The workplace isn’t a level playing field for a number of reasons. When you aren’t in a position of privilege, how do you get ahead and score that coveted promotion? According to Harvard career coach Gorick Ng, it’s all about knowing the unspoken rules for success.
Keeping your head down will only get you so far, Ng believes. What sets the rising stars apart from the stagnant are the relationships they build, the impact they make, and their clear desire to understand their manager’s objectives even when they aren’t made overtly explicit.
Ng shares tips for how to make your mark in the workplace and achieve your professional growth goals.
GORICK NG: How is it that people really get promoted? As the son of a working-class single mother and a first-generation college student, I was always told that it's all about putting my head down, doing the hard work, and letting my hard work speak for itself.
It didn't occur to me until I entered into these elite professional spaces that doing your hard work is part of the equation, but it's not going to be enough if you want to get ahead and build a fulfilling career for yourself. It's not about following the spoken rules and the written rules. It's about understanding what's unspoken, the hidden expectations that your managers never tell you.
My name is Gorick Ng. I'm a career advisor at Harvard, a member of the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "The Unspoken Rules, secrets of starting your career off right. Unspoken rules are certain ways of doing things that are beyond your job description that you need to know if you want to get ahead and get promoted. And they're what high performers do that they may not even realize.
When I entered the workforce for the first time, it felt as if I had brought a baseball bat to a hockey game. I was swinging and swinging and swinging, trying hard, but realizing that I was playing a very different game from everybody else. I was being useful, but not impactful. I was putting my head down, doing my hard work, expecting to receive more important responsibilities, not realizing that my coworkers, for example, were certainly doing the hard work, but they were building relationships and putting themselves out there. They were being seen, heard, remembered, and ultimately rewarded.
And it was this observation that led to me realizing that there are insiders and there are outsiders. Insiders are those who have siblings, mentors, parents who've come before them, who can hand down some of these unspoken rules informally over the dinner table. Meanwhile, there are outsiders who don't know a soul in this new environment and who end up having to navigate these hidden expectations, often through trial and error.
When I was first starting out, I saw a pattern. I saw some people getting promoted, ending up taking on more important responsibilities. Meanwhile, there were others from under-resourced or underrepresented backgrounds who were struggling and ultimately quitting long before they even had a chance to prove themselves.
The workplace is not a level playing field. If you feel like an outsider and you're feeling uncertain about what the expectations are going into a new job, unspoken rules can start bubbling to the surface. There are going to be hidden opportunities all around you to speak up, to get yourself invited to a meeting, to build a new relationship, to ask a question. These are all things that take a discerning eye to identify. These unspoken rules are really hidden doors around your workplace where you can unlock opportunity and put yourself on the path to building a fulfilling career.
Knowing the hidden expectations of your new work environment can mean the difference between pulling late nights like I did, doing the wrong work and having to redo all of it again, and doing it once and doing it well. It can mean the difference between being seen and recognized by the higher ups and being plucked for a high profile opportunity and putting your head down waiting for that promotion that may never come.
The key to mastering the unspoken rules is to navigate the hidden expectations of your new role. Over the course of a typical work day, you'll be bombarded with task upon task upon task. And many people will see these as items to check off a to-do list and to toss back over the fence to a coworker or to a manager. But those who take ownership clarify four things: Why, What, How, and By When.
Why is this being assigned in the first place? What's the broader objective? What is the deliverable? Are you looking for bullet points in an email? Are you looking for a 10-page memo? How do you expect me to do this? Do you expect me to give you a long brainstorm? Do you expect me to go on the internet and look for some options? Do you expect me to solicit feedback from several coworkers? By when do we need to get this done? And in the workplace, every time there's a formal deadline, there's actually an unspoken hidden deadline. So asking these questions, why, what, how, by when, can mean the difference between doing the right job, doing it the right way, and doing it on time, and not.
As nerve-wracking as it can feel to be an other or to be an outsider, it's also a strength. You're bringing lived experience, you're bringing a perspective, you're bringing ideas that other people may not have thought about before. What may be uncomfortable to you is actually what this organization, this team, your teammates desperately need. This isn't just about thriving, it's about contributing, and it's about making an impact.