Power and Schmoozing at Work
What does it take to do well at work? Why do some people seem to get ahead while others whose skills are equivalent (or even better) don’t move up as quickly as they expect to? We have a friend, let’s call him David, who was fired from a number of jobs. Once he had a job for some time, he couldn’t get promoted. His skills were exemplary, yet he could not seem to move up the ladder.
On the surface, skill seems to be a basic element of getting, keeping, and moving up in an occupation. The person who cuts my hair has had a number of assistants over the last few years. One, (let’s call her Yasmin), moved up to work for the owner of the salon. Others, however, have disappeared suddenly from the salon. But as far as I could tell their skills seemed somewhat equivalent.
In most offices, people are hired as probationary, and after some period of time they become regular employees or are “let go”. Once someone becomes a regular employee, some are promoted while others while away at the same desk year after year. Christine L. Williams and others have published fascinating work examining why certain people are on “glass escalators” or, by contrast, hit the glass ceiling.
While gender, race, ethnicity, and social class certainly account for many of these dynamics, I’d like to bring Max Weber into the conversation. He notes that the concept of charisma is central to understanding leadership and power (along with class and status).Success is about more than your position or the politics of an organization.
Yasmin, the hair stylist’s assistant, has tremendous charisma compared to other stylist assistants in the salon, which may explain why the big boss snapped her up as his own assistant. My friend David, as another one of my friends likes to say, “failed coffee” in his early job experiences. Until he became more aware of social dimensions at work, he had to keep looking for new jobs. He had previously done his job tasks quite well but didn’t do well at developing social relationships at work.
Charisma is that special something that some people have in abundance and others lack. Those with it can command the attention of others simply by walking in a room. Many of our country’s presidents had loads of charisma, and most successful public figures and leaders have more than their fair share of charisma (which is often how they win elections). Most of the professors whose classes you’ve really enjoyed probably also had charisma.
Charismatic people are also able to interact with others successfully, more so and much easier than for those with less charisma. To survive and thrive in a workplace, it’s important to have social skills as well as job skills.
I have worked in a number of places and capacities over the years. One of my first “real” jobs was in the U.S. Air Force as an electronics and communications technician. In our workplace, we were responsible for all of the base’s communications— our work consisted of quality control checks and troubleshooting if problems occurred. (As a result, I’m really good at setting up equipment such as video and DVD players!) On the evening and night shifts, we played a lot of pinochle and cribbage after we finished the quality checks and waited for something to break.
The pinochle game was a very special activity. Only four could play, but our shifts included six to eight people. I noticed very quickly that only certain people were invited into that game—always the supervisor and whomever they asked in. Those he invited were people who did their job really well, and their job skills seemed to be his basic criteria.
One day a newer colleague asked why he couldn’t play in place of a more seasoned worker. That person could do the work much more quickly than the new guy. The supervisor said that he needed the practice since he was newer and that once he was better at his job, he might be able to play. This supervisor recognized that the skills of the job were identical to those of a good pinochle player: both required one to think ahead and hold onto a lot of information at one time.
Looking back, social skills were also important; some of our colleagues were never asked to play even though their job skills were adequate. They weren’t people who were rude or mean, but they didn’t command interest as much as those who had more charisma. Since the game did include people who were more social than the others, the game was looked upon as a fun reward and a sign of success in our workplace. The game served as motivation to improve one’s job skills—to avoid work—but also to be more socially adept at work.
In addition to serving in the military, at one time I sold Tupperware (although I did not like to be called a “Tupperware Lady”). To be successful in sales you need more than a good product; you also need sales skills. “Sales skills” is really all about charisma, since to be really effective in getting the big sales and/or repeat customers, you have to “befriend” the client and convince them they can’t live without your product now and in the future.
I was amazed, even, flabbergasted at my first monthly sales meetings as they sang songs, danced, and held what seemed a lot like a religious revival to energize the sales force. The more gregarious among us not only sold more, they won more awards at the gatherings. They were rewarded not just for their sales but for their effervescence during the sales meetings.
Just as it is in sales, in the entertainment industry “who you know” is one very important aspect to moving you in and up the ladder. Who you know is important but, charisma and how well you get along with others are even more important. Social skills and charisma may be more vital than job skills in this industry, since many skills are learned on the job (think, for instance, of a beautiful model hired to star in a movie without any prior experience acting).
In organizations, whether you are working for pay or volunteering, both job skills and social characteristics are important. On paper, job skills seem to be the most important, but we can’t forget the social dimension of success. Both are crucial for getting a job, keeping it, and moving up.