Everyone describes the workplace as a ‘dog-eat-dog world.’ We’re cautioned to cover our backs, or to cunningly manage office politics. In a way, it’s true: you shouldn’t be naïve or reckless. But neither should you become cynical and cold. The workplace is a dynamic playground of personalities, where you have the opportunity to collaborate, learn from mentors (or become a mentor yourself), and even make deep friendships that last after office hours and job transfers.
Here are some principles that can help you balance prudence with openness, streetsmarts with sensitivity.
1. Try to see the good in others.
Believe that all persons are doing their best. Compliment a job well done, and when someone is struggling (or becoming difficult and defensive) try to identify what’s bothering them or blocking their performance. Are they confused? Threatened? Misinformed? Ask them what’s wrong and find a way to help. Affirm what they’ve already done, and give compliments when you can. They may respond to your optimism; at the very least you won’t be pulled down by their cynicism. Either way, you win.
2. Don’t compete; collaborate.
Trust that others want to do a good job, and if you find the same goals, you will be able to share resources or at least be committed to resolving conflicts. Part of this is keeping communication lines open, and stopping yourself from doing anything that could burn bridges or sever relationships. You can be honest without being rude; you can protect your own ass without kicking your colleague’s. Besides, waging war makes you less productive in the long run. You’ll waste more energy defending your ego than on actually finishing the job. And why create problems for yourself? The project you’re fighting about will be over by the end of the month. But you will still have to deal with each other after that—and calling him a jackass today will definitely make the next project even more difficult to finish.
3. Be committed to growth.
Be open to suggestions and feedback. Sharing ideas is the stimulus for new ideas, perspectives and possibilities. Spend time mentoring others, because if they’re better at their job then they can possibly make yours easier! (At least you don’t have to do everything.) Assume that no matter how different you are, you share the human desire to grow as individuals, enjoy satisfaction in your work, be confident and have high self-esteem. Help them grow, nurture their satisfaction, support their self-esteem, and you aren’t just doing your job—you’re making a positive, lifelong impact on the people around you.
4. Beware of False Compassion.
Are you a micromanager? Or do you ‘rescue’ people from mistakes by doing their job for them? This is false compassion. You are depriving others of a chance to become better and more efficient. Believe that others have the wisdom to make wise choices. When possible, let them try out their own ideas or plans and give them the freedom to succeed or fail.
5. See everything as a learning process.
You don’t have to be perfect, and neither do they. Everybody is learning, and each mistake, encounter, and stressful situation is Life nudging us out of our comfort zone and telling us to grow. So instead of reacting to situations, embrace them: ‘What are you teaching me?’ Yes, even the crazy client is a teacher who is showing you how to be patient with others. Or that incompetent creative director is a teacher who is reminding you of your own tendency to forget details or overschedule your day. Once you see the workplace this way—a big classroom full of amazing people and experiences that leave you wiser and stronger than when you woke up that morning—then you will never be threatened, upset, frustrated, or jealous.
And so you can be confident without being competitive. Firm without being arrogant. Decisive without being insensitive. And that is true strength and leadership.