“Many young employees are frustrated when their first jobs land them in powerless positions at the bottom of the organization chart after years of leadership roles in school.”
So reports The Wall Street Journal reporter Sue Shellenbarger in “How to Gain Power at Work When You Have None.”
It is understandable that a new hire wants to think of their desk as a trampoline to upper management, especially after four years of inspired leadership of the Harvard Extreme Ironing Team. But what about someone like you? This is far from your first job, and you still have don’t have enough power to charge an electric toothpick dispenser. (Don’t scoff. It makes a wonderful wedding gift.)
According to Shellenbarger, the cure for the powerless is to “develop spheres of influence that have nothing to do with the org chart.”
In other words, you’ll never successfully power up by doing your job, but you can charge ahead by doing someone else’s job.
“Networking across departments, building expertise in new areas and cultivating charisma are all ways to gain power,” confirms corporate trainer Dana Brownlee.
This is good news. Your skill at spreading fallacious intra-office gossip should make it easy for you to infiltrate any department. All you have to do is spread the word that “she” is about to be fired, and “he” is spending his vacation in rehab, and “they” were caught canoodling in the executive sauna.
If you don’t have sufficient gossip to build a network, Babson College professor Robert Cross suggests gaining power by asking personal questions of co-workers. You don’t care about the answers, of course, but you do want to pretend that you are interested in them as people—people you want to step over, but people all the same.
Be cautious, though, of the type of questions you ask. Your standard opening gambit, “Boxers or briefs?” is still a charming way to cement a new contact in the company’s perv network, but given the recent focus on sexual harassment in the workplace, it could be viewed as an intrusion worthy of a trip to HR.
And HR, as we all know, always wears briefs. Really, really tight briefs.
If you think you’ll make new connections by bragging about your former business successes, be aware that Cross considers boasting as “almost a death knell for credibility.” Fortunately, you have no business successes, so it’s really not a problem.
Another power move is “to help others reach their goals.” Since you can’t reach your goals, this may seem futile, but remember—your pathetic performance and bad attitude definitely helps co-workers because compared to you, they look so much better.
Another way to gain power is to “start affinity groups based on common interests.” Unfortunately, most people find your interests not very interesting. Totally inexplicable, but your collection of beetles is not widely admired, though co-workers are sure to warm to your hobby when you let several hundred dung beetles lose in their work stations.
Jay Brower, president of the Crossbow Group, suggests looking “for the thing nobody knows how to do or wants to do, jump in with both feet and do whatever it takes to solve the problem.”
When you do solve a difficult work problem, Bower cautions that you give all the credit to the boss “to avoid sparking resentment.” I recommend that you do keep a smidgen of credit for yourself. You’ll need it when the boss fires you to keep you from talking.
Which brings us back to that charisma thing. Executive coach Ora Shtull believes you can build charisma by “showing up as the best version of ourselves for the people around us, and making a consistent effort to show authentic interest in others.”
You know what that means—when you get to the office, let your freak flag fly. Trade your computer for a tandoori oven and start an Indian pop-up restaurant in your cube. Bring in giant speakers and blast Insane Clown Posse to the entire office. Declare every Tuesday “wear your pajamas to work day.” (Not to be confused with Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, which are “wear your Speedo to work days.”)
By ignoring the workplace conventions instituted by the robots on Mahogany Row, you are definitely showing up as the best version of you. And by baking your naan, blasting your music, and rocking your Batman PJs, you are encouraging your co-workers to show an authentic interest in you.
Just be sure you have enough dung beetles to go around.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.