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Being Distinctive in an Average Workplace

By Marty Nemko

Most workplaces expect employees to function in a narrow range: mildly cheerful but not excessively so, sadness and certainly anger being verboten. Your viewpoints must be politically correct. Dress must be middle-of-the-road except in artsy workplaces (or in San Francisco.)

But what if you’re not middle-of-the-road? Don’t assume that your only choice is to squash yourself into the conformity box:

You’re aggressive. In most workplaces, people who cross the line from assertive to aggressive get shot down, often via quiet subterfuge. Antidotes: volunteer for projects requiring aggressiveness: for example, cold calling. Get on a committee with people who don’t mind or even value your aggressiveness. Don’t assume that other aggressive people will value yours; sometimes, they demand being the Alpha. Or work on solo projects, for example, a writing a report in which your aggressiveness in digging up information is unlikely to annoy anyone.

You’re quiet as a nun. It’s true that in America, splashy sells and squeaky wheels get grease, but quiet competence can also prevail. If you’re uncomfortable speaking up at meetings, e-mail your ideas to staff. If you can’t make yourself utter those self-promoting elevator speeches, find a champion who will. Too, keep a log of your accomplishments so that at review time, you can send it to your boss along with a note that says, “Perhaps you might find this useful in writing your evaluation.”

You look unconventional. Whether it’s fashion-fast-forward or the grunge look (complete with purple hair streak and nose pierce,) you prefer the edgy to the mainstream. The same eccentricity that might hurt your career when displayed on your body might be deemed pleasantly quirky when adorning your cube décor: an avant-garde poster, a wild rug, even your pet tarantula (in a terrarium, please.) And, of course, it may be comforting to remind yourself that, after work, you can look as (ahem) innovative as you like.

You’re passionate about your politics or religion. If so, it can be difficult to not hold forth at work. You can usually avoid reprisals if your views are politically correct. If not, you might get away with a brief and infrequent comment as long as you’re sensitive to whether your listener is offended. If so, stop immediately--the workplace isn’t for proselytizing. Avoid decorating your workspace with signs that might easily offend, for example, “Anybody but Bush” or ‘Anybody but Hillary.”

You’re proud of your race, gender, or sexual orientation. That’s okay but you don’t want to be known as someone who plays the race, gender, or sexual-orientation card to obtain unfair advantage. There’s nothing wrong, however, with making such tactful suggestions as, “Based on my contacts in the Latino (or whatever) community, I suspect that Susan’s marketing idea might work better than Tom’s, or there might even be a third possibility (Insert your idea.)”

You’re entrepreneurial but are too scared to risk your own money. Your boss may value your being an intrapreneur, so trot out a few of your ideas. But remember that such ideas often are rejected because they divert time and money from higher priority projects. If your next few intrapreneurial ideas are nixed, you probably need to back off, and if that frustrates you too much, it may be time to seek a more intrapreneurial boss or to take the risk of becoming self-employed. See last month’s column on low-risk self-employment. (Insert link.)

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