I’ve never been much of a salesman. Raised on a farm, my father instilled me with fairly humble values and a penchant for letting my work speak for itself. But my father never raised a boy intent on operating in an office environment and whether I’m pitching to a prospective client or trying to persuade a coworker to see things my way, salesmanship has to be a part of what I do. I’ve had to adapt my style at work to find a new balance somewhere between the humble farmer and the used car salesman. And perhaps more importantly, I’ve had to learn to be dynamic with my style and find the appropriate times to either stretch my overall straps or slick back my hair.
It may not be the most innovative topic in the world, however, beyond the quality of your work, your personal business style is perhaps one of the most integral elements of who you are in the office. Many would argue that how you act is even more important than what you do. Therefore, the question emerges, how shouldI act at work?
First, let’s get something out of the way. Anyone who answers this question with the sappy, age-old adage, “just be yourself” is wrong. Don’t be yourself. You’re an asshole. You’re shy. You talk too much. You’re too academic. You’re a control freak. You make people uncomfortable. You’re a doormat. And for god’s sake will you please stop forwarding joke emails and petitions; you’re not my Aunt.
I don’t care if you work on Wall Street or in a daycare; the business environment is a shark tank of political influence and jockeying for position (even if that position is avoiding the evening shift since there’s always one parent who is an hour late to pick up their kid and you don’t get paid overtime). If you remain naïve to the realities of your work environment, expect to get steamrolled and left behind.
This isn’t to say that you need to be a two-faced, back-stabbing, grinning sociopath; you simply need to be aware of the different ways that you interact with different individuals and how you should temper your style accordingly. Without getting too deep into social determinism – a theory that I have no business discussing or even uttering the very words – our personality, and by extension our style at work, cannot be considered in a vacuum. Social interactions are by definition a dialogue and who you are is defined differently for each individual dialogue you engage. You’re polite and pleasing to your customers. You’re submissive and attentive around your boss. You’re confident and alert with your peers. You’re formal and authoritative when speaking to subordinates.
I write all of this to help you realize that you’re already a two-faced sociopath or, as we better know the term: a person. You already adjust and tweak your style based on the people you speak with and the situations you encounter, partially because of a wonderful little thing we call empathy. This type of behavior isn’t fickle or false, it is simply part of being a social human being. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t adjust your personality and couldn’t be empathetic, then we would have true cause for concern and proper use of the word sociopath.
So back to the question of how you should act at work; you should act in whatever way is appropriate to the situation. Your business style should be a floating spectrum, not a fixed point. You should be the person that you need to be by crafting a context-sensitive balance of the most suitable pieces of yourself. Your subconscious is likely already doing this for you, so why not be aware of it and take a more active hand in how you present yourself at work? This doesn’t have to be disingenuous or inauthentic; it is still you in the conversation.
Give yourself some credit; your personality is a rich tapestry woven of countless experiences, emotions, and influences. Each interaction has the potential to surface different parts of ourselves to engage and connect with other individuals in a meaningful way. A CEO can be a humble follower. An apprentice can be a leader. An accountant can be an unpredictable maniac. A rock star can be tame recluse.
And yes, even a farm boy can be a salesman.