The way we work has changed thoroughly and dramatically over the past 20 years. We have more flexibility but less stability in our jobs, more ways to communicate with coworkers but less time for establishing relationships, more ways to prove ourselves to our managers but a harder time being recognized for our contributions. And we have more room to change jobs and careers as often as we wish but less guidance and career development from our bosses.
So it's no surprise that the dynamics of office politics have changed dramatically, too.
"In the old days you could come in after college and find a mentor who would tell you who you can ignore and who you can't. And you'd have a few years to learn the landscape and gradually assimilate," says John Eldred, who teaches a course on organizational dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania and consults with companies on change. "Now you might move every year. You're in enemy territory all the time, and you don't know how to read the expressions of the natives."
In fact, 39 percent of people who leave a job within one year do so because they can't figure out how things get done at that particular company, according to the Novations Group, a human resources consulting firm. An additional 13 percent leave because they fail to establish trust and credibility.
In this faster-moving environment, Eldred says, people need to establish credibility more quickly. "People who are visible are successful," he says. "People who are less visible are not successful."
Being visible means learning to understand the boss's or team's priorities as soon as possible and assertively selling yourself as someone who can deliver on those things.
"You can't wait for the company picnic to roll around to buddy up to the bosses and get to know people—there is no company picnic," Eldred says. Instead, it's important to schmooze—or network, as Eldred likes to think of it—in the course of the regular workday. It comes more easily to some than to others, but it's a skill everyone needs to learn. "If you cede success to the natural schmoozers, you'll hate everything about your organization," Eldred cautions. (For more on why and how to schmooze, click here.)
One benefit of learning how to schmooze better is that you're more likely to be rewarded for your hard work. According to a study by the Conference Board Consumer Research Center, only 41 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61 percent two decades ago. The biggest sources of dissatisfaction are bonuses and promotions, with nearly three-quarters of Americans unhappy with their company's policies.
But this isn't entirely the fault of U.S. employers and managers. According to a separate survey from Blessing White, only 44 percent of workers routinely share their career aspirations with their manager—and compensation goals are part of those aspirations.
Bosses can't give you what they don't know you want, says leadership consultant Rebecca Shambaugh of the Shambaugh Group. Most workers need to learn to do a better job of making their wants known. (For more on what gets you a raise and how to ask for it, click here.)
At the same time, work is as uncertain and fast moving for managers and executives as it is for those lower down the ladder. They often protect their own careers by picking two or three favorite go-to people and turning to them for the work that's most important to them. It's hard to wedge yourself into such an inner circle once it's established, but your career doesn't have to stall in the meantime. (For more on dealing with favoritism, click here.)
Your career nowadays is in your industry, and not tied to any single company the way careers once were, Eldred points out. So if your best schmoozing isn't getting you noticed, the favoritism is too strong, or that raise you need isn't forthcoming, it's easier than it once was to move to a new organization and keep your career moving forward.
"Sooner or later everyone faces a bad situation—bad boss, bad customer, unfair allegations, unethical people," says Eldred. "Sometimes you have stay and fight and sometimes it's best to say, if this organizations is that superficial I don't want to be here long term. Thank you for opening my eyes." (For more on when to look for a new job, click here.)
In the absence of something going really wrong, it can sometimes be hard to judge whether it's better to stay or to go. Eldred gives every new job two years, and "if nothing fabulous happens in that time" he starts looking for an opportunity that excites him more. His one absolute rule: "If you wait until you have a sense that it's time to move on, you've stayed too long."