Before you think this article is one you perhaps shouldn’t be reading as a government professional, let me define office mushrooms for you. I’m not talking about the fungus, but rather the saying about how some companies treat their employees – keeping them in the dark and feeding them garbage.
It’s a good way to grow mushrooms both in and out of the office and it won’t foster creativity, new ideas, or promote and advance your career. Unfortunately, much of the defense industry still lives in a “need to know” versus “right to know” culture. Defense organizations can also be very hierarchical – with those at the top thinking they have a need or right to keep information away from lower-level staff. If you’re an employee who finds him or herself in this situation, it’s not hopeless. But the quicker you get yourself on the path to information versus living in a dark corner, the better your career progression will be.
1. Attend the meetings. First caveat – I hate meetings. I believe most organizations could cancel half of all meetings and be better off for it. I also think there should be rules about meetings – including time limits of 15 minutes and bulleted agendas that are sent out before the meeting. But I digress – meetings are the language of the defense industry (ask anyone who’s worked at the Pentagon) so if you’re like me and hate meetings, and haven’t attended one since 1992, well, there’s a good reason you’re out of the loop. You don’t need to attend every request you get for a SITREP (Situational Report), but you probably need to attend a few.
2. Ask questions. Many people assume they’ll be told when something important happens in the company. Not necessarily. In some cases your boss may be trying to keep you in in the dark, in many instances, you just haven’t asked the question. Don’t ask so many questions that you remind people of their annoying younger siblings on a family vacation, but be known as the person who asks the smart questions, at the right time (and probably in some kind of meeting).
3. Don’t participate in office gossip. Wonder why no one trusts you with the important updates? Well, if you’re known as the person who will be sitting around the coffee pot talking about it with anyone who will listen two minutes later, no one will want to confide details with you. An increasing number of companies are splitting off internally into different business centers – many of these in direct competition with one another. So company information isn’t always shareable within the same company. Discretion is a key trait for the security-cleared professional, in particular – be known as the person in the office who can keep a secret.
4. Push for collaboration. Stovepipes still reign in many government and defense industry offices. While collaboration is to the mutual benefit of many individuals, there’s still a tendency to want to “own” the project, and its possible success. Be the person who emulates collaboration and team, and lead this effort yourself with your own projects or within your own sphere of influence.
5. Be informed about your industry. Your professional development isn’t your boss’ responsibility – it’s yours. Take the time to stay informed on industry news and developments. Know what’s happening in your field and keep up-to-date on new developments related to your company. This information is easily accessible, so take advantage.
6. Don’t assume they’ll fire you if they don’t want you. Remember that guy in Office Space, who clung to his stapler as his office slowly moved, until he was in the boiler room? Well, that could be you. It has been a long-held belief in the defense and intelligence communities that sometimes it’s easier to ostracize someone than it is to fire them – and so they’ll be transferred or their office will move but they never seem to get laid off. Perhaps they “know too much” about the company or maybe their supervisor is just too lazy to go to the administrative trouble. Even in this economy, you do not want to be that guy. If lay-offs do come you’ll be the first to go, and your future job prospects will be dim if you’ve spent your last five years in a closet.
We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again – you are your own best career advocate. If you want to move from office legume to beautiful flower, you’ll have to do the work, ask the right questions and get educated on office procedures. The work is worth it, however, and your career will thank you later.
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