You’re authentic, humble, kind, and smart. You put your head down and work hard. And it is officially driving you nowhere with a full tank of gas.
Meanwhile, the vile Decepticon in the next cubicle who has far more ambition and confidence than brains or work ethic is getting promoted. Apparently there has been an error in the records department at the universe’s Ministry of Fairness.
Don’t hold your breath while waiting for karmic retribution. When it comes to the workplace, no, life isn’t fair.
And the typical nicety-nicety, warm and fuzzy, Pollyanna advice we hear about getting ahead really isn’t helping. In fact, research shows it’s about as plausible as the latest Marvel movie. Just working hard and being nice isn’t enough. (Sorry, I know that’s a far cry from the morality lessons you get at the end of 80’s sitcoms.)
In case you are just visiting Earth, yes, jerks often get ahead. Studies show narcissists are more likely to be chosen as leaders. In fact, they often rise independent of performance. Narcissistic leaders earn more money and stay in power longer. And their companies often bounce back better after experiencing problems.
Don’t you look at me like that. You were nodding a few paragraphs ago when I said things aren’t always fair, right? I hate to present the facts with such remorseless clarity but just because you ignore reality doesn’t mean reality is going to ignore you.
Yes, this is another one of those posts where I reveal uncomfortable truths that make you squirm. (I make friends everywhere I go.) There are more than enough articles out there happy to tell you what you want to hear. This isn’t one of them. When we avoid the truth, toxic people get to keep the success secrets all to themselves. I want to see good people get ahead so they can make things, um… gooder.
If we want to stop getting mugged by reality the question we should be trying to answer is: “Why do awful people get ahead and what can we learn from them without losing our souls?”
Let me break the good news to you: we can learn the skills to get promoted and succeed without being bad. Time to pop the epistemic bubble on how career advancement really works…
Most books on the topic won’t help you get promoted (but they will treat insomnia effectively), We’re going to look at three that have the research-backed goods. “Leadership BS” and “7 Rules of Power” by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, and “Get Promoted” by Michael Wenderoth.
Let’s get to it…
1) Get Out Of Your Own Way
You probably look at the frustrating way raises and promotions are doled out at the office and think, “That’s unfair!”
But I have a question: “Are you using this as an excuse or as information?” That’s the difference between self-help vs self-helplessness. Cease dropping rage coins in your mental slot machine. When you’re furious, get curious.
Look around and become an unbiased observer of what gets rewarded at your company. Who gets promoted? What are they doing? What works? And who gets laid off? And if there is someone honest and wise who has done well, ask for advice. Encourage them to be blunt. This will knock out of a few of the load-bearing fictions you’ve been telling yourself.
You need to start operating based on how your world is – not how you’d like it to be.
(To learn about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
Are you irritated by my little wake-up call? Want to burn me in digital effigy? Then you’re really not going to like this next part…
2) Perceptions Matter
The standard advice loves gauzy words like “authenticity.” But INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra says “being authentic” is often just being lazy. We only want to do what is comfortable, not what is necessary.
How you present yourself matters. Many people will say that’s obvious – and then go nuclear over its implications. Were you 100% authentic at the job interview? Heck no. You knew you needed to be perceived well. Guess what? It doesn’t just matter during the interview.
Research shows that top CEO’s know playing the part is an important aspect of the job. Want to be promoted to leadership? You need to act and be seen as a leader.
Now before you go on a Holden Caulfield rant about phoniness, let me point out that you expect this from leaders as well. Would you want a leader who doesn’t seem confident? Doesn’t make others feel secure? Isn’t able to muster courage even when they “don’t feel like it”? If you’re a parent, you know that sometimes you’re uncertain but still need to act like a parent to keep things running smoothly around the house.
Yes, I know. Logic is mean.
It’s not “Don’t be yourself” — it’s “Which self?” We’re often playing a part to some degree. Do you have the option to be in a bad mood while giving a presentation? When interviewing? When trying to cheer up a friend? Being a leader is no different.
Carry yourself with confidence and speak positively about your accomplishments. Leading influence expert Robert Cialdini says, “There is evidence that not to make positive assertions about oneself or one’s work can be taken as a negative signal.” As I said in my latest book, vulnerability is essential in personal relationships – but in the workplace it can make leaders appear less effective.
You don’t have to be a narcissist, but you can’t be afraid to be proactive. Someone who is seen as the “wait and obey” type may be a good employee but they don’t come across as leadership material. Act with confidence and people will be more likely to think you can handle challenges. We follow people who look like they know what they’re doing – not someone who always seems to be waiting for permission. Being gutsy is a Magic Cloak of Influence +3.
“But that doesn’t feel natural to me.”
That’s because it’s new. Learning anything feels unnatural at first. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Research shows by projecting confidence you come to believe that’s who you are.
“But I have impostor syndrome.”
Then you should be thrilled. I just told you everyone above you has been acting, too, and, with time, they internalized confidence. You’re not alone. You’re the norm.
(To learn how to negotiate salary, click here.)
Carrying yourself with confidence? Good. But we need to take that to the next level…
3) Get Noticed
Take credit for your work. Create value — but also claim it. Research shows self-promotion matters in hiring and evaluations.
I know, you don’t want to be a narcissistic braggart. But those decisions about who gets raises and promotions happen behind closed doors and people cannot recommend you if they don’t know who you are and what you’ve done.
(To learn how to ace a job interview, click here.)
Yes, a lot of these tips will make you uncomfortable. But we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable to get ahead. And, uh, please put all sharp objects away before reading this next one…
4) Political Skill
People hear “office politics” and immediately start screeching like a deranged pterodactyl. I don’t blame them. However, there is this: “Political skill at work is one of the most powerful predictors of success in the workplace.”
Some folks are gritting their teeth right now. Seriously though, think about the definition of political skill: getting things done through knowing how to influence and deal with people, even if you don’t necessarily like them. Well, if you want to be a leader, that’s pretty much the job description.
The most important first step to political skill is maintaining your relationship with your boss. Plain and simple: they need to like you. (Yes, 35% of US employees said they’d forgo a substantial raise to see their supervisor fired but acting that way is not going to get you promoted.) And have no illusions: companies don’t promote people; bosses do.
Having allies around the office is vital. Want people to support you? Then you need to ask the question, “What’s in it for them?” Being nice is great but research shows reciprocity based on kindness doesn’t happen as often as we’d like in the office. Work settings are far more transactional.
So it’s important to not just be friendly but to know what people need. What are their key priorities and pain points? What – and who – influences them? This is how you get things done. You have influence if you control hard resources someone needs and cannot get elsewhere: expertise, information, budget, assistance, networks, or skills.
So how do you get these things? By doing a good job for your superiors, being liked by them and by asking for stuff. Yes, you have to ask. Studies show we underestimate how effective just asking can be. (Another notable thing about that study was just how many people dropped out before it was completed. Yes, you’re not the only one who finds asking for resources uncomfortable. But, again, would you think someone was leadership material if they were afraid to ask for things they needed to get the job done?)
And once you start to get a little influence around the office, use it. Using influence does not exhaust it; it increases it. Using influence signals you have influence and know how to wield it. Sounds like leadership material to me. Remember: you’re not paid according to how hard you work; you’re paid according to how difficult you are to replace. If you control resources and have good relationships with people at the top, you’re not going to be someone the company will be quick to let go.
(To learn how to make a career transition, click here.)
Okay, now you’re leveraging the opportunities available to you. Great. But how do you increase the number of opportunities coming your way?
Here’s a sentence for you: “Networking was the most robust predictor of success.”
American Time Use Survey data shows, on average, people spend roughly 2 hours per day socializing. Know how much of that is with colleagues? 9 minutes. Granted, this leads to fun, but it isn’t terribly likely to lead to promotions.
People who say networking has been key to their success, on average, spend 6.3 hours per week networking. People who say networking hasn’t helped them much, on average, spend 2 hours per week networking. Doesn’t take a math major to see what’s going on there. The study went on to recommend 8-10 hours a week networking if you really want to get ahead.
Yes, I know, networking can feel dirty. But that just leaves one of the most valuable tools for career success exclusively in the hands of The Office Sociopath. What do you do when you’re trying to get a job? Just hang out with friends who can’t help you? Heck, no. You aggressively reach out to the people who can. When push comes to shove, you know what works. And if you did that networking a little more regularly, job hunts would be easier. In fact, with time, job offers might come to you.
Networking doesn’t have to be sleazy. At best, you’re trying to make new friends. Even at worst, it doesn’t have to be evil – it’s like building a relationship with a neighbor. You don’t have to love them and they don’t have to love you but you both know it’s a very good idea to have a politely transactional relationship because as some point you’re probably going to need each other.
So what should you do? First, reactivate dormant relationships. This is stupid easy. You already know people who can help you, you just haven’t talked to them in a while. Reach out.
Next, hit up your “superconnectors.” Research shows that a disproportionate number of our relationships were facilitated by a handful of people. Those folks are the hubs in the network. Connect with the people who have introduced you to useful people in the past and ask them for introductions.
Past that, create groups. Get smart go-getters together semi-regularly. And ask them to invite people they respect. The more you network and create value for others, the more you’ll be seen as a well-connected individual. And then people will be seeking you out.
(To learn how to be more resilient, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up – and we’ll discuss what to do if everything above sounds absolutely heinous to you…
This is how to get promoted and advance your career:
- Get Out Of Your Own Way: Things may be unfair but saying that won’t get you the corner office. Look around to see what really works at work.
- Perceptions Matter: It’s not “Don’t be yourself” — it’s “Which self?” There are times where you are decisive and confident. Be that version of yourself more often.
- Get Noticed: Being a valuable contributor doesn’t matter much if people don’t know how valuable you are.
- Political Skill: Senior execs don’t spend 10 hours a day writing reports. They spend most of their time managing, influencing, and motivating people. If you don’t want to do those things, you don’t want to be in a leadership role.
- Networking: There is always someone who knows more about a topic than you do. The more of those people you know, the better you’ll do.
While what gets people ahead in the workplace does make sense, it isn’t always fun and nice. Take a wrong step and it can turn into an atrocity arms race leading to spiritual scurvy. You can become one of those toxic people. Don’t worry, there are other ways to succeed that don’t require casting a dark spell on yourself.
John Hodgman wrote, “The worst jobs are not the hardest jobs. The worst job is the job you know is wrong for you, but you stay in it anyway.” Sometimes you need to move on to another company or even another industry. As I wrote about in my first book, the element of alignment is critical to finding success.
But won’t the same issues plague you there? Human nature is consistent — but some places reward different behaviors than others. That’s why the first step is doing some research. It’s crazy how people complain about their employer but don’t bother to investigate the next one before taking a new job. We say companies are shallow and self-interested… and then we take a new job based only on salary and status. Kinda ironic. Talk to the people there before you accept that offer. Find out what it’s really like before you pull a “Groundhog Day” on yourself.
Past that, if the politics and networking really aren’t your thing, look for jobs where results can be quantified. Albert-László Barabási of Northeastern University has done research showing that in jobs where performance is tough to measure (and that’s most white-collar jobs) networks matter more than performance. But where results can be easily attributed and quantified (coding, sales, etc.) then performance really does win the day.
Getting ahead can be tricky but it doesn’t have to be a mystery. Pay attention to what gets rewarded. Work hard and make sure that work gets noticed. Strive to appear like a leader. Utilize resources not only to get things done, but also to build alliances. And never stop networking to get help and create new opportunities.
You can do all those things and still be a good person. You don’t have to do anything evil like cheat, lie or make another Matrix sequel.