Don’t Be a Jerk

The title of this article is obnoxious, but that is the point.  In stressful situations, people tend to behave badly, and that will most certainly limit their professional progression.

Take for example the interview.  Interviews are stressful situations.  You are asked to go to a place that you have never been, and to meet with people you don’t know.  They are also very judgmental.  That’s kind of the point.  They want to see what it would be like to work with you, and a stressful situation like an interview gives them a great deal of insight into your worst behavior.  The key is to keep your composure and to be likable.

While the interview should be about your technical competencies, interviewers are also about interacting with you on a personal level.  They may be asking you about NMR or HPLC techniques, but they are also sizing you up.  They are thinking about whether they would want to work with you for hours on end.  What will it be like to depend on you for part of a group project that could determine the success or failure of their organization?  You will have to demonstrate your ability to work well with others, or at least these particular people.  That means you can’t clam up or become defensive.  A defensive posture can be misinterpreted by your interviewer as standoffish, abrasive, or worse.

Decisions are emotional at their root.  They may be informed by logic and facts, but human beings tend to revert back to primal instincts in making decisions.  The one at the core of the, “Do I like this person, or are they a jerk?” determination is, “Will they hurt me?”  The interviewer’s decision will be based on their level of trust in or fear of you.  In the short amount of time of an interview, trust will likely be determined based on your openness and consistency.

But likeability is important in much more than interviews.  Over 70% of termination decisions are based on a person’s inability to get along with others, or to accommodate organizational culture.  The paperwork probably won’t say as much.  But in reality, if someone messes up and we like them, we are likely to give them a second chance.  If they are a jerk, then disappointing performance may be just the excuse needed for termination.

If you are from Gen Y or a Millennial,  you may not have experienced many people showing good workplace behavior.  Since you were born, popular culture has been dominated by “reality television” where people act badly to dramatic effect.  The worse they act, the further ahead they seem to get.  Please note, that this is not how the real world works, and most of the behaviors exhibited on reality television were egged on by producers seeking salacious moments that could be used to promote viewership and ratings.  So don’t believe it.  Reality television is not real, and reality-show celebrities are not proper role models for social behavior.  If you display these behaviors at work, you are likely to be escorted to the nearest exit.

So how can you show the beautiful person that you really are, instead of coming across as a jerk?  It will probably take practice.  Go to receptions, meetings, any chance to interact with other professionals.  Observe the effects of your actions.  You may find some bad habits you have that stop the conversation short.  Those are bad.  Don’t do that again.  Other actions may cause people to flock to you.  Those are the ones you want.  There will also be actions that fall in between those extremes.  Make a mental note of the good, the bad and the better, and strive for consistent improvement.  Informal meetings centered on topics not related to your job are the best place to start, because it won’t matter if things go badly there.  You can always walk away, and start anew with another group the next day.  Start small before you go big, and set yourself up with some easy wins in the beginning.

The thing to remember is that most people, especially chemists, are good at heart, and they want you to succeed.   The people on the other side of the table are just as likely as you to be miserable during a bad interview.  To avoid the discomfort during a bad interaction, they are likely to throw you a help line.  If you feel yourself sinking, look to them for help .  You can even ask if help is not obvious – ask them to repeat or rephrase the question.  They may be sinking too.

In summary, your interactions with others matter just as much, if not more than, your technical competencies.  You don’t have to be a perfect human being, and you don’t have to be the most popular.  You just need to be likable, communicative and trustworthy.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.

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