Turn Yourself into an Office Diplomat

At a formal brainstorming session I once attended, the team leader started by pointing emphatically to a sentence on the whiteboard: "The word 'no' is not allowed." That simple rule helped to explain why innovation thrived at the company and also demonstrated the leader's tactful and motivational style. By being open, listening to others with respect, and seeing the value in what they had to say—vs. shooting down ideas—she fashioned herself into a great leader and a true office diplomat.

We've all observed managers with a knack for making people feel included, gently persuading others to cooperate, and generally inspiring others. Today's most sought-after leaders never stopped displaying these qualities during the recession. Poise, transparency, and tact will also help any job seeker. Are you up for the challenge? Here are some suggestions.

Keep an office diplomacy reminder. Place in plain sight something that makes you think kindly of your workers: perhaps a photo of you and your team at a company picnic. Or simply slap a sticky note that says "tact" on your desk or create an empty folder on your computer's desktop and name it "Be Genuine"—whatever it takes to keep you mindful of the importance of interpersonal intelligence.

Don't focus on being right; focus on being receptive. Embrace differing opinions. Teachers often say they learn the most from their students. If you adopt this approach, you'll likely expand your knowledge base, and people will in turn respect what you have to say.

Don't "textize" all your communications. Imagine an office in which we all blurt out "K," "OMG," "LOL," "IMHO." Let's not depersonalize the workplace for a false sense of efficiency. Write your texts and e-mails with a blanket of humanity, imagining how you would feel if you received the message. For example, a text message quickly sent to a team member in response to "Did you get my report?" might say: "Got it. Needs work. C me later." This might create needless concern, as one of our national studies shows employees spend 19 hours a week worrying about what a boss says or does. Instead, consider: "Thanks, Tom. Will call you later." That has an upbeat, personal tone and leaves sensitive feedback for in-person dialogue.

See the good before you blurt out something negative. Catch yourself and flip your statements and questions into the positive. If you hear an unworkable idea, parlay it into something meaningful or applicable. Say someone says, "What about getting the product launched in six months in time for a holiday promotion?"—and you know it can't happen that fast. Rather than blurt out, "That's really impossible; we need at least nine months," the office diplomat might turn to those responsible for product delivery and say, "I really like the intent behind a holiday tie-in regardless, Jim. I guess the key question for Terri would be, how much lead time does your team need to launch this product?"

And when a session is running too long and someone brings up extraneous matter, gently put the meeting on course: "That is an idea definitely worth more discussion, and I wish we had more time. I know all of you are getting ready to leave, so let's put that one on next week's agenda or address it through e-mail, O.K.? I do need to cover X before we leave."

Remember diplomacy while on job interviews. Tact and poise will make you stand out among the crowd when you're job hunting. If you're asking sensitive questions about the company, for example, make sure to phrase them with respect and thoughtfulness. Instead of saying, "It seems like XYZ company would be your major competitor, because I've read that they might be stealing some of your market share in the lucrative ABC market," consider: "Who do you feel are your major competitors? Would XYZ company be considered one of them, particularly in the ABC market?"

Observe and take note of Generation Unretired behavior. Members of this growing segment of the workforce tend to have particularly strong people skills. Because of their years of experience, they can model professional, diplomatic, harmonious behavior for those newer to the business world.They can help smooth over what I call "TOT," or "terrible office tyrant" behavior.

Remember that people radar goes a long way. Make an extra effort to notice when employees display a change in behavior—for example, when peers or staff suddenly "shut down." Office diplomats will go out of their way to reach out and bring them into the fold by engaging them in a staff meeting and seeking their input. A good old fashioned "please," "thank you," "good job," and apology are timeless career advancers.

In a recent management workshop I gave, an executive demonstrated a diplomatic bridging technique. In addressing a more junior manager, he said, "I like what Bill has to say. I also think that if we consider doing X with that same concept in mind, it might solve the Y problem. Does anyone else want to weigh in?" The "also" was the bridge that gently moved the conversation to another solution. And the offer to others to weigh in made it even more of an open, non-threatening approach.

Earlier in my own career, I observed an executive who never once criticized people for their contributions in either one-on-one or group meetings, no matter how wayward the ideas. He would often pose thought-provoking questions, which would help people challenge themselves to refine their thinking better. Office diplomats know that every idea has at the very least a grain of value. It might need a little or a lot of development, but it will likely lead to another, and yet another. Without the "grain," a big idea can't occur.

As staff-tightening exacerbates the already frenetic pace of office life, adding office diplomacy to your career tool kit will catapult your advancement.

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