Want to Get Ahead at Work? Be a Mindreader

NBC via Getty Images Looking to get ahead in your career? Then try this. At work, think of yourself like a CIA agent: Gather intelligence wherever and whenever you can, and get inside the mind of your boss.

I’m not talking about feeding the gossip machine that most workplaces are. But gathering as much information as you can about what your boss is thinking and working on can only make you a better employee, and help you on the job.

Here are a few sneaky ways you can pick up that intel and stay a step ahead of your peers:

Learn to Read Upside Down

What’s on your boss’ desk? What’s he working on today? This can be a great clue as to what he’s thinking about, and perhaps tip you off to your company’s next big project.

I learned to read upside down. There were many times I talked to my boss while standing in front of his desk. Sometimes he’d be looking at me. Other times, he’d be multitasking, checking email, and doing a host of other tasks as we spoke. I never failed scan his desk while waiting for his full attention.

A person’s desk is a glimpse into their world. If something is visible on it, it likely relates to their current hot-button issues. By using that fact, not only will you be helping yourself, but you’ll also be helping your boss. Is there a project that he’s struggling with? Maybe you can help — and earn a feather in your cap. Like GI Joe always said, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Does Your Boss Blog or Tweet?

I once had a boss who considered himself a strategic thinker in our industry. My coworkers considered him a little crazy. Whether either of those opinions were true or not is another issue. But he had a blog where he would share his grandiose ideas, and I regularly read it. That meant I knew what was on his mind and what direction he wanted to take us, which gave me a leg up on my coworkers. I went to meetings ready to discuss the topics he thought were important. I was never caught by surprise.

You don’t have to agree with all of your manager’s ideas, or even comment on them. But if you have a boss who posts his thoughts on social media, taking advantage of that is an easy way to find out what’s in his head before he gets around to telling his staff.

Napkins and Whiteboards: How Does Your Boss Think?

How does your boss think? How does he absorb information? Is he a visual learner? Is he always writing ideas on a whiteboard? I had another boss who was a real visual learner. He loved “mind maps” and diagramming ideas on the whiteboard in his office. I made it a habit to look around his office anytime I was in it.

It’s true what they say: We all learn differently. If your boss writes his brilliant ideas down on a napkin at lunch, take note. If he diagrams things on a whiteboard, pay attention. If he dictates his strategy to the group over email, you should save those messages.

Understand how your boss thinks and communicates, and you can adapt to meet his expectations.

Equally important is understanding your manager’s strengths and weaknesses — because recognizing them will allow you to help him compensate for his weakness and blind spots.

A Word of Caution

Remember that you gather intelligence on your boss at your own risk though. Like a “Mission: Impossible” agent, you’ll potentially be disavowed and disowned if you’re caught using some of these methods.

It often depends on your relationship with your boss. Would he be upset if he caught you reading notes from his desk or whiteboards when he wasn’t looking? Would he view it as an invasion of his privacy? You have to balance the risks versus the rewards.

In the end, though, it’s often not what you know or who you know. It’s what you know about who you know.

Do you gather intelligence at the office? Do you think it’s unethical to read the notes on your boss’ desk, his blog, or his whiteboard in his office? Does it matter if it helps you get ahead at work?

Hank Coleman is a financial planner and the publisher of the popular personal finance blog Money Q&A, where he answers readers’ tough money questions. Follow him on Twitter @MoneyQandA.

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