I polled my friends last week asking for a topic to blog about to kill some spare time over the holidays, and one of my close colleagues actually had a great idea for a piece on how to differentiate yourself in the workplace (whether you are fresh out of school entering your first job or perhaps heading to a new company or project).
If you think about it, people stand out in the workplace for many reasons. There are physical attributes that may catch the eye as well as personality traits, work behaviors, collaboration profiles, among others. At the end of the day, though, it is tremendously important to have self-awareness of these areas of uniqueness among us, as each of them generally pushes our needle in one way or the other among our colleagues: either more in their favor, or further away from them.
So what’s the right way to ensure you differentiate yourself as quickly and effectively as possible, without rocking the boat too much or creating a closet full of skeletons or enemies? Well, I will be honest with you and say that I have nowhere near all the answers (or at least necessarily the right ones), but I’ll put down a few behaviors that I think may at least drive useful discussion or provide opportunities for self-reflection on the issue.
Good Behaviors for Differentiation in the Workplace:
- Networking Downward in Addition to Upward: Often times, the people who are shaking hands and rubbing elbows up the food chain are the people who the rest of the workforce resents or considers “brown nosers”. That is why I like to make the distinction that networking “downward” is equally as important as networking upward. I have long held that the single most important person to be friends with in any organization is the administrative support staff. They are really the people who run the business. They are responsible for scheduling time on the higher-ups’ calendars, often times have shortcuts to navigate tedious or difficult procurement processes, and are generally nicer people to bounce ideas off of because they typically don’t have any sort of personal agenda or thoughts on deep functional matters over which they have zero responsibility or investment. Building rapport with everyone throughout the organization is paramount to making a name for yourself, and often times lets you have a better attitude when roaming the halls because you always have someone to chat with.
- Composing Polished Communications (EVERY Time): I thought about rephrasing this to be “…polished, concise communications…” but then realized I would be pointing a loaded gun at my own foot. Either way (long or short), communications of all types must come across as polished, well-thought-out, and appropriate for the audience in order for the message to be received in the best possible manner. Emotions like stress, pressure, bitterness, apathy, or even hatred stick out like a sore thumb in communications, as much make-up as you try to apply. That is why it is really important to always think before you speak (or write) and proofread/polish often. Whether it’s your spoken word, written notes, emails, or phone conversations, it is entirely too easy to be misunderstood. So – take the time to eliminate that threat – and be sure to compose polished communications at all times.
- Participating in Extra-Curriculars: Programs outside of your day-to-day 9 to 5 responsibilities are a great way to add character to the volume of work that would otherwise adorn your internal resume. Joining charitable causes, assisting with internal initiatives, or scheduling and participating in work (or non-work) functions such as subject matter expert societies will not only increase your own competency, but it will expand your network and reach as well. Pick something you are otherwise passionate about (e.g. helping children, feeding the homeless, caring for animals) and use it as a springboard to engage the support of your colleges by spearheading an activity for your coworkers. You will be surprised at what the power of positive actions will do not only for your psyche, but also for your personal brand in the workplace
- Dressing Properly: As I have mentioned before, dressing the part is critical to ensuring you are well-regarded in the workplace. Even if you work in a dress casual work environment, taking the extra time to look just a bit better than the rest of the workplace will cause people to look at you and assume you are prepared, polished, and ready to work each and every day. Doing the little things like dry-cleaning or ironing also help with coming across put together. I will stress again, though, that it is not beneficial to take it too far. Wearing a suit in an office place where jeans and button ups are the norm will make you look overdressed and out of place.
- Selectively Opting in to Fire Drills: I am certain I will revisit the topic of fire drills in the future, but suffice it to say I generally make a habit out of avoiding them at all costs. I think that they largely are created by people who are unprepared or indifferent towards doing real work, or onset by people who have the propensity to procrastinate (no offense to those people – I have been known to put myself under extraneous pressure by intentionally waiting until a moment’s notice sometimes as well…). However – there are circumstances where stepping in to help in these situations will make you look like a great team player and give you the opportunity to provide leadership in order to help achieve a required outcome. Stepping in to help on high profile projects that are critical to your business or functional area is something your colleagues and superiors will remember for a long time to come – especially if you made a significant contribution to arriving at something great. Just don’t make a habit out of it – people will form a dependency on people like you and ultimately take you for granted. And that’s the quickest way to ruin work-life-balance: always being the person going the “extra mile”, working the weekends, and maintaining late nights just to help someone who didn’t do an effective job of planning their project in the first place. We should all agree to stop rewarding poor planning when it becomes the rule rather than the exception.
Til Next Time,