Career Success Takes Savvy. | Decoding Workplace Behavior

We get disgusted, shake our heads, and feel like we’re being played. But we’re not exactly sure why or how. 

Things happen fast at work. Assignments come in droves, meetings fill our calendars, and coworkers/employees want answers. We sense there’s more going on than meets the eye with no time to figure it out. 

Stop. Look. Listen. 

Your career is you future, so you need to watch over it. Sure, there are plenty of people ready to help you. But there are also others who will gladly put their load on your back or position themselves to overshadow you. 

Sometimes these maneuvers are intentional but, most of the time, they aren’t.

No matter where they come from, you need to identify, define, and counteract them professionally. 

What’s really going on here? 

You need ask yourself this question continually as you move through your workday whether you’re a supervisor, manager, or individual contributor. 

When you get a clear picture of how the behaviors of your coworkers are affecting you and the workplace, then you will know what to do. 

Coworkers showcase lots of wonderful behaviors that can help you and your career. It’s the people who do things for self-serving reasons, things that negatively impact your career, who need to be understood and addressed. 

Consider these situations: 

1. You’re a supervisor with an employee who: 

  • Pesters you continuously for advancement, a different cubicle location, or a better productivity rating
  • Claims certain work isn’t his/her job and tries to delegate it up to you
  • Complains about everything from the temperature in the office to the computer software

 The motivation: I can get what I want because these tactics worked before with a previous supervisor, so they will work again now. 

Your action: Deliver a clear denial of the advancement request, a refusal to accept work delegated up, and an intervention to stop the complaining 

2. You have a coworker who always finds a way to be in the company of internal “movers and shakers.” When there’s a meeting or an event, s/he maneuvers to sit with or talk to them, so others don’t have access. 

The motivation: S/he believes that the appearance of an alliance with key people rubs off, increasing his/her influence and opportunity. 

Your action: Periodically, join in those conversations with leaders (yes, insert yourself!); build alliances of your own that are more subtle and have real substance. 

3. Your colleague asks excessive questions whether you’re together one-on-one or at a meeting. You have another colleague who constantly challenges the logic, viability, and relevance of every new idea or past practice. 

Their motivation: They know that one way to hide their lack of skills and knowledge is to defer action. So they use questions and challenges to appear smart and avoid committing to delivering results, sidestepping accountability. 

Your action: After the questions and/or challenges are presented, ask your colleague(s) to commit to a specific action and give them a time to present the results. Make your own commitment to act, leading by example. 

Build savvy using salve 

Even if your colleagues are pulling the wool over the boss’s eyes, they need to know it’s not working with you. 

Three things are important here: You need to: 

  • See what’s going on around you and how it is affecting your career
  • Counteract behaviors that can/may spill over to you in unwanted ways
  • Let people know that you see what they are doing and are ready to respond 

This isn’t done in a confrontational way. Subtle actions can be very powerful. 

When you’re savvy, you know how to prevent the wrong work from being dumped on you, to build appropriate alliances, and earn respect from your colleagues. 

Please take a minute and make a list of the people who make you shake your head. Then add your observations about their behaviors. Try your hand at tapping into their motivations and taking an action. Now watch your savvy grow.

16 thoughts on “Career Success Takes Savvy. | Decoding Workplace Behavior

  1. Good post! #3 was me, which really is proof I belong on my own. I had enough nonsense from top level execs making irrational demands that middle managers know are irrational but are too afraid to say so, leaving the grunt workers like me to do pointless work. (And validation always, always came weeks, months or a year later when the demands were proven to not be viable.)

    I was not a yes sir employee though I was nice about it. ;-)

    Perhaps then some managers should help get employees out into entrepreneur land! hah

  2. Wow, good post. At one of jobs, I was doing a might I say, great job. A new supervisor came in and was jealous, as I had been there several years, was entrenched with the public and with the company. Well, I tried to get along, but there I was always being told there was something wrong with what I was doing. Finally, there was a big confrontation (not on my part) and I finally started my own biz…which is fine!

    • The big challenge with identifying and decoding behaviors is putting the pieces together. Sometimes we get it right and other times we don’t. They key is to realize when the dynamic is off-kilter. It sounds like this happened to you. The “big confrontation” is what we want the least, but sometimes it happens, though with a little savvy, they can be avoided. It’s great to know that your difficult experience turned you into satisfied entrepreneur!

  3. As a Borderless Thinker (and especially after I publish today’s post), I’m concerned about the motivations you ascribed to certain actions. That may be the person’s motivation but not necessarily so. I’ll use #3 as an example, particularly since I’m a question asker and Elizabeth said she was too. When I was brought in as an outside facilitator I encountered numerous instances when the question asker or devil’s advocate, or person with a different opinion than was voiced by many was labeled as a non-team player. Much more often than not, I did not think that was the case. Rather than having in=depth dialogues people wanted closure, or they saw debate as confrontation and were uncomfortable. I know you said “excessive” question asking. But I think “excessive” is in the eye of the beholder.
    I also think you’re right about stop, look and listen and being savvy about using salve.

    • As you know I too am a questioner. So I agree with your point about the value of the devil’s advocate and the need to cover all the bases before rushing to judgment. My examples were meant to illustrate the importance of asking the initial question: What’s really going on here? In the case of example #3, if the purpose of the questioning is to get to clarity, I’m all for it. If the questions are intended to stall or abstruct, that’s a problem. The key is for all of us to try to figure out what the motivations are. When we see that they have a negative effect, we need to counteract them.

      I was recently at a meeting where someone asked a million questions that took the discussion no where and forced a lot of meaningless work on staff. Because that behavior was costly, it signaled the need for a way to redirect it to something more useful. You’re right, “excessive” is in the eye of the beholder. Our savvy comes from being able to separate behavior that moves us forward from others that don’t. At least that’s what’s in my eye. :-)

      This was really helpful, Cherry. Thanks for raising these points and for giving me the chance to add to my message. ~Dawn

  4. Not to add the ‘passive-aggressive vibe’ to your post, Dawn, but I think #3 may be in the ‘clinical range…’

    It’s so important for the supervisors to arm themselves w/psychological knowledge, and a bit of understanding of some of the defense mechanisms that ppl use to deflect, charm, challenge, project their inadequacies…Not that we all don’t possess limitations, it’s just that some don’t own them so readily.
    But I guess you know that, right?!

    • That’s okay by me. The “passive-aggressive” vibe is alive and well everywhere, so I’m sure it is imbedded in some way in all my examples.

      I don’t expect supervisors or any of us to come to work with psychological knowledge. It would be nice but not likely. The supervisor of a kitchen full of bakers, a customer call center supervisor, or a engineering manager won’t likely have that in their knowledge kit.

      What I do expect, and the point of my post, is that all of us pay more attention to what people around us are doing (their behaviors) and decode how they are affecting us individually as well as the organization. We won’t be able to know the psychological drivers of that behavior but we may be able to see the situational ones. When people behave in ways that spill over to us, affecting our ability to succeed, we need to determine how to blunt their impact. Sometimes that’s trial and error, but better than being blind-sided.

      Thanks so much for a comment that adds to the conversation and gives me a chance to add a bit more of my perspective. Now you have more on me to work your pyschololgical knowledge on! I may need to make an appointment! ~Dawn

  5. # 1 make me remember a office manager that told me that she did not write letters. I was new there, so I said okay, who is then. She got extremely mad at me, which really surprised me. First I thought, this is a new country, perhaps I have to go easy, but then I thought, if I don’t do something now, this job is going to be a nightmare. Well, I then went to my boss and asked how we had letters written without mentioning the conflict at first – and now you can guess what happened. She was told to write the letter.
    Could I have done this differently?
    But I have to tell you the end – she just did not like me, which was very uncomfortable for me. The job was not my cup of tea anyway, so I soon found something else. Today I am so happy to be the boss of myself, and I do treat our office manager with respect. He is very nice to me too!

    • Amazing, Irene. I had a experience eerily similar years ago. I was a new female manager where there hadn’t been any befpre. The steno assigned to support my work couldn’t understand that I was a manager, so she resented the work I needed her to do. Eventually, the department head spoke to her but there was always that edge. There are endless reasons that drive reactions; we just need to understand what happens when we push the buttons, deciding when the risk is/isn’t worth it. In your case, it seems that the situation pushed you into the career that fits you. I’m sure you’ve banked plenty of savvy since then! Thanks for sharing your experience! ~Dawn

      • Don’t know about the savvy part, but I have a lot more freedom than when I was employed. I think she was mad at me for having my own office, a long education and a more interesting job. What do you do about people like that?

  6. As usual, another great and thought provoking post Dawn. It hits home with me because I am realizing I don’t have much savvy in this area – pretty much what you see is what you get and what I think is what I say. That isn’t necessarily in conflict with positioning yourself for the right projects, or with the right people – but I just don’t think about it.

    I struggle with this too because it feels manipulative. My coach is working with me to get over that feeling, but that is the obstacle in my way to getting more fluent in this political savvy language.

    • Well, Daria, you describe exactly the challenge we all face. We don’t wake up one morning with diplomatic level savvy. We accumulate it through experience, storing up what we learn about what works and what doesn’t. The best savvy is put to work in ways that maximize the opportunity to build productive relationships with people we work with. When we understand what drives the people around us (and they see what drives us) we can come to common understanding and collaboration more easily. Manipulation to me is only negative when it’s used solely for our own benefit without regard for its effect on others. Loved your points here. Thanks so much for raising them and expanding my own thinking. ~Dawn

  7. The elephant in the room (alluded to by Daria and Elizabeth) is the authoritarian assumptions within the workplace. There are truly inappropriate attempts to delegate up, undertaken by people who are lazy or what have you. There is also the issue of being in a captive situation where you cannot say no. Personally I think the “other duties as assigned” assumption in the workplace is literally unjust. Not merely inconvenient but morally wrong. It is unfortunate that entrepreneurship should be the only option for an individual who wants to be able to say a reasonable “no” from time to time.

    • I always try to remember that in any business the leadership/ownership is entitled to set their operating principles and build their culture within legal parameters. I’ve worked in places that were a perfect fit when I started but then the culture changed under new leadership or changing economic conditions. Then the business didn’t fit me any more, so the choice was mine to stay or go. I’ve often said “no” without consequence. It usually boiled down to the way I delivered the message whether it was to my boss years ago or to a client/client prospect today.

      Thanks for sharing your views, Barbara. They were very interesting. Best, ~Dawn

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