In The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, Charles Murray offers a curmudgeon’s perspective on recent college graduates and newer employees starting out in their careers, evaluating their word choice, conduct, and dress with critical eyes. Why? Because most of the people in more senior positions, whose favor younger employees need to win, Murray says, are closet curmudgeons. They may put on a pleasant demeanor, but they are secretly judging your every move. So knowing how curmudgeons perceive you is essential to getting ahead.
In the short quiz below, Mr. Murray helps you to assess your workplace IQ, as seen through the eyes of a company curmudgeon.
Choose the response that you think would be most likely to reflect that of a curmudgeon.
1. It’s your first day of work. When you meet your supervisor, Mr. Smith, for the first time, he reaches out his hand and says, “Call me Bill.” How do you respond?
A. You say “Sure, Bill.”
B. You say, “Sure,” but then unobtrusively continue to refer to him as Mr. Smith.
C. You avoid using his name at all until you know what he really prefers.
2. A manager writes you an email stating that he or she will be 20 minutes late to the meeting you have scheduled for this afternoon. How should you respond?
A. Thank you for letting me know. I’ll see you this afternoon.
B. No problem. I’ll see you this afternoon.
C. Thanks for sharing. I’ll see you this afternoon.
3. You’re in a meeting with your boss discussing ideas for an upcoming project. You have an idea that goes against the grain of the discussion. What should you do?
A. Remain quiet, and agree with your supervisor’s ideas.
B. Express your different opinion politely but don’t insist on it.
C. Express your different opinion, forcefully demonstrating that you’ve done your homework and aren’t afraid to assert yourself.
4. You are given a challenging assignment that is due to your boss in two days, in addition to juggling the other things you are working on. What do you do?
A. You put enough effort into it to get it done adequately on time.
B. You work hard to do the job well as you can, but it takes longer than you expected, so you are a day late. You explain why.
C. You work hard to do the job as well as you can, but get it in on time no matter what. You don’t mention that you stayed late both evenings.
5. You work for one of the most highly regarded women in your industry but her behavior is often crude, controlling, ill-tempered, and offensive. How do you react?
A. You continue to work hard but in your spare time look for a new job and quit as soon as you get a new offer elsewhere.
B. You stick it out. Your boss is an industry legend at her job, and you can learn a lot from her.
C. Quit immediately. Life is too short to be miserable all the time.
1. Answer: B
It’s a no-lose proposition. If Mr. Smith really likes being called Bill by new employees, it will give him a chance to say so and show what a nice guy he is. If Bill is a closet curmudgeon, his opinion of you will rise. Another consideration is this: If you start out your relationship with a highly successful older person on a “Mr.” or “Ms.” basis, you can look forward to a satisfying moment down the road: At some point, when you have proved yourself, Mr. Smith is going to say to you, “I think it’s time you called me Bill.” The pleasure of that moment is inestimable.
2. Answer: A
In every era, novel ways of saying something get picked up, and soon thereafter what was once evocative becomes stale. People don’t just tell people things anymore. They share them. Sharing can be appropriate when someone reveals something very personal about themselves, but in this instance, “thank you for sharing” comes off as sappy. And no problem can come across as overly flip and casual to the closet curmudgeon.
3. Answer: B
Senior people in any organization are usually self-confident and good judges of people. If they recognize that you are sucking up to them they’ll disdain you for it. It’s much better to work hard and express yourself confidently in all that you do. No one got to their prominent positions by faking it. If you find yourself in an organization where sucking up is in fact a good way to get ahead, look for a new job. No matter how glittering its public reputation may be, life is too short to work there.
4. Answer: C
If you are indeed working in a purposeful organization run by good people, working hard will get you noticed. Rising in an organization doesn’t require breaks if you are competent and work hard enough. The secret you should remember is: few people work nearly as hard as they could. The few who do, have it made.
5. Answer: B
How you react depends on how good your boss is professionally. When they are very good at doing something that you want to become good at, stay on the job. The best of all possible ways to improve your professional skills is to be around such a person. While it might be a pain to work for that individual, working as her assistant will ultimately be invaluable experience. The less spectacularly talented your boss is, the less reason you have to stay.