12/13/2012 01:40 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Back Scratches are Not Just for the Bedroom

A back scratch is a favor large or small, and these favors are incredibly important in the lives of men (as in: "I gotta go see a guy about a favah') and therefore in corporate America.

Getting noticed for a swell disposition is basic training; next, you need to move on to more the more advanced obstacle course of becoming politically savvy. Guys make themselves not only visible, but also memorable in their office worlds by employing a form of accepted corporate intimacy that comes naturally to them known as The Back Scratch.

You know how most guys can't remember much of anything -- not what you wore, not who you saw, not that you asked them to pick up toilet paper -- but they can easily remember the score of a 1992 Raiders/Giants game? It's because guys keep score. And favors are a quantifiable scorable item. Guys know that to make themselves visible, they've got to get out there and scratch the backs of most influential people in the office -- and make sure that all those scratchees know the score. This is the basis of all politics, office and otherwise.

A favor can be something you actually do for someone to help him get his job done, or it can be something like putting him in contact with someone else who can help him. A favor for someone at work can be something of a personal nature or even something as minor as just giving him your time and attention to listen to whatever is on his mind.

Like all things political, The Back Scratch is about perception -- and this is where many people, both male and female, crash and burn. If you give the impression that you are only loyal to yourself, your career will choke, sputter and stall faster than your Volvo after you filled your tank with watered-down gasoline. Certainly, being competent at your job will move you up in the first few years of your career, but beyond that you will have to establish your reputation -- which is what will take you up or out, or, worse still, bury you alive at your desk till you wake up when someone is shaking your shoulder and telling you that you can withdraw from your 401K with no penalties now.

To a large degree, your reputation will be built on the good will you've built up with people who've you worked with over the years. Assuming you are at least reasonably good at whatever it is you do, the equation works like this: the more favors you do, the more people who favor you, the more favorable your reputation.

Scratch From the Top Down

Every person you encounter in the office presents you with an opportunity to give relief from some "itch" -- a real or imagined need. That means that there is always something you can do to cultivate mutual feelings of loyalty.

Remember that fable about the eternally grateful lion that had the thorn in his paw pulled out by a little insignificant I-should-eat-you-for-lunch mousie? Same deal. The trick here, though, is to concentrate more on scratching the lions, and less on the mousies.

This might seem an obvious point, and so it is, but it's a surprisingly overlooked one. Take Paula, a secretary at a nonprofit. Paula's boss is constantly pissed off at her because if he asks her to do something, rather than dropping everything else she's doing and do him the favor of doing what he wants when he wants it, she puts his stuff on her big to-do pile. No good. Paula essentially makes him wait in line while she completes a dozen other time-sucking tasks for a random assortment of underlings or whatever else she thinks is the priority at that moment.

Paula doesn't have the bad attitude her boss thinks she has, she just works on the first-come-first-served model -- which makes perfect sense in girl logic and at the deli counter. But in this situation, she's actually damaging her position with her boss, who, ignorant of Paula's fair-is-fair, girl logic rationale, has come to the conclusion that she's just slow and passive-aggressive. Paula's not doing herself any favors.

Come raise time, the boss will have a major case of amnesia about the fact that Paula did an unbelievable amount of work for countless people to keep his office running smoothly. He'll only remember that it takes her forever to get stuff done for him -- so she'll only get a 1% raise, while everyone else gets the standard (whopping) 3%. Poor Paula. Literally.

Extra! Extra! Fuggedall Aboudit.

One of the problems I always had was once I started doing favors, I threw in extra favors thinking that it showed initiative. Wrong. No one asked me to do it, so I thought I should have been given some kind of award for such dedication. Right?

Sorry, I lost: you raise the bar on yourself by creating a performance expectation and doubled your workload doing something that won't be noticed or get you anywhere because no one else thought it was important enough to ask you to do it in the first place.

Guys, on the other hand, scratch almost exclusively when it's in their best interest to do so, and they stop at the point when they've found the itch. In short, guys are strategic scratchers -- they get noticed, not for the fancy extras, but for the speed with which they accomplished the requested task. And, let me tell you -- men won't just scratch any old back, either.

Take Jake, for instance. Jake is VP of engineering for a dot-com. You would love this guy. He'll do you the favor of showing a little personal interest, he'll make jokes with you, nod interestedly when you speak and promise he's on your side. You'll be convinced he's totally your ally, until you realize that he won't actually DO anything for anyone, unless it is clear to him that the request is specifically on his boss's agenda. Jake -- who walks out the door every single day at 6 p.m. sharp, waving ta ta to the late-stayers -- is the one who consistently rakes in the boss's public praise, the big bonuses and juicy promotions. Sickening, ain't it? Well, not if you're Jake.

Too Flaky

I would never want to suggest that you girls should stop being girls and ignore instincts to do favors and help folks out in order to get ahead at work. There are a couple of books out there that recommend this strategy and, frankly, they make me feel like hurling.

What I am saying is that I think it's wise to be more conscious of ALL the favors you do in the workplace, not only to become aware of all you do in a single day and pat yourself on the back for being such a swell person, but also because consciousness will lead to a personal strategy and greater efficiency. Focus all that energy, honey.

You need to know where you are spending your time so you can direct your energies into more than just spinning your wheels. Give yourself a quick test:

Turn a notebook into a "scratch pad". For one week, write down every single time you do someone a little favor and how long it took. That means every time you make the coffee run, help someone get a dinner reservation, answer a question that has nothing to do with your own job or have a conversation that is totally irrelevant as your workday tick-tocks away, you jot it on your scratch pad.

After a week, circle ALL the favors that you think could somehow elevate you in the esteem of your boss. Chances are that those circles are pretty few and far between.

Put a check mark next to all the items that were done for people who are in a position to potentially help you in return. That is to say, people who could either advance your career someday or make your current job significantly easier. How did you do on that score?

Personally, I've found that organizing my mind and actions on paper is the best way to be "conscious." Your scratch pad will get you in the habit of running a quick little cost/benefit analysis on every activity you undertake in the office to see where your energies are being spent. This review will give you the courage to utter that all-important, infrequently used little word: No. By all means keep score for several weeks, but, hey, sister, don't leave it out on your desk.

Put yourself in the habit of primarily doing favors that build good will with the Uppity Uppers and influential peons: the boss's secretary, for example, is in an amazing position to give you great information about what's going on in the company and to talk you up and make you visible because she has the boss's ear, his schedule and deals with everyone else your boss has business with. Keep score in your notebook until you're finding that most of the activities you undertake during your workday beyond your actual job description potentially benefit your career and/or day-to-day experiences rather than simply sap your energy.

And, one final thought: Don't just wait for people to come to you with requests for your help. Intentionally seek out ways to assist others that will improve your standing with people who can hook you up with bigger and better options. Got it?

Next Up: Using your G-D given skills to do those favors. But... what are they?