If you go straight from college into your first real job, it may take some time for your brain to catch up. You may have been smart enough to get to classes late and still ace the exams, but it doesn’t work like that in business or the professions. College is you against the test. Business is almost always a team activity, your team against the world. If you aren’t lifting your share of the weight, someone else has to. Your slacking WILL be noticed.
Jungle vs. Zoo
If college is a jungle (think Animal House), the office is the zoo. Many students go into the zoo thinking they’re still in the jungle. The office chit-chat tends to be about how hard they partied last weekend and where they’re going to be partying hard next weekend. Men and women whose brains are still back there in the frat house will talk about each other using disrespectful language commonly found in rap lyrics.
If you happen to work with superiors who talk this way, here’s how to have some fun—never, ever use language that is foul, demeaning, dismissive, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, pornographic, intolerant, hurtful, or mean. Keep your politics and faith to yourself, and resist the urge to argue with those who don’t. Keep this up and you may be surprised how quickly others adapt to YOUR standards when they realize it matters to you, and that it makes them sound coarse. If this happens, others will be showing their respect for your values, which you established by NOT saying something. That’s a form of leadership—by example—that is authentic and effective.
So, save the sick jokes, snide remarks, and colorful language for your stand-up comedy routine and for your friends and family. In the workplace, every time you use them, in jest or not, appreciated by others or not, you pull yourself down a notch. You surrender a bit of your dignity and risk stunting your career. Remember, the top quality employers look for is strong communication skills.
Don't Get a Room
Because my colleagues and I work with young adults all the time, we feel a special obligation to set good examples. According to some of my peers, it’s the hardest part about being in a leadership role—always being “on” for the troops. A common situation comes up during our periodic regional sales meetings where hundreds of reps get together in a hotel to hear inspirational speakers, learn about new products, see who won the sales contests, and of course, flirt.
The reps range in age from eighteen to about twenty-four. When the work day is done and everyone has time to relax, there are always groups who head for the bar. We managers and leaders try to have fun during the work sessions and bond with our people. Often some of the young reps will invite one of us to go with them, the same as they might ask a coach or a teaching assistant at college.
The answer is one version or another of: “I’m here to be at my best, so I want to make sure I stay sharp and set a good example. Thanks, anyway.” How’s that for a buzz-killer! Sometimes we really want to go out, loosen up, and let you see a bit of our inner child. But doing so ironically undermines our credibility. You might like us better, but it probably wont do much for inspiring you to reach your potential.
No matter where you find yourself working, there will be situations just like that. You’ll be invited to go out after work and have a beer, and that might be okay now and then. Some companies may even want to know you are able to be social and can handle yourself. However, when you are with people from work, everything is an interview. When you do go out, you don't want to be the last to leave. Our experience teaches us that co-workers who lose certain healthy inhibitions tend to get themselves into tight spots, romantically and otherwise. If you want to have a good, cringe-worthy laugh and learn a valuable lesson, go to YouTube.com and type in “Best Way To Get Fired.”
So lead by example, but also be prepared to be pecked at by others. You might be making a presentation to a group of co-workers, lose your place, fumble a bit, and someone decides to harass you. “Shoulda brought my sleeping bag!” “Hey, I can hear the ocean!”
You’re going to feel defensive, ticked off, angry, embarrassed, ridiculous and more. Your body will blaze with shame. You’ll feel the sweat run down your sides. You may want to punch your tormentor in the nose. You may want to chuck the whole thing, flee the room, quit the job. Totally normal, right?
Be prepared to be mocked or heckled or even just criticized. Consider this tactic I developed over the years. I teach our reps to do this when someone in a meeting has a mild attack of social Tourettes—the irresistible urge to make smart remarks for the benefit of an audience at your expense.
Keep talking while strolling toward the back of the room and then casually park yourself, standing, right behind the wiseguy. Keep on with your presentation like there’s nothing wrong, all the while standing right behind him or her. You might be trembling, but everyone in the room will turn to look toward you, which means they’ll also be looking at Mighty Mouth, who invariably will deflate like a balloon, slouching down in his or her chair, looking a little confused and exposed.
Stand there for a minute doing your talk and then just walk away, back to the front of the room where you were, and continue. You don’t have to say a word about why you did it. I’ve seen this work countless times—the guilty party usually clams up for the rest of the day. What you don’t say can be more powerful than what you do. This works in every aspect of life. Being a good communicator—and successful at anything—begins and ends with being a good listener.
As an old saying puts it, ’tis better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.
Another tactic in a situation like the one I described above is to stop your presentation and call out the trouble-maker. “Hey, was that a dig?” Rather than an accusation, it’s a question that anyone other than a sociopath would answer no, even if they’re lying. The most common response is a self-conscious apology and no more heckling.
A third tactic is to deal with it later, pulling the person aside privately and telling them, “I don’t know if you realize it, but when you say stuff like that, it makes me think of someone who’s a bully, and you don’t strike me as that type of person.” Keep in mind that snarky or chirpy people are compensating for something they find lacking in themselves. It doesn’t matter what. Just know it’s never really about you.
Find more success tips for work on author John Wasserman's blog.
by John Wasserman
Proceeds benefit Children's Dyslexia Centers