Did anyone ever tell you that Corporate America would be a microcosm of high school?  After we spend four years trying to be a part of a crowd, and another four years in college claiming our independence WHILE blending, most of us spend post-grad chasing the perfect opportunity, angling for promotions, and developing our professional networks, all of which can lead to a high school type of experience…again!

The experience involves all of the politics of high school—sometimes with just as little polish—and the same cast of characters:  the popular cheerleader, obnoxious jock , the insecure bully and moody creative can often be found vying for the same positions.  No longer are we in our individual cliques impressing various leaders or working our own crowd. Instead we are scraping and scratching to win favor in a smaller pool of diverse talent.

The petri dish for corporate mean is cultivated by a few ingredients:  reduced numbers of opportunities, increased amounts of job seekers, combined with fewer growth options (due to later in life retirees).  Add a management team that is driven by revenue objectives in every department and voila, Hunger Games!  Minus the actual death match, employees are placed in a kill what you eat sort of world and if you aren’t hunting, you aren’t surviving.

It’s clear that competition is never going to go away and I don’t think that it should.  Even my friends that embrace the hippy life of Etsy businesses and coffee shop offices are required to set themselves apart to break even.  While I’ll always be a proponent of raising the bar, there are clear ways to forge your path without traveling the road of corporate malevolence.

1. Focus on YOUR career. The ultimate compliment to your potential is focus.  When others see how committed you are to your quota, deadlines, professional objectives or career goals, they will invest in you.  Waiting for others to fail or drawing attention to peers inadequacies rarely leads to a positive outcome and is obvious time wasted.

2. Avoid passive aggression. Your hostile jokes, resistance to assist a new team member or deliberate attempts to cause a peer to fail will eventually work against you.  Strong professionals are capable of addressing their issues through direct communication with the right people in the right tone.  Passive aggression is transparent and weak; above average employers don’t promote people with those combined qualities.

3. If you’re not the corporate researcher, don’t be an information gatherer. I found out that a co-worker was looking for dirt on my blog to share with my boss with the obvious intent of harming my career; it didn’t work and confirmed her reputation of being petty and mean-spirited.  Additionally, digging for information with the intent of building a case against a peer (or boss) sends a clear message to everyone that you work with:  DON’T TRUST ME. 

4. Win with your talent not your talons. Men often get away with jackass behavior in the workplace, women rarely can—and you shouldn’t want to.  Pick your battles and choose your moments wisely or bitch mode will be considered SOP for you, dropping the value of your input and making you the girl who cried wolf when you actually need people to listen.

5. Be confident. Insecurity is a driver for mean behavior and brings attention to your weaknesses.  I’m not Confucius but:  She who hasn’t identified her capabilities attacks those with demonstrated ability.

6. Remember the value of peer connections. While being liked may not be your driver remember that peer feedback is often used when building management reviews. Thanks to the popularity of professional network sites like LinkedIn, your reputation will reach far outside of Cubicle Alley. The people that you work with now are future bosses, entrepreneurs and business leaders who are often connected to someone that you know.  Even if you don’t take lunch breaks and celebrate birthdays together, it would be wise to build peer capital early and invest often.

7. Laugh WITH not AT others. I worked for a CFO that enjoyed making others the butt of his lame, mean spirited jokes.  Avoid the pressure to participate, trust me, people like this are usually enjoying the sound of their own laughter so much that they won’t miss yours.  Many workplaces include good-natured joking but if it feels personal including targeting age, personality, gender or race, the undertones and results are sure to be negative.

8. Put your work reputation ahead of your cool points. Alienating others won’t make you the leader of the pack among the right people.  Office bullies are either leading weak people or following them, neither is a position of success.

9. Leave if you’re unhappy. An unfulfilling position or environment is a catalyst for nasty behavior in the workplace.  Take time to assess your level of satisfaction.  If you are becoming dissatisfied with your current opportunity, it is better to search.  Long stays in bad relationships– professional or personal–breed ill tempers and will cause you to lash out.  I’ve worked with people who have stayed in their roles way beyond their “spoil date” and it’s apparent in their interaction with others.  The additional impact is that sticking around too long will cause you to doubt your ability to leave and usefulness to a larger job market. (See #5).

10. Don’t get comfortable. It’s called work for a reason. Remaining professional is the best protection to your career in a world that is constantly downsizing and always keeps score. Participation in the culture of mean requires a level of unprofessional choices that is limiting and detrimental long term.

The workplace will always be a hotbed for politics, emotions, and maneuvering. While you have to play the game to win, the best policy is to treat others the way that you want to be treated.

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