Careers

6 science-backed ways to get ahead

Jack McBrayer as the pure-of-heart Kenneth Parcell on "30Rock."
Ali Goldstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank | Getty Images
Jack McBrayer as the pure-of-heart Kenneth Parcell on "30Rock."

Blogger Eric Barker is on a quest to master the science of success: What factors determine it, how is it achieved and why is it still so deeply misunderstood?

In "Barking Up the Wrong Tree," released this month, Barker explores the reasons that valedictorians don't become millionaires, what pirates and serial killers have to teach us about cooperation and how to finally achieve work-life balance using tips from Genghis Khan.

"I've had a very unconventional career," Barker tells CNBC, "so I had always wondered about these maxims of success."

In the excerpt below, adapted from a chapter titled "Do nice guys finish last?" Barker lays out a set of rules to adopt "so we know how to be ethical and successful — but not a chump."

Rule 1: Pick the right pond

When I asked Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, for the best piece of advice he gives to his students, he said this:

When you take a job take a long look at the people you're going to be working with —because the odds are you're going to become like them; they are not going to become like you. You can't change them. If it doesn't fit who you are, it's not going to work.

Bad work environments can make you a bad person and can make you unhappy. Luckily, the influence of context works both ways. When we see others around us perform altruistic acts, we're more likely to act altruistically ourselves.

Eric Barker
Photo credit: Michael Goode
Eric Barker

Picking the right pond can even help you get the benefits jerks get. Kissing your boss' ass isn't immoral or unsavory if the boss is someone you actually respect. At that next job interview find out who you will be reporting to. Ask to speak to that person and do some research on them. Studies show that your boss has a much larger affect on your happiness and success than the company at large.

Rule 2: Cooperate first

Robert Cialdini says that being the first to offer help is key to engendering a feeling of reciprocity, which is one of the cornerstones of persuasion and ingratiation.

When Harvard Business School's Deepak Malhotra teaches negotiation, the first thing he says isn't "Be tough" or "Show the other side you mean business." His number-one recommendation to students is "They need to like you."

This doesn't mean you need to give 20-dollar bills to everyone you meet. Favors can be quite small. We also often forget that something quite easy for us (a 30-second email introduction) can have enormous payoffs for others (a new job). Go ahead and send that new inmate a gift basket. When the knives come out in the prison yard you'll have a lot more people watching your back.

Rule 3: Being selfless isn't saintly, it's silly

Trusting others works better in general, but like Don Johnson at the blackjack table, having the edge doesn't mean you'll win every hand. You can't predict how successful cooperating will be for any specific interaction, but you'll win more than you lose.

It's just human nature that when people do too much and don't ever push back, they get taken for granted. So if you're not a total saint, it's okay; being a saint is actually a very poor strategy for getting ahead. (Don't you feel better now?)

Also, as Adam Grant acknowledged, giving too much can lead to burnout. A mere two hours a week of helping others is enough to get maximum benefits, so there's no need for guilt or for martyring yourself — and no excuse for saying you don't have time to help others.

Rule 4: Work hard — but make sure it gets noticed

What lessons can you take from the jerks without becoming a jerk? A common trend through the research was that jerks aren't afraid to push a little. They self-promote. They negotiate. They make themselves visible. This can be done without being a jerk. Maybe you won't gain everything the jerks get, but you can benefit from putting yourself out there — and without losing your soul.

You do need to be visible. Your boss does need to like you. This is not proof of a heartless world; it's just human nature. Hard work doesn't pay off if your boss doesn't know whom to reward for it.

So what's a good balance? Every Friday send your boss an email summarizing your accomplishments for the week — nothing fancy, but quickly relating the good work you're doing. You might think they know what you're up to, but they're busy. They'll appreciate it and begin to associate you with the good things they're hearing (from you, of course).

And when it's time to negotiate for that raise (or to refresh your resume), you can just review the emails for a reminder of why exactly you're such a good employee.

Rule 5: Think long-term and make others thing long-term

Remember, bad behavior is strong in the short-term but good behavior wins over in the long-term. So to the best of your ability, make things longer-term. Build more steps into the contract. Entice others with ways you can help them down the line.

The more things seem like a one-off, the more incentive people have to pull one over on you. The more interactions or friends you have in common with other people, and the more likely you are to encounter them again, the more it makes sense for these people to treat you well.

It's why medieval kings married their sons and daughters off to the children of other royals. Now we're family. We're going to have grandchildren in common. We're going to have to play nice.

Rule 6: Forgive

Life is noisy and complex, and we don't have perfect information about others and their motives.

Writing people off can be due just to a lack of clarity. Face it: you can't even always trust yourself. You say you're on a diet, then someone brings donuts to work and you blow it. Does that mean you're a bad person and you should never trust yourself again? Of course not.

That means giving second chances. You're not perfect, others aren't perfect, and sometime people get confused.

From Barking Up The Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Copyright © 2017 by Eric Barker. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.