How I Overcame Being a Corporate Robot

It all seemed so simple: act professional and get you work done.  As a new employee starting out in Corporate America, this, to me, defined doing a great job at work. The first piece of this seemingly simple formula, act professional, was so straightforward.  Don’t swear, dress nicer than you think is necessary, be conservative, and talk to others exclusively about work.

This is how I turned into a corporate robot.

Why I was a Corporate Robot

Many people feel the need to put on a persona, their robot suit, in order to go into work.  I was one of those people for about a year.

As an undergrad in a professional business fraternity, we learned the essence of acting formally, dressing formally, and speaking properly.  All of these are valuable and are assets to me to this day.  But, I took all of those experiences as an undergrad and dropped them into Corporate America because I thought the corporate world was overly formal.  This perception was based on what I heard from my parents and saw on TV.

I specifically was a robot in terms of the way I interacted with others.  I intentionally sought out ways to not share information about my personal life.  I don’t think I told anyone I had a girlfriend, who is so critically important to me, for 6 months!  The reason I did not share any of this info with others was because I wanted clear and distinct lines between my personal life and work.  

Instead of work-life blend, I wanted work-life divide.

In addition to not sharing anything about myself, I didn’t get to know others on a deeper level.  Rather than taking advantage of the opportunities I had to network and connect with other employees about what excites us, I talked exclusively about projects, or nothing at all.  I, again, was seeking separation between work and personal life and didn’t want to let anything mess that up.

Lastly, I spoke like a corporate robot.  I used all the jargon I could in order to sound more important than I was.  Here is some jargon from a corporate robot:

  • “Let’s take it offline and I’ll circle back”
  • “Ping me the deck”
  • “Let’s talk about the multi-dimensional marketing strategy”

I spoke like this because I thought it was what corporate people did (and they do).  It was also an inside joke between my friends to figure out who could say the most ridiculous corporate jargon.

When I Realized I was a Corporate Robot

It took me about a year to realize I was a Corporate Robot.  Fortunately, I had a manager who wanted to coach and help me.  After a meeting where I was “going through the motions,” she said two of the scariest words in the Corporate America lingo (depending on the situation):

“Let’s talk”

I was terrified.  I knew the meeting didn’t go great as a result of some of my errors in leading the discussion.  She couldn’t fire me though, could she?  I was worried where she was heading with this conversation.  She sat me down and said “what’s going on?”  She could clearly see in the meeting I was on autopilot rather than living in the present and being myself.  She shook me up quite a bit, but in a good way.  She made me realize that I need to break free from my robot suit and be comfortable with myself in this environment.

I was missing out on so much as a result of being a Corporate Robot.  This simple discussion with my manager, where she encouraged me to think for myself and let other people see the real me, propelled me to where I am today.  I am not certain I would be writing and sharing this if it weren’t for that conversation.

Once I hit that realization point that being a corporate robot was not helping me or my career, I started to live and operate by the mindset:

Be Yourself

How I Act, Post-Corporate Robot

The “Be Yourself” mindset is simple to think about, but takes time to be fully comfortable.  I was not able to execute on this for some time as a result of my preconceived notions of how a person in Corporate America should act.  But now, I am able to hold conversations, at length, with my colleagues to get to know them and what excites them.  And, I want to hold these conversations because I recognize the benefits it provides both parties.

I started talking in a more casual manner without getting too involved in corporate jargon.  Note: I still use some corporate jargon, but I try to limit it.  That type of language is important in Corporate America, but it can be taken way too far.  Just speak like a normal person and get your point across in plain English.

By being true to myself I have found I am much happier and more satisfied at work.  It has allowed me to recognize what is important and how I can be a contributing piece of the team.  There is no point in trying to fill a persona just because.  Be yourself and you will reap the benefits.

Comparison to Undergrad

As an undergrad, there is a lot of pressure to join specific groups and act in a certain way.  You may act goofy with one group of people and be dead serious with others.  That is OK.  When it comes down to doing something you love, however, you revert back to being your true self.  Why should you act any different?

A lot of the pressure that comes with being a Corporate Robot is a result of the perception.  The perception of Corporate America is an old-fashioned, stodgy lifestyle where things are overly formal.  

The startup culture is working to change that, but the perception has not fully evolved.  As an undergrad student, you want to fit into the perception of Corporate America, so it is easy to fall into the trap of acting like a Corporate Robot.  This is similar to the square-peg in a round hole thought process.  There is no point in you trying to force yourself to act in a specific manner just because.  

Will there be times where you need to act more appropriately than others?  Absolutely.  Are there times where you need to dress formally in Corporate America?  Yes.  But you should never lose sight of yourself and your personality.  Corporate America may force you to act in a certain manner, but you should make that fit with your personality, not the other way around.

So, just like you do as an undergrad when you’re hanging out with friends, be yourself.

Thought Starters

  • What situations in Corporate America are you concerned that “being yourself” will backfire?
  • What perceptions do you have of Corporate Robots?