Stand out from the crowd (without making enemies)

Every month Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


Stand out from the crowd (without making enemies)


The blunt truth is that it pays to stand out from your colleagues. But it’s also scarily easy to get it wrong.

Luckily, a few key principles of psychology can help you up the ladder without alienating everyone else.


The first thing to remember is that standing out will probably take less effort than you think. The second crucial point: the most obvious ways to impress usually aren’t the most effective. Unless it’s explicitly part of your job, fetching the boss’s coffee without being asked will just seem sycophantic. If you’re more senior, dominating every meeting will make you look obnoxious, not confident.

And beware advice on improving your ‘personal brand’: people can usually tell when you’re cynically trying to appear impressive, rather than being impressive. Focus on being genuinely helpful.


Instead of making the occasional grand gesture, focus on developing what business coach Jeff Olson calls ‘the slight edge’: small habits, consistently applied, that will gradually lift you above the crowd. Identify one process or project that regularly gives your manager a headache, and become the person who makes it run smoothly.

Be the colleague who reliably meets deadlines (a better tactic than being sometimes super-fast, but unreliable) or who brings one thoughtful idea to every meeting.

The old advice to ‘work harder than everyone else’ isn’t wrong, but the trick is to focus that work on small improvements that matter, rather than burning out on busywork that no-one notices.


1. Don’t be too shy to self-promote: Constant boasting about your achievements is off-putting – but many people err too far in the other direction. A quick, low-key email to your boss can be framed as an ‘update’, not bragging – while still letting it be known what you’ve done.

2. Remember the ‘Ben Franklin effect’: Named after the US politician and inventor who described it, this is a surprising way to become more popular: ask people to do you favours, as opposed to vice versa. We want to feel like the people we help are deserving – so we’re naturally inclined to start liking the people we’ve helped.

3. Just ask: Making an impact at work needn’t be a mind-game, in which you’re always having to guess what those higher up the hierarchy think your organisation needs most. Most managers will be relieved you asked – and you’ll save yourself plenty of wasted effort. 

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock



Enable referrer and click cookie to search for eefc48a8bf715c1b ad9bf81e74a9d264 [] 2.7.22