The advice on how to be a successful employee can reduce to: work well, fit in, yet retain your personhood.
But in case you’d like a little flesh on that skeleton, here goes:
Work well but not too well
In most organizations, working well doesn’t mean working 14 hours a day or killing yourself to be a super-expert. Most organizations of size, whether for-profit, non-profit, or government, reward good-to-very good performers. Excellence may be rewarded but organizations are ecosystems: If you stick out too much, a predator is more likely to eat you. If you fit in, the team hums, and organizations are all about the collective yielding more than the sum of its parts.
So, for example, make your goal to work just slightly above your workplace’s average: If most of the employees work 45 hours a week and take a full-hour for lunch, aim for 47, 48 and take that full hour.
Of course, do get good to very good at what your organization and especially your boss needs. After all, you need your boss: to give you assignments that use your strengths, to not overload you, protect you from layoffs and, if you wish, tout you for promotions. Except perhaps for corporate think-tanks, organizations don’t well-accommodate overambitious iconoclasts.
If you have some extra time, you might ask your boss, “I have a little extra bandwidth. Is there anything I can do to make your life easier?”
It varies with the workplace but, in most organizational cultures, fitting in is, again a matter of moderation. Be cordial to everyone but friendly to only some—more could make you seem like a glad-hander. Once or twice a week, go to lunch or for a drink with coworkers and, if possible, your boss. More may not only seem like you’re trying too hard to network but may deprive you of the private time most people need.
Another manifestation of moderation is your role in the gossip vine. If you totally avoid it, you may be seen as haughty, yet if you’re at its center, the vine can strangle you. Listen to gossip, make occasional gentle, safe contributions but no more.
Retain your personhood
Your decision to work in an organization makes an implicit contract to suppress some of yourself in favor of the organization’s norms: the aforementioned work norms plus dressing within its mainstream, being pleasant and not too self-revealing or complaining, and doing the normative amount of socializing.
Yet there is opportunity to retain your personhood at work, at least partially. For example, if you have a suggestion you think is realistic, make it. Of course, if you’re worried it could hurt you, first check it out with a trusted ally before springing it on your boss, let alone at a meeting.
If you you see a serious ethical problem, consider raising the issue but you're safer if you invite one or more co-workers to join you in that.
Do you have an avocational interest you could bring to work? A photographer might want to adorn his cube walls with his creations. A gardener might bring her flowers, a baker his brownies.
Perhaps most important to your career, try to tweak your job description to capitalize on your strengths and skirt your weaknesses. Occasionally, you can do that on your own although usually you’ll need your boss’s okay.
More broadly, if you feel your personhood is too subverted in your current job, might a transfer within your organization help? Or should you be putting-out feelers to your network for a better-fit workplace? Or like me, have you come to the conclusion that you'd be wiser to be self-employed?
Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at email@example.com.