Most professionals believe that if they work hard, perform at a high level, and deliver a valuable product or service, they will be successful in their organization and people will like them. It would be nice if this were true more often. Unfortunately, bewildered and stressed employees regularly pass through my office complaining that supervisors and colleagues treat them badly and give them no credit for their efforts. Why?
The problem with over-reliance on work ethic
Professional dedication and striving for achievement are noble qualities, and when used at the right time and in a certain manner, can promote recognition and respect. However, a gung-ho, full-speed-ahead or innovative working style does not fit every situation, especially when a worker is new to the organization. Furthermore, this style carries certain assumptions about the organization and the people that work there:
- They value hard work and productivity
- They implicitly trust the hard worker to make good decisions and not do anything embarrassing or damaging to the organization
- They feel secure about their own talent, work ethic, and reputation
- They are always open to new ideas and change
- They judge people primarily on the merits of their work, rather than their interpersonal or political skills
For a person relying solely on work ethic to be successful, all of these assumptions about the work group must be true, or that person’s efforts are bound to irritate or offend someone. In reality, no organization exists in which all of those conditions are true.
Every work setting has bear traps
No matter how professional, progressive, humane, or well-meaning, every organization has its unique bear traps—unwritten rules governing behavior in the workplace, carrying real consequences for infractions—that any employee can unwittingly step into, leaving them stuck in negative reactions from colleagues. Organizations that place lower value on productivity and achievement, especially where workers do not feel secure about their own abilities, are laden with bear traps (more like a mine field) for talented, dedicated employees.
How does one recognize and dodge the bear traps in their work setting? The moment you start asking this question and investigating the unwritten rules, you are already learning to avoid the traps. The diligent professional that enters a work situation thinking, I’m going to kick butt and everyone should respect that, is not trying to understand or adapt to the culture of the organization, but rather is imposing a value on that organization, whose staff may not appreciate the imposition. However, when faculty and staff make efforts to understand the customs, unwritten rules, and personalities of their department, they build rapport with colleagues and buy themselves good will. Even if they do step in a bear trap, their efforts to understand and engage the organization create the perception of a willing team player, thus making the consequences of the rule violation less severe.
- Raising the organization’s standards single-handedly
When a person works to such a high level that she raises the standards or expectations for others in the work group—or simply creates the perception among colleagues that they must elevate their game to survive—those colleagues will likely feel threatened, fearful, angry, resentful, or jealous. If she doesn’t care how they feel, or doesn’t pick up on their hints to tone down the achievement, they will use a variety of methods to punish her, including professional undermining, social rejection, character defamation, harassment, bullying, you name it. Such dedicated workers do not have to alter their identity from achiever to sloth, but rather find ways to be sensitive to their colleagues’ insecurities. Tempering the pace of work, reporting progress or accomplishments less vocally, finding ways to share credit with colleagues, or praising others’ skills and efforts can help a hard worker remain productive without a backlash. Since the priority in this situation is improving co-worker relations—not demonstrating competence or performance—it is not relevant if colleagues are undeserving of shared credit and praise, and high achievers will benefit from letting go of that perspective.
- Pushing ideas before establishing rapport
Have you ever heard a good idea, but rejected it because you didn’t trust the person proposing it? Some products may sell themselves, but ideas cannot, because despite their value, they cannot be separated from their creator(s). Thus, if an employee believes an idea will sell itself based on superior merit, and pushes that idea to a supervisor, colleague, or work group without first having established a trusting relationship with them, they will not only reject his idea, but also regard him as, well, “pushy.” If this reputation sticks, his ideas will easily be dismissed. With some bosses, a worker must not only establish rapport before proposing an idea, but must also present the idea in a way that leads the boss to believe that he or she thought of it first.
- Righteousness without legitimate authority
Some people are wired to stand up for others, or for justice. Again, under some circumstances, this can be a noble, helpful quality. In organizations, only a select few can act with righteousness, usually the highest-ranking leaders. The rest must raise concerns with respect and restraint. For example, an employee was recently reprimanded and referred to services with me for submitting a detailed report to management about his co-worker’s poor work habits. The informer’s observations were accurate and had merit—the colleague was arriving late, leaving early, taking long breaks and lunches—and his intention was to stand up for fairness in his work environment. However, his combined actions of stepping outside his role (he was not a manager), reporting in a formal manner, and using judgmental language and tone created the perception of righteousness. Had he addressed the behavior directly with the co-worker, or requested an informal meeting with the supervisor to discuss his concerns (assuming the co-worker was not responsive), he would have avoided the bear trap.
- Stealing someone’s baby
When workers are passionate about a project or area of expertise, or have devoted considerable time and energy to developing them, they naturally become possessive. If someone else even created the perception of trying to take away their time or resources devoted to that pet project or specialty, how else would we expect them to react? Intentionally trying to steal someone’s baby is more like cutthroat competition or bullying than stepping in a bear trap. The trap, however, is unwittingly committing theft (or giving the perception of trying to steal the baby). This is one of the easier bear traps to dodge. First, before embarking on a project or proposing a new idea, find out if someone already considers themselves the owner of that project or idea. To avoid provoking their possessiveness, you can acknowledge their ownership, show respect for their expertise, and reassure them that you are interested in working on that project, not in taking it from them. In addition, if you are proposing a change to a project or method, make sure you are not asking someone to give up something they hold dear, or setting them up for bear trap #5.
- Making someone look bad
A wise client once told me that you can never look good if you make someone else look bad, intentionally or not. We established this with the hyper-productive new worker: despite her accomplishments, if her colleagues look bad next to her, she will be made to look bad, too. This bear trap requires the most research, because the actions that can make a colleague or boss look favorable or not vary widely between work settings. For instance, while one employee might over-shadow his boss’ reputation with over-achievement, another employee (in a different situation) that under-produces can make his boss appear ineffective. One common way people make others look bad at work is making critical, public comments about their performance, decisions, or actions. Another form of this is publicly confronting a colleague or, worse, a supervisor. Such action will almost always be perceived as disrespectful or “showing up,” and will provoke judgmental reactions from those involved.
Unfortunately, even if you go to great lengths to avoid embarrassing colleagues, some of them have a knack for making themselves look bad. Then, you may be blamed for not preventing the image tarnishing, or not “backing up” the colleague. As unfair as this feels, this situation can be viewed as an opportunity to gain favor. For instance, when observing co-workers acting in ways that hurts their own image, if you emphasize their strengths or challenges, and make efforts to help them save face and protect their reputation (rather than allowing them to look bad, even if they brought it on themselves and deserve it), you may earn considerable good will.