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Truth 4 Take Ownership of Your Job Without Stepping on Toes

Forty years ago Robert Ardrey, writing about the "territorial imperative," amazed readers by showing that humans are no less territorial than animals when it comes to staking out our "turf." We may not bite strangers, urinate on streetlamps, or tunefully sing our claims to territory (particularly not in the office), but we do want others to be clear on who we are, what we know, and where our influence lies.

When starting a new job, it's important that you seek out and claim your "territory": the tasks, issues, and decisions you are responsible for and the way in which you do them. However, in proving yourself, you must take care not to step on anyone's toes. This is a time for establishing working relationships with others, not making enemies. In your new job, everyone else will have been there longer than you, and they will have their own views about how things should be done. You need to find a balance between showing them respect and convincing them to cede control to you so that you can make your mark.

A key first step is to get a sense of the organizational culture—the various collective habits that make up the way in which the company operates—and work to fit in with it. Do people chat while they are working, or not? Do they go out to lunch, or do they eat at their desks? Do they visit others when they have a question, or send an e-mail? When you notice how all these little things are done and follow suit, you are less disruptive as a newcomer and less likely to provoke resentment.

Fill your calendar with meetings and conversations when you're new, engaging as many people as possible. Don't expect others to come to you. Introduce yourself, and ask them questions about their roles and opinions on important matters. But wait until you have something concrete to discuss before you ask for time with very busy people so that they don't feel you are wasting their time.

Some toes are more sensitive than others. There are two groups of people around whom you should tread particularly carefully. The first is people who in any way consider your work part of their territory, such as the person who held your job, or who worked up the project, before your arrival. The second group is those directly below you in the hierarchy, who may feel that they know more than you, and maybe even have wanted your job. In both cases, make initial communication as neutral as possible. Ask these people open-ended questions, resisting the temptation to offer your opinion unless asked. Treat them and their opinions with respect. Respecting an opinion does not mean that you have to follow it. You just need to take it into account.

As a newcomer, you should always start from what is already there. Before you change things, listen to others and be gracious. No matter how much of an expert you are, and even if you've been brought in for your talents, you still need to make sure that you keep others in the loop and respect their ways of doing things.

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