This Bad Work Habit Cost Me A Promotion

Photographed by Winnie Au.
There’s a game I play when I’m feeling particularly self-loathing. I go through my old emails and look at ones I sent to my various bosses at any point between ages 23 and 30. A sampling:

I need help! Okay, so this is a photo of Mr. Shakespeare, the Match dude who I've been talking to. He never had a pic on his Match profile, and I was like whatevs, doesn't matter...and he just sent me this picture. He just looks so self-righteous and smug. Gross, right?

I just got off the phone with a psychic and asked her if she had any suggestions for book ideas!

Are you a Gemini? Because I was just reading the Gemini horoscope and this year is supposed to be a really awesome year.

And then, there was the way I presented myself every day at work. My cube was always filled with miscellaneous crap. At one point, there were nearly 20 pairs of shoes under my desk. I frequently came in late. My favorite office outfit included a skirt I had cut myself, the uneven lace hem ragged and obvious. I cried at my desk over trivial things: when I got passed over for a story idea, when I got a confusing text from a guy I was dating, when I got reprimanded by a higher-up.

Here’s the thing: In some ways, my behavior in the office was encouraged. I never got fired. In eight years of unprofessional behavior, I only had two talking-tos from managers. In a creative industry, character quirks were applauded. Our boss skipped work with us to go to Shake Shack for lunch; mortifying sex moments were fodder for weekly editorial meetings; higher-ups were frequently invited to weekend parties younger coworkers threw on Brooklyn rooftops. I liked saying provocative things in meetings. I liked being the one person my bosses knew would be up for writing about anything...including attending a tantric sex class and having an affair with a 60-year-old man. But what I wish I had known then is that attention wasn’t sustainable...and may not have done me any favors in the long run.

I got laid off eight years into my career. The reason was more restructuring than anything, but the next two years of freelancing gave me time off from playing that particular office role. And when I finally went back to a full-time job, I knew I needed a whole new workplace attitude.
For one, my circumstances were completely different. I was 16-weeks pregnant. And even though the position was a contract one with no benefits, I knew I wanted to keep my pregnancy under wraps for as long as possible. I wanted my coworkers to get to know my work before they knew my mother-to-be status. So, I kept pretty tight-lipped about my life. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to say hey to coworkers and joke around the water cooler, but in all conversations, I kept my private life off-limits.

And because I was an hourly employee and my contract could be terminated at any moment, I had to construct a professional persona that would show what a valuable asset I was to the company’s bottom line. I began preparing memos before meetings. I made sure to say “hello,” to higher-ups without adding an anecdote about what I did the night before. I made sure my desk was neat, with no personal effects except a pair of heels stowed away in a file cabinet. I made sure that I never made any negative comments over email and that any gossip sessions with coworkers, if they happened at all, were kept behind closed doors or at the coffee stand around the corner.

And a funny thing happened. The longer I acted like “professional Anna” in the office, the more people took me seriously in a way they hadn’t in my earlier office jobs. I’m sure it was partly because I was older, working in a more senior role. I’m sure it was partially because I was working in a more corporate environment. But I also think it was because, for the first time, I consciously constructed a professional persona.

That led me to another hard truth about how I'd been acting in the office.

I hadn't been "authentic," not really. In my twenties, I was so self-conscious about my work and talent that I felt I needed something more. The larger-than-life persona I created was consciously performed to mask my insecurities. For me, being “the quirky one” in the office was a far better choice than being “the invisible one" or, even worse, “the untalented one.” I felt I had to augment my work with a larger-than-life personality...a personality that, in the end, may have done more harm than good.

Now, I’m the new person in a new office. Without the pressure of having to hold on for dear life to a contract gig, I feel I can let down my guard a bit. I share a few anecdotes with coworkers about my weekend; we’ve become friends on Facebook. But for the most part, I keep the focus on my work. At the end of the day, this is an office, not a soundstage. Playing the part of the quirky girl is not part of my job description.

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