They never tell you why you’re not moving forward. They can’t. Telling the truth about why certain people get hired or promoted and others don’t would inevitably invite a raft of lawsuits. I started to learn some of these things during a temp assignment at an employment agency. I picked up more of them as support staff at various companies in various industries. This is painful, because my ignorance of these unwritten rules held me back and kept me poor for years.
Working hard and doing a good job has very little to do with anything. Being the smartest person in the room is actually a negative, not a positive; it’s a clear sign that you’re on the wrong track. Being smarter than your boss is far more likely to be a hindrance than a help. Believe me. My IQ is in the 99th percentile, so statistically speaking, I can say with certitude that I’ve been at least a little smarter than every boss I’ve ever had. Not that that’s ever done me a whit of good. I didn’t understand that the question is not “Am I the best at this?” The question is, “How do I make my boss’s life easier every day?”
Work on the priorities the boss has assigned, even if you disagree. Get everything done on time. Fill out the forms, send the updates, do the busywork. Show up a few minutes early and leave a few minutes late. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it should be, but surprisingly, many of us feel like our boss’s requests are unreasonable distractions from our real work. We want to choose our own priorities, and this paycheck-signing boss-person just keeps getting in the way. We have to remember that we were hired to do this person’s bidding.
Hiring a new person is a demanding process. The reason there’s an opening is that things have gotten too busy for the existing staff. They have to add reading resumes to the list of stuff they’re already too busy to do. Their primary goal is to eliminate as many applications as they can, as quickly as they can, so that they only really have to decide between a half dozen instead of five hundred. This is why even a single typo can do you in. They’re genuinely looking for even the tiniest excuse to exclude someone from the stack. Not following the instructions to the letter is the second obvious way to exclude someone, because it makes the applicant look sloppy, defiant, or dumb. I still laugh about the marine biologist who hand-delivered his resume so he could explain to me, the humble office assistant, why he was the obvious choice for this new mechanical engineering position. (Incorrect).
Interviews are astonishing. I saw a man show up for a panel interview for a six-figure position wearing a track suit and a stocking cap. Another man brought his mom and had the entire panel come out to the lobby to meet her. A woman once left her office door open during an interview so we could all hear (and laugh at) the applicant swearing up a storm, dropping F-bombs and classics such as “I need a F-ing job.” These were mature adults with at least some advanced education. Nobody ever told them that there are rules for these things.
[For instance: I just saw a tweet from a woman who tagged her husband’s employer to complain about his paycheck, complete with cursing. That’s a twofer, a workplace fail AND a marriage fail!]
I knew how to copy-edit my resume and fill out applications like an A student. I knew, or at least I thought I knew, how to dress for a job interview. While I wasn’t making any glaring mistakes like the egregious examples above, I had no idea that my problems had nothing to do with these perfectionistic details.
My main problem was that I was being too vague. I wanted “a better job.” I didn’t have a particular career in mind. Due to this, I had no idea what additional credentials or training I should get. I didn’t see myself as a professional anything. I saw myself as a broke person who was trying as hard as she could. I didn’t understand that I’d already leveled out. With the education and training and experience and wardrobe that I had, I had already gotten as far as I was going to go. All I could do was to be an office assistant for a company with a comparatively better or worse corporate culture.
I went back for my degree. By the time I graduated, I had figured out a few things about my wardrobe. I had also figured out a few things about answering interview questions more strategically. Better, I had figured out some of the workplace mysteries that had been so puzzling to me before.
Venting to coworkers. In any contest of loyalty between you and the person who signs their paychecks, your coworkers are going to make the obvious choice. Coworkers are not friends. They are not your friends. They cannot be your friends. Make everyone’s life easier and just be a robot when you’re at work, a friendly and reliable robot. Even if you think you’re complaining discreetly, word gets around. More importantly, when you’re disgruntled, you’re not saying the correct things that a dedicated person does say. A person who is venting is not thinking, “How can I make my boss’s life easier?”
Making excuses. Never complain, never explain. A total-accountability person will be clearly identifiable, often within minutes of meeting. Almost nobody falls into this category. Most people who practice total accountability wind up being someone’s boss, and they recognize one another on sight. A standard-issue person can make a single fleeting facial expression or emit a single syllable and be instantly outed. We don’t even realize we’ve just exposed ourselves. An excuse says, “Let me tell you about me.” It does not say, “Tell me how I can make my boss’s life easier.”
Failing to follow through. This is a huge issue for total-accountability people, who are indeed rating and judging the rest of us every minute of the day on this issue. It appears in various disguises. Missing deadlines, being late, making mistakes, forgetting a commitment, losing track of anything... all look like things a conscientious person would not do.
The key problem here will not have been missed by keen readers, and that problem is, “What if I hate my boss and my boss is a terrible person?” Well, duh. Get out of there and work for a person and a mission that you can respect. If you can’t find one, start a side hustle, build a business, and be your own boss. There are tons of terrible, incompetent people in management. There are also a few gems, and every single one of them has had at least one person who couldn’t stand working under them. That’s because most of us simply hate having a boss and being told what to do. It helps to ask, “Do I hate this boss, or just bosses? Do I hate this job, or just all jobs? Or do I just hate working?”
I work much harder for myself than I ever did for someone else. I work on vacation, I work on weekends, I work late at night, I work on holidays, often I work before breakfast. I have worked on the bathroom floor in hotel rooms. I work on the bus and on the treadmill. One of the things they never tell you is that you’ll probably make far more money working far fewer hours if you can tolerate a boss and a day job.
They say to do what you love. I say to do something the world needs, and keep getting better at it. The love comes later, like an arranged marriage. Choose something specific, the more specific the better. Figure out what it takes to get into a job like that, then do every single thing on that list. Talk to people who have that job and ask them to heckle you until you get it right. Work is a way of making the world a better place, or at least a more efficient place. When you find something that feels like a meaningful contribution to you, it won’t matter as much what kind of boss you have.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.