THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Be a chameleon: You'll be more successful at work

Everyone stop working right now. Ask yourself these questions: 

1. Does my boss like having one-on-one meetings with me?

2. Do my co-workers like going to lunch with me? 

If you cannot answer yes to both these questions, then you are focusing on the wrong stuff.

Larry works at a company where new employees are on a one-year probation while they do four rotations. Larry has had reviews after three of his four rotations. The third reviewer told him he is unprofessional. When Larry asked other reviewers why they had not told him this, they said, "Management told us not to." 

Larry's interpersonal skills are so lacking that the company decided early on that they want him out after a year. Larry realized it was too late to save his job, but he thought there might be hope for his ego, so he went to a lawyer. The lawyer said it is not illegal to be a bad manager or to run a company poorly. 

Larry's problem is that he cannot gauge how people expect him to act in a given situation. And he cannot adjust how he conducts himself depending on the circumstances. 

For some people, this skill comes naturally– they are chameleons who can mirror other people's moods.

Chameleons know what to say when their boss's pet gerbil dies, and they know what to say when a co-worker suggests a date. Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computer, for example, acts differently when he meets with Wall Street analysts than when he meets will Dell customer service reps. 

Some people have one way of conducting themselves and have no idea how to change for a given situation. These are the people who make inappropriate jokes at a client meeting or are too stiff and formal at a company picnic. Chameleons generally disgust these people, but I've got news for you: Chameleons don't get fired for being unprofessional. 

Most people who hate office social dynamics think people have to change who they are to succeed. But good social skills at work are really a reflection of empathy for the people around you. People who are being their best self– kind, considerate, expressive, interested in others– will instinctively do the right thing at the office. 

If you are being your best self, it won't matter that there are difficult personalities at the office. So stop blaming the people you work with for being misfits and morons. People with good social skills can get along with almost anyone. I'm not saying you have to like everyone; I'm saying that you have to make them like you: Figure out what matters to them, what makes them tick, and then speak to that when you interact. 

I think you will find, though, that once you get someone at work to like you, you will like them back. When the ugly guy asks you to dance, he is only ugly until he asks you, and then his discerning taste makes him more attractive. 

So back to Larry. He's young, so he asked his parents what to do. They said, "You can't change other people, but you can change yourself." (Good advice for almost any interpersonal problem.)

Work is not only about "getting things done" but also getting people to like you. I applaud those of you who are hard workers. But let's face it, most work is easily replaceable, especially when five hundred people would love to have your job. Your personality, however, is not so easily replaced.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.