Owner | Career Consultant | Coach
We all want to work in an environment that allows us to be our own unique person, but sometimes this desire can be what is holding us back. Why? Because you're not in charge. Someone else is. A curmudgeon.
What or, more precisely, who is a curmudgeon? The dictionary defines the word as "a badly tempered or surly person." He or she is a stick-in-the-mud. Think of your grandpa who doesn't like man-buns (frankly, only men who tie their hair into a bun actually like man-buns).
While not every organization has a curmudgeon in charge, and not every manager is quite so extreme, almost all organizations and managers have certain expectations on how you conduct yourself. If you are not meeting those expectations, your job isn't necessarily on the line, but your career growth can certainly be stunted. In terms of moving up in your organization, in order to "get in" you need to "fit in."
In polite society, we generally don't like to be confrontational. For this reason, you're likely to never be told what you're doing wrong, you'll just be passed over all the time. For this reason, we are going to talk about what some of those expectations might be and how they can hurt your long-term prospects. Some of the advice you will read might seem to you like common sense (but, remarkably, it isn't to everybody), and not every boss has and issue with everything discussed. Nonetheless, it will give you an overview of items that might cause you a problem as you seek to expand in your career.
How You Look
Like it or not, people are prone to judge others by how they look and dress. If you have visible tattoos, body piercings (beyond the ears of females), or have hair that is not natural looking in color or style, curmudgeons will take one glance at you and write you off. If he or she doesn't write you off, you'll be placed in an area where they don't have to see you. To them, you look ridiculous. And they certainly won't want you to be the face of their company. You'll be placed in the back office, away from customers, doing something behind a computer screen or stocking inventory. They are sending you to purgatory until you relent. So if possible, avoid these professional faux pas before you meet a curmudgeon boss. Keep the tattoos hidden under your shirt. Forget about having gauges in your ear lobes. Take out the brow ring before you punch in the clock. Stick to blonde, black, brunette, and red shades if you dye your hair. Style your hair in a way that people aren't going to roll their eyes at you when you pass by.
If you are working in an office setting, even if the business allows its employees to dress casually, ideally, you should take the lead of the senior leaders in the organization. Do you see them dressing casually at work? Probably not. If you are in a lower-level position, at a minimum, you should dress "business casual." This means a tucked in long-sleeved button shirt without a tie and slacks for men, and a blouse and skirt or slacks for women. You should stick to dress shoes and never, ever, wear sneakers. As you level up in your career, you should also level up your attire. Look for a few good investment suits to add to your wardrobe. The phrase, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have," is a good rule of thumb to hold yourself to.
How You Communicate
Effective communication is the most important skill you could possibly acquire. Everyone can communicate, but not everyone can communicate effectively.
If you use the word "like" as a filler when you, like, speak to someone, like, STOP IT! Pauses are perfectly fine. In fact, they are effective. Silence gets attention. It seems small, but to a curmudgeon, this habit is grating and lowers your IQ and ability in their eyes. In a job interview, when you're nervous, this is when the flood of likes is most apt to come out. For some interviewers, that's a deal-killer. To avoid this pitfall, practice interviewing with the express purpose of getting this word out of your vocabulary.
Another communication mistake is using email like you are texting. Your boss probably gets about ten times more emails than you. Don't flood their inbox with a bunch of one-line emails that go back and forth between the both of you. Additionally, if your communication with your boss or others in the company requires more than two emails back and forth, either pick up your telephone and call them or walk to their desk to discuss in more detail.
Write all your business correspondence with the reader in mind. Ask yourself if what you wrote makes sense to someone unfamiliar with what you are talking about. If not, re-write it until it does. If you're writing an email, don't get too much into the details. However, if what you are writing about requires details, it's best to use bullet points and summarize things at the end.
Avoid using emojis in your emails and instant messages unless it's with a co-worker with whom you are on friendly terms. Even then, do so sparingly. It lowers the level of professionalism. Additionally, try not to go crazy with acronyms. Use ones you know everyone is familiar with, such as ASAP or FYI. The first time I ever saw FWIW (for what it's worth) in an email, I spent way too much time trying to figure out what the person was saying. That's annoying. It might save you five seconds, but it robbed me of five minutes I could have spent doing something productive.
Use the right words for the right situations. It makes whatever it is you are trying to convey more clear to the reader or listener. Curmudgeons aren't particularly fond of all the buzzwords and worn out phrases, such as: "synergy," "deep dive," "drill down,""take offline," "leverage,""begs the question," "think outside the box," "utilize," etc. Hearing these, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to them.
Do not use the f-word in front of a curmudgeon boss unless you just had an anvil fall on your toe. Just a couple weeks ago, we interviewed a candidate for one of our open sales positions. The candidate was nicely dressed and had good experience, but his answer to our very first question contained the f-word...twice! Would this be how he was going to talk to our potential customers? Better safe than sorry, so no thanks!
It isn't so much that curmudgeons don't use the word. I imagine most of them do on occasion. But they likely use it when they are truly upset. They don't use it as an verbal punctuation mark in every casual conversation they have. In other words, if you hear a curmudgeon use "the curse word of all curse words," you'll be so shocked at hearing it and you'll know something is seriously wrong and you better listen. It's better for you to use that word the same way, only pull it out on very special occasions. The same goes for other curse words, using such words in a normal conversation just degrades what you're saying and makes you seem immature.
How You Act
Your behavior is a reflection of the company and curmudgeons take note of the people who aren't taking this seriously. It's important that you follow what is socially acceptable behavior in your work environment. To figure this out, observe how people behave and interact before you step past the boundary of what's acceptable.
This should go without saying, but so many employees have to be told this. You should come to work a few minutes early each day. To your curmudgeon boss, being early is being on time. Being on time is being late. Additionally, you should always find something to do, even if you're done with the work you had on your desk that day. If you have time to lean, you have time to clean. So at the very least, you could round out your day organizing things for yourself or your team in order to get a jump start on the next day.
You should also pay more attention to your own work than to what others are doing or not doing. When you focus on what someone else is not doing, you're not getting anything done either. Besides, your curmudgeon boss probably already knows and is dealing with it accordingly. Having to hear you complain about the situation now makes him have two problems instead of one.
Another place where people often get into trouble is in less formal settings, such as office parties. When alcohol is available, personal inhibitions, which keep you on the straight and narrow, disappear. When you're in this type of environment, to avoid embarrassment, know your limits. An even better approach is to abstain altogether. That might not sound like a lot of fun, but you can do your boozing on your personal time. Office parties are more about bonding than beer kegs. Early in my career, I was at a company training event and one evening the management took everyone out for food and drinks. I stuck to Coca-Cola and everyone else had multiple cocktails. We were all young and inexperienced, but some of my co-workers took a little too much advantage of the free beverages, running up the bill for their boss to have to explain to corporate and making general fools out of themselves in the process. No one got fired from their behavior that night, but it definitely didn't help their careers either.
Office romances do happen. It's mainly because of the fact that the people you work with are the people you see the most on any given week. In most companies they aren't forbidden, but they are discouraged for logical reasons. First of all, if the romance doesn't last and leads to a break-up, it will effect the quality of your work and can also impact your team and its morale. It's a distraction bosses hate to have. Secondly, let's assume the relationship goes well. It limits both of you from moving up to the next level in your career. If you want to be a supervisor or manager, you'll have to go to a place where you are not overseeing the other person.
Watch what you talk about with others. It's easy to think you and your co-worker are friends. But sometimes you get into a conversation land-mine like religion or politics. Whenever possible step around these topics instead of getting into a debate. But if it can't be avoided, then you'll have to diffuse the land-mine. The key to this is to just listen. Don't agree or disagree. Most of the time, the other person just wants to talk anyway. Then get the heck out of the area before you step on another land-mine! Additionally, making controversial remarks or jokes is a sure-fire way to get called into your boss' office. I've personally had a co-worker get fired over an inappropriate email he forwarded to a few others on the team. He failed to think about his action before-hand, but I'd bet he was thinking about it on his car ride home.
Sometimes, how you act outside the office can play a role in your career as well. Social media has cratered many a career this way. Always, always, always think before you post. Because what you post will last forever in the digital world. Complaining about your employer, making inappropriate or controversial remarks, posting racy photos, and so on can cause embarrassment to the business you work for. If and when a curmudgeon boss finds out, your present employer could very well become your previous employer.
Finally, curmudgeons abhor an entitled attitude. They expect you to earn their trust and respect after proving yourself to be worthy of it; not having their trust and respect from the outset. If you come into this professional relationship with the expectation of quickly moving into a corner office, you're going to annoy your boss and be personally frustrated in the process. The only way to get there is to exceed your curmudgeon boss' expectations of you and showing gratitude instead attitude.
The Moral to the Story
The next time you go to your place of work in the morning, look around at the people in charge. Note how they look, how they communicate, and how they act. These leaders are most likely grooming others into roles with more responsibility who tend to look, communicate, and act like them. If you are out of sync with them, walking to the beat of your own drum, but expect to have a blossoming career there, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Like I said in the beginning, not all take things to an extreme and not everything in this piece are bad to every boss. But, if you have a curmudgeon boss, if you're not avoiding these pitfalls, you might run into issues. At which point you have two choices. Either you bend your ways to fit theirs or find a place that allows you to be yourself. If you choose the latter, just know that there's still a good chance you'll run into another curmudgeon along the way. However, if you choose to bend to the curmudgeon boss you have today, you don't have to be a curmudgeon yourself, you just have to live with the understanding that you have certain expectations to meet for eight hours a day. The rest of the day is for you.