The Importance of Thinking For Yourself at the Office

The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Barnard College Career Newsletter.

According to the Barnard curriculum catalog, an anthropology major should be able to “develop an anthropological sensibility that enables one to distill social meaning from everyday encounters…” I’m not going to lie, I’m a little jealous that you anthro majors are trained to figure out where someone’s coming from and what they really mean. That’s a skill that I could have used right out of college.

When I started my career on Wall Street, I assumed people meant what they said; and they did most of the time. But I went down the wrong track enough to realize that it helps to be able to dissect what a colleague really means. And I don’t think my experience is unique to the financial industry. In fact, I imagine finance professionals in NYC are more brusque and to-the-point than most. In any office, being able to read between the lines will benefit your work relationships and career potential.

There are three primary types of situations where you’ll be wise to consider alternate meanings from your colleagues: when office politics influences the outcome, when someone is avoiding an uncomfortable situation, and when well-meaning advisors deliver biased guidance.

Office Politics. Office politics puts a twist in the survival of the fittest concept. The fittest in the office relies not only on who’s the smartest, most creative, most analytical or most compelling, but who has an in with the decision makers. When office politics rule a workplace, you need to be particularly perceptive if you’re handed a compliment; it may be meant to throw you off track. Let’s say you ask to be on a particular high profile assignment at your company. Your past work experience makes you uniquely qualified to work on the project but your manager says he needs you instead on a smaller project. He tells you no one else can handle the other project because it requires your exceptional analytical skills. Your boss may be truthfully managing project flow. But if he’s saving the preferred project for a peer who has developed a better relationship with him, then your assignment should be a wake-up call. It’s time to focus on networking to position yourself on the right side of future political equations.

Uncomfortable Situations. You already know people often don’t feel comfortable giving criticism. We’ve all avoided giving brutally honest assessments to friends in our past. Why should your boss be any different? Actually, managers are supposed to offer constructive advice, but, to be honest, they don’t all have the stomach for it. Unfortunately, those managers leave the burden of discovery on the individuals themselves. If you are consistently not invited to client meetings and told there are too many attendees, it’s possible your boss doesn’t see how you would add to these types of meeting. If your sixth sense tells you that the number of attendees isn’t the real reason you’ve been sidelined, plan to chat with your boss. Ask him for suggestions on your professional development and how you can work to become client-ready.

Well-Meaning Advisors. Well-meaning advisors don’t intentionally mislead you; nonetheless, you should consider influences that shaped their thinking. Whether advisors realize it or not, their suggestions may reflect a personal bias to keep you working with them. Following their advice may truly be the best choice, but you should keep in mind their own motivations.

A mentor’s background also plays a role in forming her recommendations. Did she have a bad experience/bad boss as she rose through the ranks? Those experiences could make your advisor savvy regarding potential difficulties for you but it could also make her biased against a specific path.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that mentors aren’t always right. We tend to select our advisors because of their strong character traits and patterns of success. And some of us can be accused of elevating them to superhero status. But no office professional is infallible, especially when it comes to looking into the future.

You don’t need to over-analyze every decision, compliment and piece of advice you receive at your office, but it’s worthwhile to step back and consider the motivations and experiences of the people who are affecting your career. That reflection may send you on the correct path a little faster.