If you find yourself struggling in the workplace it could be because you’re bringing to your job some incorrect assumptions and expectations. Many people unknowingly bring their emotional baggage to work and if they aren’t careful, this can turn a job into a nightmare. The workplace has a number of elements: your colleagues, your boss and your actual job. All of these interact to make your day-to-day work-life what it is.
It’s crucial to understand that there are a number of types of bosses, and your survival in the workplace depends on knowing which type you have. For example, there is the sincerely supportive type who wants you to do your best and helps you do so; the laissez-faire type who gives you little direction but few hassles if you leave them be; the anxious boss who wants to micro-manage you; the “buddy” boss who behaves as though you’re friends; the critical boss for whom nothing is ever good enough, and the bully boss who lives to intimidate and exploit their workers.
If you have the supportive type of boss, most of the following won’t apply to you, but for all the other types, reading this article could make the difference between a happy work-life and a hellish one. Here are a few basic strategies for not just surviving but thriving at work:
It’s important to never bring your shortcomings to the attention of your boss. Try to frame any mistakes in the best light. If you’ve messed up and they need to know, present the information to them in the least self-incriminating way possible. If they’ve discovered an error in your work, respond honestly to their questions, but don’t go into detail about how you went wrong. You need to provide them with the facts; not ammunition with which they can harm you.
Make sure you do nothing to lower the morale of your co-workers. Coming in late or looking like you aren’t doing your work creates an atmosphere of resentment among your colleagues and annoys your boss. Most bosses like it when you’re in the background, quietly attending to your work; they hate it when you force them to take time away from their own tasks to deal with problems you’ve created. If you don’t have enough to do, consider approaching your boss and asking for more work, but remember that this could back-fire on you. Conversely, it may be time to look for greater challenges elsewhere.
If your boss is overly-critical or a bully, the administration will often support them over you, and your best bet might be to leave. Administrations don’t tend to be fair or kind-hearted; they prefer to maintain the status quo and to take the path of least resistance. The people in power might have promoted your boss because they like this person, or because they share similar attitudes. They may not know or care about your boss’s bullying. Remember, it’s easier to replace a person at a lower level than one at a higher level.
Make yourself indispensable; then you’ll have some bargaining power. If the powers that be really need your particular skill set, it will be easier to negotiate salary increases, vacations and other perks. Never assume, however, that you’re irreplaceable. The workplace isn’t the bastion of kindness and gentleness.
Getting along with everyone is essential. No matter how good your work is, if you’re not seen as likable & cooperative, the workplace won’t be a pleasant place. People frequently are promoted because they get along well with their superiors and colleagues rather than because of the quality of their work. You don’t have to like everyone – and you probably won’t be inclined to- but you’ll have to look like you do.
Workplace conflicts make bosses very unhappy, and you’re likely to have negative consequences if the boss finds out that you and a colleague are at odds. There is also the possibility that a disgruntled co-worker could be one of those disturbed types who feels the need to get back at anyone who vexes them. You don’t want this person to try and make your work-life a living hell. Work should be like driving: do it defensively
Don’t be a martyr in the workplace: never sacrifice your own needs for the job. There is no guarantee that regularly putting in longer hours or going above and beyond the call of duty will win you respect, a raise or a promotion. Sometimes it will, and sometimes this has nothing to do with whether or not you’ll get ahead. Remember, your boss isn’t your loved one. They may appreciate your extra efforts, but they might just as easily be happy to exploit you for everything you’re worth.
The workplace is not where you’ll heal your emotional wounds or compensate for any childhood neglect. The approval of your boss can’t make up for any lack of approval from your parents. If you’re trying too hard to be “loved” by your boss, consider getting a pet or talking to a therapist, instead.
You can’t really be friends with your boss. Remember, they have the power to fire or promote you. A boss who wants to be pals with their employees is being unfair and inappropriate. When push comes to shove, they hold all the cards. Any confidences you share with them could be used against you if the personal relationship were to sour, and any confidences they share with you might ultimately make them feel uncomfortable, and then it’s you who’ll have to go.
A hyper-critical, micro-managing or anxious/aggressive boss might be appeased by observing you to be steady, consistent and capable of producing high-quality work. On the other hand, they could be someone who, despite all your efforts, can’t help but give you a hard time. If this is wearing you down, you might need to leave so that you can find a boss who is actually capable of appreciating and perhaps even rewarding your efforts.
Think twice about workplace romance; you’re going to have to see this person every day for as long as you’re in the job, once you break up. Statistically, the majority of relationships you start will not end in marriage, so consider whether you want to go to work every day and have to hang out with your possibly angry, or worse yet, still-hung-up-on-you ex.
Telling on a co-worker is almost guaranteed to backfire; you’ve just made trouble for your boss by pointing out a problem that they now have to solve. Bosses have a lot on their plate. They usually want you to do your work and not bother them. When you bring even a legitimate problem to them, it makes them see you as someone who increases their level of stress.
And then of course, there’s the co-worker whom you’re telling on and how they will feel towards you after the fact. If you continue working together, the atmosphere will be strained, at best. Very carefully consider whether you want your name attached to this problem. Is there an anonymous way that this information could be imparted to your superior(s)?
Don’t avoid work, but don’t think you have to do everyone else’s work, either. Learn to sometimes say “No” and do it without actually saying “No,” and with a big smile on your face. Say things like, “I’d love to, as soon as I get done with these other tasks,” and they’ll take the work elsewhere. In the work-place, impressions, sadly, count for a lot.
Being considered co-operative and helpful is more important than actually being this way. Don’t forget, you could be someone who is extremely helpful and yet (let’s say, someone has misunderstood you or is even malicious towards you) unfairly have the reputation of being difficult. It’s essential that you carefully manage your reputation at work.
Above all, be strategic. The workplace is not the arena for deep, meaningful relationships or heartfelt sincerity; it’s the place where yo do your tasks as efficiently and conscientiously as possible, while still remembering to take care of your own needs and to present yourself in the best possible light to everyone around you. Remember that you set the tone for how you’re treated; if you tolerate disrespect or exploitation, your colleagues or supervisors will think it’s OK to keep treating you like this.
Going to work is a lot more than just pursuing the satisfaction of a job well done. Knowing how to strategically negotiate the minefield of the workplace will make it that much easier for you to stay out of trouble and enjoy your work.
(C) Marcia Sirota MD, 2010