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Get Ahead At Work: Advice To Help You Stop The Self-Sabotage

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By J.I. Baker

Like all of us, he's been stymied, thwarted and undermined. Yet, not only has he lived to tell the tale -- he's also found smart strategies to getting ahead.

Pitfall #1: You Aren't Channeling Your Inner Italian
Think like Robert Duvall in "The Godfather," and be a consigliere to someone. If you don't have the boss's ear, get the ear of the person who has the boss's ear. If you can't get that person's ear, get that person's best friend's ear. When a boss who'd deeply trusted me became suddenly enamored of a new employee, thereby shutting me out, I didn't let my ego get in the way. Instead, I took the new favorite child to lunch and asked if I could help her with a project she was working on. As a result, we became friends, and my boss started hearing about all my "brilliant" ideas through the current darling. All this returned me to the boss's favor -- and eventually led (along with other things, of course) to a promotion.

Pitfall #2: You Haven't Cracked Your Boss's Code
I once had a boss who never said "I think" but always "I feel." I myself had never used the words "I feel" (except in a strictly emotional context -- i.e., regarding my cats), but I started using them -- and others like them. When I did, (I feel) my boss became more responsive. Why? Because I was literally speaking her language. (And guess what? Now I say "feel" all the time.)

Pitfall #3: You've Forgotten Your Fellow 99 Percent
Over and over, I've seen colleagues sabotage themselves by thinking that people in positions of obvious power are the only ones who matter. Whenever I've interviewed for a job, I have always sent at least two thank-you notes: one to the person or people who interviewed me, another to the assistant. After my recent novel was finally printed, I sent thank-you notes to the production manager, the cover designer, the assistant cover designer, the copy editor and the assistant copy editor. Aside from the good karma this creates, consistently behaving in this way ultimately creates -- I believe -- a Gladwellian Tipping Point that pays off in ways that will benefit you, too. You know the trickle-down theory, right? This is the trickle-up one.

Pitfall #4: You Haven't Learned That Vulnerability Can Equal Strength
I once worked with some who took every opportunity to undermine me. Sure, some people think that in a situation like this the only way to get ahead is to fight for so-called supremacy -- but I took the counterintuitive tack: I started asking his advice on things and even asking him to critique my work. This was far better than a battle. On the surface, I looked weak, but my play paved the way for a great relationship between the two of us -- and also made me look like management material: I was the one person who could work with the impossible employee. Don't let your pride get in the way of what you're trying to achieve -- whether that's just to get the job done and done well... or to get ahead. (Sometimes the same thing.)

Pitfall #5: You Think Acting Is Just For Emma Stone
If you're the type of person who is terrified at office parties, do what I used to do: Walk straight (and purposefully -- head and shoulders up!) to the bar. Not only will you snag that dry martini, but -- the important thing -- you'll seem like you belong and that you know what you're doing. Acting like you know what you're doing is the first step in doing it. It may sound ridiculous, but pretending to be the person you want to be can lead to becoming that person. Richard Nixon did it. So did the devil in Prada. Dress the part you want to play and act the way that person would. (Without being a jerk, of course.) It's old advice, I know. But at one company, I kept getting passed over for a promotion to an executive position. So I went out and invested money in nice clothes and wore those clothes and behaved every day as if I really were the executive. People tend to take each other at face value, so what is your face value?

Pitfall #6: You've Overlooked The One Invisible (But Crucial) Thing
Once, I was hiring for a position and two people were neck and neck for the job. If one of them had sent, in addition to a thank-you note, a simple follow-up email with ideas -- or even a little extra enthusiasm ("I would love to work here!") -- he would have gotten the job. This idea doesn't apply solely to applicants -- the way to get ahead, or even keep your position, is to overdeliver, even in seemingly small ways. A year ago, I asked an employee for some examples of a project we had been producing for several years. She put the whole thing in a neatly labeled leather folder and annotated each item with its date, its name and its significance. Did she need to do this? No. Did it make my job easier? Yes. Did it give me a pleasurable break in an otherwise trying day? Yes again. In fact, I have never forgotten it.

J.I. Baker is the author of The Empty Glass (Blue Rider Press) and Executive Editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine.

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