Working Life: Stand out from the crowd

Learn the psychological tricks that can take you from career limbo to the chairman's office, says Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
So you have a fistful of certificates to your name already: proof that you've studied your way through the system, from GCSEs right through to degree level, not to mention the Duke of Edinburgh's award (bronze), the cycling proficiency test and the Brownie badge for basket-weaving. But however much education you may have slogged your way through, the chances are that you are deficient in one key area: psychology. Knowing how to "work" your colleagues - and even your boss - can be worth a wall- full of framed diplomas. In a new book published this month, Dr Sandi Mann, a leading work psychologist, argues that even the well-qualified lack the kind of vital practical skills that could give them the edge over their colleagues in the workplace.

"These things are not taught in schools, let alone universities," says Dr Mann. "Educational establishments are very concerned with qualifications that can be graded and assessed, but they tend to ignore real, transferable skills that make people employable."

These days, she says, the workplace is insecure and highly competitive. "The chances are that everybody else has the same qualifications, experience and enthusiasm as you do - so how do you stand out? But people don't have the knowledge they need. And it's not just at junior level. It's amazing how many people don't have, for example, basic communication skills."

She believes that these weaknesses damage career potential, and her book, Psychology Goes To Work, sets out to solve some of the problems. "There are lots of consultant psychologists out there, but their help is available only to the top bods in a company," she says. "Hiring a consultant costs a lot of money, and this kind of training and help is being denied to the workers. Why shouldn't they benefit too? But unless they can wade through hundreds of academic journals, the information simply isn't available."

A consultant herself, she also works in career management, and she says the same questions come up time and time again. "People always ask: `How can I be a success? How can I have that competitive edge?' I sincerely believe that the secrets that psychologists hold should be made available to everyone."

Psychology Goes To Work draws on some impressive sources - its bibliography lists around 70 other titles. "It is based on years of research and theory," says Dr Mann. "A book of this kind shouldn't simply be opinion based; it has to have a solid basis. I have taken academic research and set out to make it approachable and accessible."

The book disguises its academic content with plenty of step-by-step guides and question-and-answer sessions as it gets to grips with American-sounding issues such as Impression Management, Politicking, Groupthink and Using the Office Grapevine. It even gets right down to the nitty-gritty of making a phone call. (Top tip: avoid such nigglingly annoying practices as, when someone answers the telephone with "Elizabeth Thompson speaking," saying "Oh hello, is that Elizabeth Thompson?" This is the kind of little irritation that makes people really hate you.)

Dr Mann believes that people going into a work environment for the first time, those undergoing change at work, and those who want to advance would benefit from applying a little psychology. And, she says, work psychology will become even more important in the future. "In the new millennium, qualifications and hard work won't guarantee promotion or job security. This is why you need insight into the hidden codes that secretly govern behaviour in your workplace - into what makes others tick."

Here Dr Mann gives a few basic tips on how to make psychology work for you:

Politicking

Do whatever is necessary to make you stand out from the others. When superiors make decisions that could affect your future, you will appear in a positive light. Remember: anyone who knows something that someone else doesn't is in a position of power. Building up a good network of contacts is essential. Don't think that you are "using" people: anyone with any sense will be doing exactly the same to you. You need to realise that politicking is not about gaining an unfair advantage; politicking is about increasing your access to power and influence.

Your image

If you look like a student you will be treated as such; similarly, you will be treated like a responsible, efficient manager if you dress like a responsible, efficient manager. If your office has an "anything goes" dress code, always dress smartly, rather than in your torn jeans; you should always dress as you would like to be seen if the managing director or an important client were to pop in for a chat. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and always dress at the smartest end of your dress code.

Your office

Chairs with arms say that you are more important, thus worthy of a little extra expense. Spare chairs say that you are sufficiently important to have people coming to see you - the more spare chairs the better. Spare chairs placed around a separate table say that you are powerful, as do the presence of extra coffee tables and bar facilities. Spare books and bookcases say that you are intelligent and well read. Lots of papers, in-trays and workstations say that you are very busy. Personal artefacts, family photographs or collector's items say that you have a life outside of work.

The working lunch

Take many of your cues about how to behave from your host - in other words, the person who is paying for the meal. If they order an alcoholic drink, feel free to do the same; if they order a starter, you may too. Don't choose the most expensive item on the menu, but neither should you go for the cheapest. Take the lead from your companion. If you invited the other person, then you set the pace - and do the ordering - but there are still rules to follow. It is appropriate to offer wine with the meal, and suggest a starter course and a dessert.

Communication

Never answer the phone while finishing a conversation. This is terrible manners and the caller hears something like "... and we ended up wrestling on the bed together. Jones and Jones, how can I help you?" Never use e- mail if the contents are very private. There is no guarantee of confidentiality: always use letters for private information. And before you send an e- mail, check that the receiver will actually read it. Many people have an e-mail address simply to convey status or because their company automatically gives all its employees an address.

Body language

Don't read one non-verbal sign in isolation. For example, a relaxed posture may suggest a relaxed manner, but notice the foot tapping that "leaks" the real emotion of boredom. A suppressed yawn also indicates boredom - but an unsuppressed yawn probably implies genuine fatigue.

`Psychology Goes To Work', published by Purple House, pounds 9.99.

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