Charm School for Your Career

Poor social skills holding you back? Here are seven valuable lessons.

Joe Clueless (a real person whose name I've changed to protect the guilty) is smart, handsome and hardworking. Yet he's been let go many times from corporate jobs and now, at 45, is a substitute teacher. What got in the way of a promising career? He rubbed people the wrong way.

If only he had attended charm school.

Listen up, class. Joe's not alone. Many of you are sabotaging your own careers simply by lacking people skills -- not competence. Truth is, it's hard to get ahead when you're not well-liked. Here are seven lessons to help smooth your rough edges and polish the image you project in the workplace.

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Class in session

LESSON #1: Joe was negative. "This company isn't going anywhere," or "You never told me I should do that!" Even if your concerns are valid, you pay a likeability price for each complaint.

When tempted to be negative, assess whether the benefit is worth the likely liability. Don't criticize unless you can propose a likely acceptable solution.

LESSON #2: Joe thought he was smarter than he really is. He stated his opinions as truisms and usually dismissed criticism without reflection or inquiry. Even if you're right, that style unnecessary demeans everyone else.

Make assertions in a way that allows for the possibility you're wrong, for example, "I think (insert your statement). What do you think?"If your argument is rejected, take one more stab at it. If that doesn't work, drop it. Pursuing it further is unlikely to help and could brand you as stubborn.

LESSON #3: Joe didn't let people get a word in edgewise. He'd talk for five minutes without stopping. Of course, everyone thought him rude, egotistical, and stifling of the exchange of ideas.

Follow the Traffic Light Rule: During the first 30 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: You may speak without worry. During the second 30 seconds, your light is yellow: Chances are, your listener is ready to respond and waiting for you to finish. After the 60-second mark, your light is red. Yes, you'll very occasionally want to run a red light -- when you're saying something important that couldn't be broken up into two parts, allowing your listener to respond to the first part. But usually, at the one-minute mark, you should shut up or ask a question.After you stop talking, half the time, shut up, half the time, ask a question such as "I'm not sure I was clear?" or "I'm wondering if that might apply to Project X?" See Do You Talk Too Much? for more info.

LESSON #4: Joe had a short fuse, going from zero to 60 in one second. He usually regretted his outbursts and apologized, but by then, it was too late -- everyone dismissed Joe as a hothead.

Remember that you pay a heavy price for displaying anger. Watch C-SPAN and you'll see the nation's most successful people discussing critical world issues, yet they rarely rise from concerned to angry. Yet Joe got annoyed if he had to make the break room coffee.

LESSON #5: Joe was egotistical. He cared little about his customers or his colleagues. Joe cared only about Joe.

Be customer-service and colleague-service focused. Go the extra mile to help your customers and colleagues get what they want and they'll more likely help you get what you want. For example, Nordstrom and Southwest Airlines attribute much of their success to hiring less on experience and more on commitment to pleasing customers and co-workers.

LESSON #6: Other people need charm school because they are shy, depressed, or lack confidence. Such people are prone to passive-aggressiveness, which like Joe's traits, can doom a career. For example, such people resent colleagues for being successful, smart, or even physically attractive. Passive-aggressive people might then start rumors about the person, keep that person out of the information loop or claim the person's idea as their own. Often, their subterfuge backfires.

When tempted to quietly sabotage others, decide whether it's wiser to express your concern directly (see lesson #2).

LESSON #7: Often, people violate these rules unintentionally. They work so hard or have such heavy family responsibilities that they lack the emotional reserve to behave as they know they should.

Regularly take time to recharge your batteries, for example, take a few minutes to walk around the building, write a poem, stare at a cloud.

If you think any of these rules might make you more successful, write them on your to-do list. Keep them there.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,