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4 Dos and Don'ts of Using Psychology to Your Advantage in the Workplace

Learn how to use basic human psychology at work with your morals and ethics intact.

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"I don't want to play games" is a common phrase uttered by hopeful people everywhere, intent on wooing the object of their desires into a committed relationship. Most people are opposed to the word "manipulation," assuming one who does so can only have harmful intentions.

In the workplace, being a "kiss-up" is frowned upon as fake. I've even had past bosses tell me, "Oh, so you're the brown-noser; we love brown-nosers." Needless to say, the backhandedness of the comment didn't exactly feel great.

At work, it seems simple: Do your job well, be reasonably well-mannered and you'll do just fine. Treat your boss, colleagues and clients respectfully, and you're all set. But what if you want more than "fine," or "all set?" That is where a basic understanding of peer psychology comes in very handy.

As the brand strategist of a boutique firm, I have responsibilities that are client-facing and managerial in nature. I often interact with the CEO of the company and am aware that I represent her at all times. Knowing how she, our clients and my colleagues think — in general terms — is crucial to my professional well-being.

Here are my dos and don'ts for using your workplace culture and a bit of human psychology to your career's advantage.

Related: How Business Fits Into the Puzzle of Human Psychology

Don't: Be someone you're not

I got called a kiss-up because I love working hard, am nice to everyone until they give me a good reason not to be and I'm praise-motivated. Frankly, I hate the term and the more colorful ones associated with it. It gives people who genuinely love their jobs a bad name.

Being too cool for school isn't actually cool anymore — we're adults. If you're like me, don't be afraid to show it. Paradoxically, if you think that "acting" excited is unnecessary to get the job done, don't be ingenuine — and strongly consider my next point if you find yourself surrounded by happy-go-lucky coworkers who make your hairs stand up.

Do: Choose a workplace culture that matches you

Work somewhere you fit in. There's nothing wrong with preferring to be serious at all times unless your workplace culture deems "bubbliness" important. Then, you might be in the wrong place.

Pay attention to culture during interviews. In 2022, you're interviewing the company just as much as they're interviewing you. Ask what is expected of you regarding attitude, dress and demeanor. In traditional jobs with 40-hour weeks, we spend massive chunks of our lives at work. Getting to be who you are increases the chances that you will be satisfied in life and able to grow your career effortlessly.

Don't: Use negative manipulation to get ahead

Putting someone else down is the worst way to "get ahead." Either the truth will come out, making you look terrible, you will feel downright terrible or you will get your just deserts in kind.

Related: How to Tell If Someone Is Manipulating You Based on Their Body Language

Do: Notice who is who

The quiet hard worker, the money-motivated one, the praise addict, the one who bluntly cuts to the chase — everyone is different.

One colleague might love to be teased when given criticism, while the other might require an "ego sandwich" (compliment, criticism, compliment).

Understanding who is on your team is essential. Whether superiors, equals or people you manage, figure out what makes them tick and use it to your advantage.

Don't: Speak your mind to the wrong people

There will always be something you wish was different at work. Maybe you see how a department can improve or find it challenging to work with a particular person. While talking about it on the sidelines to a coworker you think you can trust (you can't) might seem easier, speaking to that department head or difficult coworker directly is always the better solution.

If you have a great idea, share it with someone above you who can approve it or help you see it through. Don't get caught up on who gets the credit; making your manager look good to their boss makes you look good to them. Having a happy manager means you're happy — it's simple math!

If your difficult coworker becomes more annoying, be the bigger person (note: this advice excludes abuse of any kind). Eventually, what they're doing will become apparent to more people than just you, and you can be proud that you didn't fall into their sticky traps or do things you regret in trying to get back at them or make yourself feel better. Patience, especially in the workplace, wins.

Related: Why You Should Care About Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Do: Give compliments

Give compliments to yourself and others. I save every good compliment people give me on a private Slack channel to read if I ever need a pep talk. If you work somewhere with in-person communication, write down the nice thing your boss said about your project somewhere for yourself.

This positive feedback loop is a gift to yourself that keeps on giving. Don't forget to contribute to other people's compliment loops, too.

Don't: Be afraid to use patterns in your favor

Think like Ted Lasso: If your boss likes the homemade biscuits you bring every day, keep 'em comin'.

Does your boss hate the color red? Don't wear red. Does someone you manage work harder if you give them a bunch of work at once instead of drip-assigning throughout the week? Work dump it is.

A client is more impressed by the exact same quality of work if presented on a Zoom call? Schedule a Zoom meeting. A colleague talks great about you to the boss if you compliment that colleague publicly at team meetings? Time to look for something to authentically compliment more often.

Doing things that you find out work well for people is not fake, nor is it manipulation, if done with good intentions. Note: If you ever hesitate or question an action in a moral sense, you should not do that thing (i.e. if you question wearing a different color other than red because you think you only look good in red, that isn't a moral concern).

Related: What 5 Classic Psychological Experiments Can Teach Workplace Leaders

Do: Practice

This advice is surface-level for a reason: Every workplace and every person is different. It takes practice and is different with each individual you meet. As with a healthy marriage, there will be trials and errors along the way.

If you accidentally do a "don't," that doesn't mean you're a bad person. While trying to sway situations in our favor, we are still human.

Others might hold just as much influence as we do; it's impossible to predict every outcome. Plus, maybe the people you differ with at work read this article, too.

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