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How to Game Your First Workplace

Executives often complain to me about the new generation of employees—they aren’t as committed, sophisticated, or knowledgeable as more experienced employees would like them to be. They get bored or disillusioned quickly. Turnover is a problem, and so on. Just as often, I respond that youth may not be the main problem new hires have.

People face many pressures at the start of their career. In addition to understanding their new position, they are trying to figure out the who, what, where, why, and how of daily work life. So a lot of new employees are grateful when someone offers to show them the ropes. Some organizations even assign mentors to get new hires up to speed.

Although well intentioned, that’s where the trouble can start. Here are a few simple precautions for those just launching their careers:

Remain a free agent as long as you need to.

When you walk into an organization, the formal hierarchy may seem clear, but it takes time to learn how things really work. Who get things done? Who are the power players? They may not be the same people. What are your goals, and who will foster them? Be friendly with as many people as possible. Try not to be thought of as belonging to one clique or another. Think of your early weeks and months as a B-school assignment. Map the organization to gain a deep understanding about the people and the place and who is most likely to advance your objectives. Advantages don’t always come from the most obvious sources. Take time to search them out.

Figure out your boss’s agenda.

While this may sound counterintuitive at first, be wary of buying into your boss’s agenda hook, line, and sinker. Of course, you will want to be supportive and dedicate yourself to the team’s projects. But understand that no one’s interests will be fully aligned with yours—not even your boss’s. Their agenda may be deeply at odds with what you are trying to accomplish in your position and in your career. During the hiring process, everyone puts on the team smile, but it will take time to understand where your boss really stands and what his or her true plans are. Advance cautiously, and include your boss in your mapping assignment.

Avoid being sucked into others’ games.

If you don’t become part of a group when you start work, the folks in the office may try to draw you in. Your colleague in sales may tell you some juicy gossip about what’s “really going on” in marketing. Many offices have a chronic complainer, someone who isn’t happy and uses every opportunity to let you know about it. As a consultant, I’m not even at a company full time ,and I hear speculation about conspiracies, secret dating, and other spurious tidbits—all the time. Remain as neutral as possible. Your response will allow others to make—and pass along—judgments about your character. Neutralize the conversation by responding, “I don’t know about that. Let’s talk about this new account.”

Not all company cultures will allow you to stay neutral. Help yourself by being prudent when talking to colleagues and making friends. If you do, you may find more-experienced workers wondering aloud why the rest of your generation can’t be like you.

Cates teaches negotiations, human resource management and organization behavior for MBA programs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She also teaches executive education programs on issues of leadership development, communication, and employee relations. As an executive coach she serves as a mediator to resolve in-house conflicts, and advises organizations on leadership and their people management systems.

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