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3 Lessons from the Corporate Grind

The corporate grind is something that I know all too well. During my first 5 years after college, I worked at a large, old-fashioned corporation with traditional methodologies and regular people. While I wouldn’t have called it fun, I learned many important lessons about surviving in a corporate environment. Here are some of the fundamentals that I will carry with me into all my future endeavors.

Don’t be ruled by others’ expectations

Expectations and assumptions are powerful and dangerous things. In personal relationships, expectations can cause miscommunication and disappointment. At work, expectations can box you into others’ ideas of who you are. Being a proud, type A individual, I am a chronic over-achiever. This is both a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. It helps me accomplish lots of tasks, and procrastination hasn’t been a companion for me. However, it can allow others to make assumptions about how I will operate. Many of us have found ourselves on a group project, in school or out, and realized that we’ve done 100% of the work. This is a slippery slope and can be traced back to us letting others’ assumptions go unchecked.

At work, this can take on several other forms as well. Taking lunch breaks, vacations, sick days, or even attending optional training sessions are seen as part of one’s “character.” If you never do any of these things, but instead keep your nose close to the grindstone, you will have a hard time changing others’ impression of you and their assumption. If you never miss a day of work, the first time you’re sick at home with the flu for a week, others may judge you or resent you taking time off. The employee who always takes a full hour lunch break will be expected to take a full lunch break. But if you show up at 7:30 every day, the day you hit traffic and arrive at 8:15 will be the day you wind up in trouble.

The easiest way to avoid being boxed in by others’ expectations of you, is to set a standard for yourself early. Make a point of taking your well-earned lunch breaks, don’t answer your emails during vacation, and if you’re sick, stay home.

Show respect, even to those who don’t deserve it

Respect should be an ingrained trait in all of us. Unfortunately, it can be hard to respect someone who you feel doesn’t deserve it. There could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps you think they’re lazy. Maybe they haven’t evolved their processes or mindset since the 70’s. It might even be that they were appointed to their position because of nepotism and clearly don’t have the skillset required. None of these things should hinder the amount of respect you show people. Dislike people all you want at home alone with your cat, but in the office, respecting all of your co-workers is crucial.

What exactly does showing respect to your co-workers mean? Respect comes in many forms. In the office, the biggest passive indicators of respect include responding to emails, making eye contact, and listening to their ideas and opinions without interrupting. In the south (I’ve heard) there are formal ways of showing respect. These include addressing others as Ma’am or Sir. Learn the culture and make sure that you are showing everyone the respect that they deserve because it isn’t up to you to decide who is deserving or not.

Why should you show respect to everyone? Showing everyone the same level of respect will ensure that you never get caught in an embarrassing situation. Consider if you are at a lunch table and discussing a co-worker who is particularly unpleasant. It might seem innocent enough but could come back to haunt you. Even if the person in question never discovers your conversation, there might be another in the vicinity who interprets the conversation poorly. Say you ignore a request from someone who you feel is beneath you. Later it might turn out that the request had actually come through their boss, who is now displeased with your work ethic.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons younger corporate employees must learn is to respect those who have been at the company the longest. It might appear at first glance that a seasoned employee’s processes are slow or disjointed. But there is no surer way to ruin your own reputation than by storming in and demanding that everyone change everything they are doing. Even if you have the most honorable intentions, it is fundamental to listen to everyone’s story and opinions before identifying them for change. Then, change can be brought about in a respectful way.

Attend as many functions as you can

Work functions can be tedious, life-sucking, and uncomfortable. In my experience, many of them are. That doesn’t mean that work functions aren’t useful. In fact, work functions are even more important in corporations than other types of companies. Many corporations have hundreds or thousands of employees, and those workers might be spread across the nation or even the globe. This means that many departments are likely to be siloed (learn more about work silos by reading 5 Signs Your Organization is Too Siloed by CMS Wire.) Silos cause employees to lose sight of the company’s mission and stay trapped in their own world-view. It is important to remind yourself of how others’ lives in the company differ from your own in order to make informed decisions and stay focused on the end goal.

Expecting a work function to present you with an obvious “benefit” straight away is presumptuous. If you go into an event expecting to get a job offer, form a close relationship with an executive, or get early insight into a fun, new project, you are likely to be disappointed. The benefits of attending functions like company BBQs, cocktail hours, training sessions, or volunteering opportunities come with the course of time. You never know who it will have been useful to meet. Maybe you listened to a stale lecture on your company’s procurement department once, that could come in handy. Perhaps you simply cultivated an out-going and approachable reputation. However, each function you attend will house hidden benefits.

Working in a corporate environment taught me many lessons, but these lessons continue to serve me well outside of the corporate world. Learning to avoid being limited to others’ expectations is constant, but can also help to keep you self-reflective and taking care of yourself. Learning to show respect for every one of your co-workers will help you to find the good in everyone, and will undoubtedly help you maintain a clear conscience and untarnished reputation. And attending your company’s work function will help you to forge useful relationships, learn new things, and prepare for opportunities you didn’t even know existed. 

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