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For Labor Day: How to Be Taken Seriously at the Office

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By Bob Brody

The following story is true. Only the facts are false.

As we approach Labor Day, I'm finally going to come clean about why I've now gone 11 years and 12 days without a promotion from junior assistant administrative account coordinator. And what's more, tell you what I've done to correct that oversight.

Here's a hint: it has to do with gravitas. Gravitas is defined as seriousness or sobriety in conduct and speech, and as behaving with enough dignity to win trust and respect. Gravitas is that aura of take-no-prisoners authority so obvious in CEOs, bail bondsmen and 300-pound NFL linebackers. Abraham Lincoln had it. So do John Kerry and John Boehner. Russell Crowe oozes gravitas, so much so that he has to keep a handkerchief handy for blotting. Gravitas shows you mean business.

Now, make no mistake: by any standard, I'm a model employee. I have a pulse, for example. I've always walked the Straight and Narrow, now designated in our office with a white line drawn along our corridors. My attitude on our vision-and-values test has rated off the charts. My memos are extremely well paginated. And, just in case of an audit, I've always alphabetized my paper clips. All of which are surely key criteria to success in any self-respecting organization.

Yet I clearly have issues here. Nobody in our company listens to me without immediately yawning, for instance. In my last performance review, my supervisor told me he felt a sudden urge to take a nap, even though he was doing all the talking at that particular moment. Nobody here, for that matter, ever gives me the time of day, even if I actually ask for it. Yes, I once supervised someone, but he happened to be dead, so we never really counted that. Because I have next to no gravitas, all I've ever inspired is indifference. Colleagues consider me invisible.

"How can we promote you?" my supervisor once told me. "We can hardly see you."

So yes, I've long known I lacked certain characteristics essential to being management material. But I always assumed I was missing something more basic, like a spleen.

So, with my annual performance review coming up next month, I took action. I hired a personal certified gravitas consultant. He would give me a gravitas makeover. First, he ordered me to undergo an MRI to measure my GQ or Gravitas Quotient. He then informed me my CQ was less than is found in most two-year-olds. Give me two weeks, he promised, and you'll have more gravitas than Hannibal Lecter.

Fast forward two weeks. My first day back in the cubicle I share with two others, newly equipped with key learnings, I put on moves that loudly bespoke gravitas. Walked with a slight swagger. Looked people in the eye, keeping my gaze steady. Spoke deliberately, pausing often. Deepened my voice, my words barely a whisper. Tented my hands meaningfully.

Right away, colleagues came to hang on my every word, even the punctuation marks. Some even recognized me on sight. Senior executives responded to my e-mails without my having to beg or whimper. To all within earshot, every one of my recommendations now reeked of strategic soundness. Co-workers, noticing my transformation, had difficulty pinpointing just what might be different about me. Have you lost weight? they asked. Experienced a spiritual awakening? Received a personality implant?

My consultant tested me again and found my CQ now ranked me somewhere between the Pope and Vladimir Putin. Advancing finally to senior assistant administrative account coordinator, I took on the special privilege of supervising someone still living.

For a short spell, I sort of missed feeling inconsequential.

Ah, but within two months it all went awry. Our market research had revealed a new trend afoot, and so our corporate culture would have to change to stay competitive. Gravitas was history, and so we would all have to do a 180. Turns out I'd become too serious by half. And maybe this rings true for us all.

I would have to learn to lighten up.

Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and McSweeney's, among other publications. .