I recently received a letter from a young woman who had just landed her first real job and sought advice on being a good employee. Specifically, she worried about how to express her enthusiasm and eagerness to take on challenges without coming off as "overzealous" or "aggressive."
I wrote back that enthusiasm ranks up there with wealth and svelte-ness as qualities impossible to possess in overabundance. Bosses love go-get-'em types, so long as they don't assume tasks that exceed their capacities. Even if your manager suggests you're overdoing it, I assured her, your sincere passion for the enterprise will warm his heart.
But something sat wrong. The woman's anxiety seemed odd, like concern about appearing too cerebral for Harvard or too hot for Match.com. When I pressed her for details, she explained that her new colleagues would include many mid-career employees who felt no urgency to excel. "I don't want to come in as the new guy and have them feel like I'm trying to outshine them, which I am," she wrote. "I'd just like to be aggressive about my career, in a diplomatic way."
Add "emotional intelligence" to the qualifications on your resume. CEOs boast about hiring people who are smarter and more talented than themselves, but employees are less sanguine when a potential superstar joins the constellation. Companies with little turnover, in particular, may breed fat-'n'-happy cultures in which workers have stopped trying to prove themselves and don't want anyone raising the bar. Such status-quo huggers often greet can-do hires with hostility and regard their eagerness to help as "All About Eve"-esque machinations. Leaders, who don't always pay close attention to the intra-office vibe, may assume the whole staff is being revitalized by fresh blood when in fact it is intent on organ rejection.
Widespread grumbling about a new hire may indicate she's a jerk or incompetent; or it may mean staff members find her threatening. Furthermore, if someone who is ardent and ambitious during interviews becomes subdued and hesitant on the job, her colleagues may be pressuring her to tone it down. Leaders must be alert to creeping complacency on staff and make sure they're not tossing bright, flaming matches into cold, dark pools that will extinguish them.
That said, it is possible for new employees to come on so strong they alienate their colleagues, making office life less pleasant for everyone. So I offered my eager correspondent these suggestons:
1. Don't always volunteer for everything, and don't always volunteer first. Let one or two tenured colleagues raise their hands and then raise your own.
2. Don't suggest changing anything fundamental, such as a process, until you have been there at least a few months and understand why it works the way it does and who has a stake in it.
3. Don't hesitate to ask your colleagues substantive questions. Such curiosity is flattering and inclines people to like you. You solicited my advice and I think you're aces.
And a final note to bosses: Most job candidates are anxious to be the best accountant or systems analyst or communications specialist possible. Only a few -- like my correspondent -- are determined to be the best employee possible. You'd be nuts not to give them that chance.
Last updated: Jan 24, 2008
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan