BBC Capital

Work Ethic

Break a destructive work habit

About the author

Chana is a journalist based in New York City, writing about business, finance, and workplace life. She has written for The Wall Street Journal and spent more than a decade at Forbes, including three years as a Tokyo-based foreign correspondent.

It's time to analyse why you're left out of office gatherings (Thinkstock)

It's time to analyse why you're left out of office gatherings (Thinkstock)

Q: I've fallen into a bad pattern at work: Everywhere I go, I seem to be unable to navigate the ‘office politics’. I've taken a succession of jobs where, despite initial efforts to make friends with my colleagues, I seem to end up the butt of office jokes, silly nicknames, and whispering. Eventually, this means I become an outsider on the team, without the necessary information to do my job well. How can I break this cycle and earn the respect of my colleagues — before I have to quit this job, too?

A: If the same problematic office dynamic reappears at every workplace you join, it’s time to accept that you’re the unifying factor. You’ve taken the first step — recognising that, unfortunately, the problem here is you.

In some ways, that’s easier to solve, because while you can’t change the behaviour of others, you can change how you act.

What are you doing to alienate your colleagues? If you don’t know, consider asking a mentor you’ve worked with in the past. That could be a former colleague or someone you have a relationship with in human resources. You might be able to request some coaching; some companies offer this service to budding leaders. See if you can get 360-degree feedback, to determine what your peers, superiors, and more junior colleagues think about you and your performance.

If you don’t have access to a professional, you can try working on it yourself. First, analyse the approach you’re using toward your colleagues, said Cindy Cornell, an executive coach who runs the Hoshin Group in Westport, Connecticut. When you think you’re being friendly, “do your efforts tail off, making your initial overtures to befriend your colleagues appear insincere?” she asked. Make sure that, after you establish a rapport with your peers at work, you continue to spend time with them. That means you shouldn’t dump them in favour of fawning over your boss. Relationships require an investment of time, Cornell said. Don’t assume that sitting down to lunch with someone a few times means you’re friends now —or that this colleague will owe you a duty of loyalty in the office.

Beware the opposite problem as well. “Trying too hard can also backfire,” Cornell said. She recommends figuring out what you have to offer to the relationship. Decide how you can help your colleagues, personally and professionally. It can be as simple as knowing you share a love of sport or cinema. Also, it is crucial to say thank you. Tell your colleagues how much you appreciate them supporting your ideas in meetings, including you on emails, and asking your opinion in front of your boss.

“Seek opportunities to focus on behaviour that is working for you and thank them, every time,” Cornell said. That will encourage them to do more to integrate you into the team. Everyone likes praise.

The most important point is to be clear on what you want the ‘new you’ to look like in the office. Think about how you should relate to colleagues and how they should perceive you. Concentrate on the positive changes you are making, not the negative aspects of your past office dramas. “We get what we focus on, and when you look for problems, they generally appear,” Cornell said. Instead, take charge of the office politics.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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