How to Move Up the Career Ladder Without Being a Brown-Noser

Jun 24, 2013 -

You’re an ambitious careerist. You work hard, you dream big and you know you’ve got what it takes to get to top of that corporate ladder one day.

The question is: How do you make the climb without alienating everyone around you in the process?

Unfortunately, “ambition” can sometimes be seen as a dirty word, thanks to those people who’ve pursued their own by walking over others, bending the rules and generally exercising questionable tactics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t.

It is possible to make your way up the chain of command without branding yourself as the office jerk—and it’s far better for your career and reputation. Here are some cardinal rules to keep in mind:

Be a rockstar—humbly and graciously

You want to stand out as someone who goes above and beyond, who can be counted on to handle any situation and exceed any expectation with the aplomb of Superman-straight-out-the-phone-booth. But you also don’t want to come across as cocky or self-centered. (If Superman had set Lois Lane down on the ground and said “Rescued you again! How awesome am I?” you can bet the romantic triangle would not be part of the plotline.)

No one wants to promote a narcissist. While an aura of confidence and can-do-ism can take you far, be careful not to dial it up so high you risk coming across as arrogant. If you do good work consistently, your reputation will precede you without the need for fanfare on your part.

Be a little selfish—but also a team player

In some aspects of your career, like salary and benefit negotiation, it’s advisable to be a little selfish. People who keep to themselves and wait for their ship to come in rarely find that it does, while those who swim out to the ship (with a proposal or great new idea in hand) often find themselves setting sail for new waters.

That said, it’s important to be a part of the team while still looking out for number one. Things you should not be selfish about include lending your time to colleagues who are under the gun, staying late if needed to push a big project through and singing “Happy Birthday” to Debbie along with everyone else in the break room, even if you have no idea who Debbie is.

No one works in a vacuum. While it’s true your career success depends largely on your performance, part of that performance stems from how well you play with others. If you’re not willing to pitch in, collaborate and be a team player, it will reflect badly on you as an employee.

Speaking of which…

No backstabbing, under-the-bus-throwing or other forms of colleague sabotage

This should go without saying for Brazen readers; you’re a more integrity-oriented group than to consider any of these actions. But, ambition can make you do stupid things sometimes—and advancing yourself at the cost of another is one of the stupidest things you can do.

Not only does it brand you a horrible person; it also burns bridges you may need to have intact down the line. That intern whose work you took credit for may one day be your executive assistant—and do you really your coffee delivered by someone with a vendetta against you? That colleague you blamed your bad numbers on could one day surpass you on the ladder or wind up as your fellow board member, and you could find yourself working with (or for!) someone who doesn’t trust or like you—personally or professionally.

You know you’re better than that. If you’ve got the skills and the work ethic needed to get ahead, stealth and sabotage are wholly unnecessary. DVR a few episodes of Desperate Housewives to get your drama fix, and keep your head high.

Absolutely no sucking up

Nobody likes a suck-up—colleagues and bosses included.

That’s right; you may think that flattering and fawning over your superiors will earn you brownie points, but in most cases, it just makes you look bad. Brown-nosers give off the impression they’re trying to compensate for something (lack of skills, perhaps?), and that air of desperation and self-doubt does not bode well for a promotion. It also puts you in a position of subservience, which is never how you want to be perceived if you’re aiming for higher positions.

If you want to make favorable connections with your officemates (and connections can certainly help a ladder climb), try healthy networking alternatives like taking a colleague out to lunch or asking the boss how his family is doing. Being friendly, genuine and interested earns far more brownie points than telling your boss for the millionth time that her hair looks fantastic today.

Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.