Knowledge is power, especially in the workplace. If you want knowledge of what is going on around you, you could try reading your boss’s e-mails, blackmailing a well-placed administrator, or plying your colleagues with stupendous amounts of tongue-loosening alcohol. Or you could just remember to be two specific things.
Some time ago I was working in a pleasant office in which everyone seemed to get along. One day one of my colleagues — let’s call her “Yuki” — came to me with an idea for a new project. It sounded great, and I wanted to participate. But, unknown to Yuki and most of the rest of the office, I was getting ready to move on. I was actively seeking a new position, and deep into the interview process elsewhere. While I was genuinely interested in Yuki’s project, I felt I couldn’t offer to get involved without making it clear that I might not be around for its conclusion.
I didn’t know Yuki that well, but I trusted her; she was pleasant and reliable and treated everyone courteously. So I decided to bring her into my confidence and tell her about the impending likely move. She was surprised, and gratifyingly sorry to learn I might leave, but she also still thought I might be able to contribute to the project. We talked about how we might make this happen, and in the course of our conversation Yuki demonstrated a remarkable and previously unsuspected knowledge of office politics. As we talked about how one of our colleagues might have to obtain additional funding, and how a specific manager would probably have to approve certain aspects of the project, Yuki revealed that this person had had a big fight with that person, and that this other person didn’t get along with that other person . . . Everything I heard was relevant to the success of the project, and I had been completely unaware of any of it.
It all certainly made me curious, and I asked for more details about specific office relationships, which Yuki graciously supplied. I felt as if I were seeing my office in three dimensions for the first time. Slightly in awe of Yuki’s information-gathering abilities, I asked her how she could know so much. At first she pointed out that, in her position, people both up and down the office hierarchy had to come to her to talk about activity in the office, and often they ended up talking about more. When I said I couldn’t believe that accounted for everything she had just told me, she added, “Yes, that’s true. For the other stuff, sometimes I just ask.”
By example, Yuki had just divulged the two secrets of office awareness: be trustworthy, but be curious, too. Often the two don’t go together. People often are trusted because they seem taciturn and unlikely to give up secrets, but those who are that quiet are usually too quiet (out of shyness or politeness, perhaps) to ask their colleagues about specific people or events. Those who are actively curious about such events, though, sometimes come across nosy, or, worse, a gossip, to whom telling secrets is even more fun than hearing them. But there is a sweet spot from which you can ask pertinent questions and get frank answers, because real trustworthiness and healthy curiosity both arise from the same place: respect. If you can cultivate a genuine respect for your co-workers — the kind of respect that sees them as fellow humans, about whom you would naturally want to find out more — then you will be perceived as trustworthy, and your appropriately curious requests for more information will often get you that information.
I was slightly in awe of Yuki when I left her office, marveling at her effective use of both trustworthiness and curiosity, when it struck me: I had just used the same tools! I had always respected Yuki, and treated her decently, so that when I initiated additional conversation about the new project, she was open to talk; and when I wanted to know more than she had presented on her own, I simply asked for more details. And it had worked! And I was much more well equipped for that particular office’s politics. Too bad I was getting ready to leave.
While you still can, be trustworthy, and be curious, and you too will discover amazing results.