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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

3 Stealthy Ways to Make Sure You Have the Upper Hand at Work

In your personal life, you probably try to keep your relationships and friendships fairly equal.

But when it comes to your job, and your relationship with what may be a large, powerful company, equality seems impossible. How can you have an equal—or at least more equal—relationship with the company that’s literally the source of all the money you use to purchase food and shelter?

It’s not great to feel beholden to a boss. Sure, things might be fine now, but what happens when you get a new, terrible manager? What happens when they move your office into a supply closet? Most employees have no bargaining chips.

Don’t spend your days feeling put-upon and powerless.

It’s up to you, the less equal party, to take pains to equalize that relationship.

1. Make Money for Them (More Than They Pay You)

One of the easiest ways to secure your job—and make your boss a little scared that a competitor is going to poach you—is to make a lot of money for the company.

This, of course, is also a great way to get a raise: Generate revenue, and then ask for some of it.

This can be easier in startups where everybody does a little of everything, and where someone who takes an interest in sales and the company’s profitability might easily be granted access to the company’s numbers and opportunities to generate revenue directly. In a position where I developed GRE curricula and wrote test prep books, I also did direct sales—teaching trial GRE classes that convinced people to sign up for the real thing. Showing skill and enthusiasm for sales didn’t mean I had to become a full-time salesperson or sacrifice the more fulfilling aspects of my job.

Of course, this is not possible in every job. But try to make it possible. Even if your job is teaching orphans abroad for a nonprofit—a seemingly non-money-making position—you could go above and beyond to produce the kind of collateral (pictures of cute kids, letters from cute kids, etc.) that brings in donations.

Concurrently, work to gain responsibility such that you can actually know how much money your activities are generating.

Whether you end up an MVP at your current position or job-hunting in the near future, you’ll find that these skills are highly portable to a new job—and in many fields nothing sells your services better than empirical evidence that whoever hires you will make a hefty profit from doing so.

2. Don’t Be Dependent on Your Job

Making money for your company helps to even the score by making the company dependent on you, just as you are dependent on it.

We can attack this from another angle, though. What if your immediate supervisor doesn’t really care about the company’s profitability, or your workplace is embroiled in petty personal disputes?

One way to stay above it all is to have your rent covered, even if you have to walk out of that job tomorrow to preserve your dignity. Of course, an emergency fund is important—ideally, at least three months’ salary in the bank. (Easier said than done, I know! Try this for tips.)

But what if your alternate source of revenue were actually sustainable?

I have long advocated that everyone develop multiple income streams, possibly including investments, side hustles, consulting, digital products for sale, royalties, or a more growth-focused business that eventually becomes your main hustle. (Note: It’s fine to secure your main income stream before branching out.)

Relatedly, I suggest everyone keep an entrepreneurial plan in her back pocket. Even if you have no interest right now in being an entrepreneur, well—if you’re going to be in the working world for 40 more years, chances are there will come a time when you’ll have to be entrepreneurial. You’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime idea, or the people around you will be so incompetent you’ll know you can do better on your own. Entrepreneurship is simply part of the modern career lifecycle.

Take some classes on startups, join a coding workshop, attend meetings of entrepreneurship and angel investing groups. Expand your network and your knowledge, and keep some ideas—just on a napkin is fine.

Having that entrepreneurial plan in your back pocket can make you a tougher negotiator, whether you tell anyone about it or not—why would you agree to stay at a job that underpays you when you could go out and win market share on your own? Or maybe it just keeps you from taking bullshit from people, since you know you don’t need the company, or your jerk co-workers. If you left the company, you’d have plenty of options.

3. Make Sure You Don’t Act Dependent, Either

In the words of Dr. Strangelove, “Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

If you’re networking three nights a week and conspiring over lunch about your future startup, you may not look like a team player. This is about interacting with your company on a peer level, not being egotistical or alienating everyone.

You don’t want to look like you have one foot out the door, or like you’re hunting for a job. But you do want to look like someone who probably gets approached by other companies, even when you’re not looking. Someone so capable and amazing that word just gets out.

I worked for a company where clients regularly approached me and asked to work one-on-one, under the table. I always declined, and instead mentioned it to the CEO as a business opportunity, and suggested ways we could encourage clients to buy more services through official channels. This was not only the right thing to do, it also brought to the boss’ attention how much business I was attracting.

There are lots of ways to become well-known in your field that don’t conflict with your job—join an industry association or a mentoring organization, and volunteer for some official duty. Offer to write them some blog posts. Or get involved in charity work, or join a sports league, where you know you’ll meet others in your field.

Don’t go and totally revamp your LinkedIn profile—that’ll make it look like you’re job-hunting. But one way to look like a superstar, without making anyone suspicious, is to get a shiny new testimonial every now and then.

Sometimes, it’s perfectly appropriate to simply ask someone to leave you a testimonial. However, a more subtle way of doing so is to leave them a testimonial; most people will return the favor. Soon, your LinkedIn page is looking very persuasive, even though you have apparently done nothing (except approve other people’s endorsements of you).

You don’t have to hard-bargain or brag about yourself to send the message that you’re a superstar performer who would be an asset to any company—and you know it, but you’re cool about it, because you’re such a good colleague.

It may seem that being a “peer” with a company isn’t possible, but I think it is. You’ve reached a healthy equilibrium when you like your job, but you don’t need your job, and you’d never debase yourself to keep it. Instead, you’re a valued professional, currently working with a company to your mutual benefit, for as long as it works for both of you.

Photo of card game courtesy of Shutterstock.