Career Advice

How to Get Ahead Without Becoming the Office Jerk

Sometimes getting ahead at the office means that you have tunnel vision: You blow off work happy hours to stay late at the office. You don’t make small talk at meetings because you’re focused on your presentation. Maybe you undercut your coworkers so that you look better.

No one wants to earn the title of office jerk, points out millennial career expert Jill Jacinto, but it happens to the best of us. And unfortunately, earning that title has the opposite effect of what we’re working toward when we turn down an office happy hour in favor of staying late: “That title will not earn you the respect you need to move up the ladder,” Jacinto says.

There’s a balance between producing excellent work and cultivating collegiality that we must all strike, says Karen Elizaga, executive coach and author of Find Your Sweet Spot.

“Think about the people you like around you,” she says. “You will stay late for them, help them out in a pinch, and support their promotions. And think of the flipside—the person who you despise because he or she does not seem like a team player. Think about whether you would bend over backwards to help him or her, or whether you would encourage bigger and better things for that person. Chances are very slim.”

So here, our experts give nine tips that will keep you from becoming the office jerk while you work your way to the top.

1. Smile like you mean it.

According to Elizaga, a smile is disarming—and that makes it an easy and super-quick way to connect to coworkers. “Even if you are constantly working every minute of your day, rushing in and out of meetings, as you pass others in the hallway or at their desks, just make eye contact and smile,” Elizaga suggests. “You don’t even need to say a word—any perception of office jerk will be dispelled.”

2. Don’t interrupt.

Every office has the interrupter, the worker who “sits smugly around the boardroom and seems to jump in every other sentence,” Jacinto describes. But if you can bite your tongue and let others speak—even when you are biting at the bit with a brilliant idea—you’ll be seen as all the kinder. “Listen and let other people speak,” Jacinto advises.

3. Make small talk.

Small talk isn’t anyone idea of good conversation—but making it is essential to gaining your coworkers’ trust and appreciation. Bonus: Small talk doesn’t take a lot of time or brainpower. “There are moments that you aren’t working where you can capitalize on relationships: making coffee, looking in the refrigerator, going up and down in the elevator,” Elizaga says. “These are the times where you’re not otherwise focused on the content of your work, and where you can take a few seconds to make someone else feel seen and ultimately a connection.”

4. Don’t steal others’ ideas.

Much like the interrupter, an idea-stealer is always seen as the office jerk. So, “give credit where credit is due,” Jacinto encourages. “Moving up the [company] ladder happens when you can work on a team. You cannot do it alone.” If you don’t work as a team, Jacinto warns, “people will start to see you as an idea-stealer and shift away from you. This equates to less inspiration, brainstorm, and projects.”

5. Say “please” and “thank you.”

Manners matter in a professional environment, Elizaga says. “You don’t need to forget your manners or the importance of connection in order to get ahead at work,” she says. As you work, be sure to thank others for their contributions to the team, and ask for things in a kind, congenial way, Elizaga says. “These little things are so easy to execute, and the people on the receiving end really appreciate it,” she says.

6. Don’t be the know-it-all.

No one really knows it all, right? So to avoid being the office jerk, we also have to avoid being the know-it-all who won’t listen to others’ ideas, Jacinto says. “Learn from your colleagues, and treat them with respect,” she says. “The more open you are from learning from them, the more you’ll improve your relationships and skills.”

7. Give people context.

You’re focused on killing your presentation—and that’s A-OK. But rather than brush off your coworker who wants to chat for no reason at all, let her know why you’re buried in research materials. “You can let others know that you need this time to focus, and then once it’s over, thank them for their attention and support,” says Elizaga. “Their knowing that you are working hard, want to execute well, and have some slight nerves will make you seem human, and the more human you are, the more connected you are to others, and the harder it will be for someone to perceive you negatively.”

8. Respect others’ work environments.

If you’re always making (loud) personal calls from your desk, you’re probably seen as the office jerk, Jacinto says. “Guess what: no one cares about your hair appointment, prescription refill, or doggy daycare issue,” she warns. If you have to make personal calls on work time, “lower your voice and limit these calls,” says Jacinto. “Or better yet, take a walk when you have personal calls to make.”

9. Take time for lunch and happy hour.

You may have better things to do than grab a bite to eat with your coworkers—or kibitz with your boss over after-work cocktails. But every once in a while, Elizaga says, you should make time for an office lunch out or a work happy hour. “It’s hard to dislike someone if they let you know who they are and how they operate,” she explains. “Lunch and happy hours don’t need to be long drawn out events. You can say: ‘Hey, I have a big project that I need to finish, but I have about 20 minutes and would love to grab a sandwich, beer, or cocktail downstairs.’”

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