The Five Unspoken Rules of Today’s Workplace

We live in unprecedented times, especially when it comes to our careers. Technology, the economy, and globalization have created constant and rapid change. Long ago, companies banked on the fact that if our parents and grandparents had been customers, we would be too. Tradition, loyalty, and reliability were the competitive edge. Now what matters is whether you’re seen as innovative, unique, and “trending.” Who needs a TV that lasts for twenty years when the technology that powers it will be obsolete in eighteen months? The same can be said of employees in today’s workplace.

Gone are the days of employer loyalty and gold retirement watches. Companies have adopted layoffs, reorgs, leader changes, and strategy shifts as a way of doing business. But there’s a silver lining to this tumultuous employer-employee relationship: it opens up opportunities for us to play the field a bit, to diversify our skills, gain new experiences, and qualify for jobs based more on talent than time in service. And the first step in learning to thrive in this environment is to understand the new, unspoken rules of today’s workplace.

 New Rule #1: Think Like a Businessperson, Not Like a Student

No matter what generation we hail from, a lot of us show up in the workplace like students. We’re waiting to be taken care of by the powers that be, for someone to make decisions and map out our futures. We spend eighteen to thirty years, sometimes more, in school and are then unleashed into the workplace entirely ill-equipped to think like businesspeople.

Think about it. If you get good grades in eleventh grade, what are you guaranteed? A spot in twelfth grade. There’s no, “Hey, it’s tough out there. There are only a few twelfth-grade spots. The competition is stiff, so bring your best.” Promotion is guaranteed.

women tend to make better bosses

But business isn’t like school. You’re getting paid to help a company succeed. That means they don’t owe you a mapped-out career path. They don’t owe you promotions and raises. They don’t owe you anything other than the negotiated rate for your services.

When it comes to anything you want from a company—a promotion, new assignment, or raise—you need to view what you’re asking for as a business trade. You should have a solid rationale for what you’re trying to get from the company, and you’d better make sure there’s something in it for them. “I’m a hard worker and I deserve it” needs to be permanently blotted from your vocabulary. You need to steep yourself in a “Here’s how my idea can help you” approach instead.

 New Rule #2: Focus on Building Your Brand Instead of Collecting Titles

When I teach a class or workshop, one of the first questions people ask is how they can get a promotion to that elusive title just above their own. But vice president, lead supervisor, senior manager, head mechanic—these are titles that a million other people hold. Your title gives me a sense of what you do but no idea how you do it or, more importantly, how well you do it. That’s why you need to focus on your brand.

Need some convincing? What creates a more lasting impression: “Coffee” or “Starbucks”? “Car” or “Ferrari”? “Talk show host” or “Oprah”? To stand out from the competition, you need people to “get” your brand, whether you’re an administrative assistant, plumber, or executive.

Titles have their place and show where you sit within an organization. But they’re only a small piece of what people use to get a sense of who you are. If you think like a businessperson—no matter where you decide to work or set up shop—you’ll realize that building your brand is part of the customer service you should be providing to every person you work with.

 New Rule #3: Choose to Weave a Web vs. Climb the Ladder

Many companies treat moving into management as the normal evolution for anyone who is good at a job and motivated for success. But most companies provide little training on how to be an effective people manager. Employees everywhere accept these critical roles for the extra pay and the symbolism of moving up a rung on the ladder—only to end up winging it. They’re often miserable in their new positions, and they can make everyone around them miserable, too.

Before accepting any leadership position, take a good, hard look at your passions and goals in life. Does this new role align with your purpose? Are you comfortable affecting others’ careers and livelihoods?

Try not to get obsessed with the climb up the ladder. Instead, focus on weaving a web of experiences. Even high-level executives are assessed for the totality of their careers, which include lateral moves and sometimes smaller roles that afford unique opportunities. In the end, it’s the depth and variety of their experiences rather than how quickly they shot up the ladder that matters. In fact, climbing up the ladder too fast can be a red flag—and a sign a person may not be seasoned enough or is too interested in the title as a trophy.

 New Rule #4: Perform Like a Consultant, Not Like an Employee

In the workplace, employees see hierarchy as either their parent or their enemy. They either ask for permission from authority or push against it. But consultants have to hunt for their food, which makes their working dynamic completely different.

Consultants don’t ask for permission, and they don’t fight their clients. Unlike employees, consultants can’t just show up and be obedient. They’re expected to elevate the conversation, partner with the business, and help them see or do something a company wouldn’t have on its own. If they don’t, they’re cut loose from a contract or don’t get a callback. End of story.

When you put yourself in the mindset of a consultant, something surprising happens: the playing field suddenly evens out. Instead of seeing people as above or beneath you, you’ll see every person as a potential client. Someone’s title will no longer pit you against them or automatically align you with them. Instead, titles will simply give you clues as to what problems you might be able to help people with.

I dare you to start viewing your boss or manager as your client. I double-dog dare you to view your direct reports and coworkers as clients. This one shift will dissolve most of the issues you’ll experience on the job. Few people show up as their best selves when identifying as employees. But they do as consultants.

 New Rule #5: Build Relationships, Not Networks

Networking with people seems easy to do in a world of social media, with thousands of people “liking” that photo you just posted of yourself at the gym or your kid hitting a grand slam. But networking by itself doesn’t do anything for you. It doesn’t automatically make things happen. This is true no matter who you are—whether you’re leading a corporation or working the front line. For your network to work on your behalf, the relationships in it need to be strong, authentic, and well-fed.

Everyone may know you, and most people may even like you, but will they go to bat for you? Will they recommend you to others? Building relationships is a two-way street. Ask yourself: Do you help other people look good? Do you perform reliably? Can you be trusted to deliver in unpredictable situations? If not, why would anyone with credibility hang his or her reputation on yours?

Once you understand that business relationships last a lot longer than any of the work you might be doing with people, you’ll be more thoughtful about connecting with others. And as you connect, you’ll see their concerns, fears, hopes, and joys. When you understand you are surrounded with unique human beings, it’s hard for genuine relationships not to develop naturally. And in the end, it’s those real relationships that will help you fulfill your purpose and build your ideal career.

This guest post was authored by H.V. McArthur

Ms. McArthur brings over 20 years’ experience in helping employees blaze fulfilling career paths in an ever-changing work landscape. From serving in the military to carving out her role as a coach and consultant for Fortune 500 companies, MacArthur has built her expertise from hard-fought career choices. In her new book, Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius (2018), she helps people from all walks of life—from C-suite leaders to employees on the factory floor—learn to identify their unique callings and find their greatness. Learn more at


Getting Ahead in Today’s Workplace

In her new book, Low Man on the Totem Pole: Stop Begging for a Promotion, Start Selling Your Genius (2018), H.V. MacArthur offers real-world, tough-love examples and groundbreaking strategies that will help anyone carve out a fulfilling career. Learn:

  • How viewing yourself as the business owner—and your employer as the client—dramatically resets the employer-employee power dynamic
  • How to tap into your purpose on the planet, or your “POP,” to reveal your true career calling
  • Why we need to stop climbing the corporate ladder and start building a web
  • How to view change as a skill, instead of an event
  • Why even the most skilled among us overvalue what we do best
  • The top 10 tips that turn résumés and interviews into success
  • How to fix everything that’s wrong with employee performance management

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.