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Senin, 19 Januari 2015

How to Be a Rising Star

By Judith Sills, Ph.D
Getting ahead requires crossing boundaries. Just beware of the electric fence.

There's an invisible sign posted at your office: Boundary! Cross at Your Own Risk.
One man simply ignores the sign. A former counselor, he makes a career leap to a Director's Guild training program and finds himself an internship at an independent film production company. Within weeks, he is the confidant of the executive producer. Within six months, he is mediating her disputes with senior staff and advising the crew on their romances.

Another worker, a woman, crashes against the boundary, protesting publicly when her boss alters her report to his own liking before he sends it on up the line. Seems she preferred her version; seems the invisible line of authority that gives her boss the power to make the change was not enough to hold her fury in check.

Both employees came up against the professional boundary dilemma—with varying success. In every organization, there exists dividing lines of behavior appropriate to different roles. But the keep-out sign isn't always marked; it's often very subtle and remarkably flexible, depending on everything from individual charm to organizational structure. As a result, many workers struggle with office problems that are boundary issues in disguise.

There's enormous value in making the line clearer for yourself so that you can walk it shrewdly. Knowing how and when to gracefully navigate boundaries that face upward in an organization isn't a requirement for success. But it can increase your access to inside information and open professional opportunities.

Moving the Lane Markers
Knowing how to complain to your supervisor or when to share an e-mail with his boss requires that you appreciate the function of unwritten boundaries themselves. Boundaries for office interactions are like the rope lanes of a swimming pool. They're there to keep everyone safe, but they can be jostled or even removed depending on need, skill and circumstances.

The most familiar boundary signs today are those well-marked indicators of harassment, sexual and otherwise, designed to keep people in positions of power from acting on their own haywire impulses. Boundaries defining harassment, codified by law and/or the company manual, must be respected, especially because they preserve those below from abuse of power.

Nudge Your Way Upward
Can you ever correct your boss? How angry can you allow yourself to get, and with whom? Why are some subordinates welcome to extend a Saturday golfing invitation while others are out of line merely making themselves comfortable on the boss's couch?

The rules for containment and boundary crossing are rarely spelled out in the company manual. Yet a good foray upward typically yields useful information, the better assignment, a slight edge in a performance review—if only because a competent boundary crosser uses her confidence to establish an aura of collegiality with the boss. Whatever the actual rewards, the boundary crosser may also feel more central to the organization, more valued, more special somehow. Feeling good leads to doing good, so boundary crossers cycle up.

But that same sense of specialness can make for dangerous business. Those who arrive at the office with an exaggerated sense of their own worth may have trouble recognizing that a boundary is in place at all—like the woman who felt free to protest angrily when her boss made a change she didn't like. Cross a boundary clumsily and you alienate those with whom you're trying to form an alliance. Even if you're successful, there's always the risk of offending colleagues over the favors you garner.

There's no single answer for when to cross the lines upward. The move depends in part on the office culture (long-established, hierarchical financial institutions erect social markers much more definitively than, say, free-for-all tech start-ups). Too, successful boundary crossing is partly a reflection of your individual personality. Some of us are so warmly welcoming we can't help but connect with people at every level; others are so uncertain they need reassurance before imposing a staff meeting on the staff.

Learning to Read Subtle Signals
Be aware of any invitations to venture forward: Your boss consults you about a strategy; your manager invites you to share a sandwich and a sad story about his teenage son; you are unexpectedly included on an e-mail. All signal that your confident overtures might be welcome.

In the absence of an invitation, you can edge over the rope a little on your own. Test your welcome using physical proximity. If the manager's door is open, walk in and chat. Offer a friendly comment in the hallway. We cross boundaries best on common ground.
But always check your personal agenda at the threshold. The way to expand your social universe is to make a genuine contribution to those you seek to impress.
There's a difference between moving up and sucking up. Sucking up is flattery dished out with your own self-interest in mind. Boundary crossing is a momentary move up to an interesting place, one where you'd like to spend more time. You get there by having something to offer.

Reading Tea Leaves
Take your boundary-crossing cues from the culture around you.

  • Look for the layers. The more hierarchical your company, the less welcome your incursions are apt to be.
  • Identify established border crossings. Where do different levels of your company mix? The fitness center? Cafeteria? For drinks? Cross there first.
  • Make your presence known with a comment, a question, a word of support. Never leave a room without people knowing you were there. If your company prefers that you keep silent, boundary violations are not likely welcome.
  • Study the swirl. Pay attention to the people around those with real power (those who make the decisions and control the money). If the swirl is informal, rather than organized or appointed, you may find an opening.
  • Ask your mentor, but not your colleague. Seek guidance regarding the company culture from a senior person. A colleague may be threatened by your ambition. 

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