same as you would if you were dating. Play hard to get! Spend time with lots of different people, getting to know their personalities and who you like. Pay attention to the interaction amongst your co-workers and the topics of discussion, especially at lunch. With cliques, the conversations are inclusive in the beginning, but over time they change; turning negative or into gossip about other people. If this occurs frequently, that's your cue to put some distance between you and the group. What you are just discovering about the office clique is likely well-known by the rest of your co-workers. Avoid the trap of cozying up to the first person (or group) that shows you some love. Keep your options open. After all, building relationships with the entire team are healthier for you, and far better for your career.
#2 The Toxic Work Environment
My first professional position out of school was in a well-known institution. When I interviewed for the job, it was with the entire team (approximately 20 people), and it went well. I was excited to start my career at such a prestigious place. About two weeks into my employment, the manager informed the staff that we would attend a half-day conflict resolution seminar. And, with that announcement, the issues that were present amongst the team that had been festering just below the surface began to bubble up with renewed intensity.
Individual team members refused to work together; others wouldn't speak to each other. People were doubling down on their alliances, and the two main camps were actively trying to recruit me to "their side." The situation felt remarkably similar to sophomore year of high school; full of unnecessary drama and cattiness. And I was seriously questioning my decision-making skills because I never saw this coming. None of the animosity, now on full display, was present during my interview. I mean, what happened to the pleasant, congenial group I met with just a few short weeks ago?
We got through the training, but never to the root of the issues that were eating away at the team. The take away here is that I had a choice to make. Either take matters into my own hands or go along with the Survivoresque drama that was unfolding before me. I chose the former, and that meant forging a relationship with the most hostile team members. Diffusing tensions and befriending those individuals was the key to a healthy personal work environment. And during my employment, I remained neutral on the issues that were present. My team members knew I was willing to work with anyone, without judgment. This approach took time and diligence; staying true to my intention to live above the drama and gossip. It worked for me. It can work for you too as long as you work it, knowing one slip on your part and the credibility you have been building with your teammates will vanish. It's crucial to stay the course and commit to this as a priority every day.
#3 - The Slacker
Have you ever worked with that guy (or girl), you know, the one that works the hardest at not working? It's comical to watch them wriggle out of responsibility except when you're the one that's left doing the lion share of work, and your paycheck does not reflect your extra effort. Want to know how to create an equitable work environment where everyone is doing his or her fair share? Even a slacker.
To get a wayward situation like this one back on the right track you must address the problem head-on. Yes, you. The first thing you must realize is (hear me when I say) a slacker is betting on your cooperation. Similar to co-dependent relationships, slackers cannot get away with their antics without the help of others so nipping their unwanted behavior in the bud is essential to your long-term success. The first thing you will want to do is a quick self-assessment to determine if you're ready to resolve the issue. Those that possess:
a. a willingness to confront someone that is taking advantage of your work ethic and commitment to your job.
b. the ability to advocate for self in a professional and respectful manner. Effective communication is the key. You do not want a much-needed conversation to devolve into a screaming match or worse.
c. an understanding of your next-level resources, should you need to bring this to the attention of higher-ups. You want to understand the politics of the environment. If you've noticed people who bring issues to human resources tend to leave the organization shortly after that, chances are you're not going to get the support for your cause.
If after examining these internal and external aspects of the situation, and you are satisfied that you have the right mindset, communication skills, and resources to proceed, then go for it! Knowing that you are not one to play with, most slackers will straighten up and fly right when working with you. They may not change for others, but they will modify their behavior around you; if for no other reason than to avoid being confronted with their failure to perform.
#4 - The Boss!?
More than once I've asked myself who thought it was a sound business decision to put so-and-so (insert bosses' name) in charge? Smh, I would set the thought aside and carry-on with what I need to accomplish. But some days I would allow myself to linger on the idea and envision what I would do if the leadership position were mine. If you can relate, then you're probably comfortable being in charge and want to position yourself well to improve your access to higher levels of responsibility and money :). The question is, how can you gain the exposure and the experience that will get you to the next level of leadership? Well, you're going to need to engage the boss, the one that makes you shake your head.
Having access to the boss and the next level dynamics that he had to contend with was an eye-opener for me. I'm very grateful that my boss was willing to share knowledge (and that he had the patience of a saint). With his guidance, I learned to check my ego at the door... getting over the thought that I was the one with the vision and great ideas. Gaining exposure to the broader strategy for the company made all the difference and with that, Monday morning quarterbacking decisions became a thing of the past. Moreover, I learned that not everyone would agree with my business philosophy or the tough choices I would have to make. Once I realized the value in the approach of others, I was able to learn a vast amount of information from people that were very different from me.
To be clear, in my career I walked away from good opportunities when there was a difference in ethics. For me, ethics are the bedrock of life and success in whatever you want to achieve. Examine your situation, and if you do not see any deal-breaking differences, I encourage you to avail yourself of the resources that are around you, especially that boss. He or she may just help you bridge the gap, getting from where you are to where you want to be.
#5 - It's Not Me or Is It?
Frustrated with the current state of your workplace? Have you found yourself looking around, trying to find the sane people in a sea of insanity? Are you spending the majority of time talking about what's wrong, or worse, have you joined the clique? After all, misery loves company! When you find yourself in this place (a figurative fork in the road), it's time to make some decisions. It's all about you determining the best approach to take. You're either going to work on changing your thoughts and behaviors to align better with the organization or start planning your exit strategy.
As a starting point, re-read the questions in the previous paragraph again. This time around do so with intention; examine yourself and answer honestly. This simple exercise will improve your situational awareness, allowing you to cut through any illusions about the environment, yourself, and others. What may be happening is that you are subconsciously aware that it's time to change, leaving this once-promising environment for even greener pastures. And, that's okay. Some people are lifers, and others are not. Neither is better than the other. It's a matter of selecting a course of action that resonants with you.
The work world is dynamic, as is life, and the only constant is change. As we close out 2017, tune-in to your inner desires and hone your focus (the sixth key to success). Equipped with some new tools to help you conquer the workplace, it's time to formulate your plan for 2018. If you do and apply your personal best effort to build meaningful working relationships, you will go far and climb high. In other words, successfully navigate your environment!