Valerie Young’s Tips on Managing Office Party Stress

The holiday office party should be a time to kick back with your co-workers. If you work in a mid- to large-sized organization it can also mean the opportunity to interact with people many times your senior.

Most people would see it as an opportunity to make an impression on people in a position to advance their career. However, if you’re among the millions of bright, capable people who secretly feel that their success is undeserved, then interacting with senior management will be stressful.

When you identify with the so-called impostor syndrome you’re perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. And who worse to discover you have no idea what you’re doing than the Big Boss?

For the record, you’re no impostor. But the fact that you feel like one means you need a plan.

Reframe Fear as Excitement

I once had the remarkable opportunity to pick Sir Richard Branson’s brain about a business venture of my own. Was I nervous? You bet!

If you’re nervous making small talk with the CEO remember there’s a reason why famed psychologist Fritz Perls describes fear as “excitement without breath.” Think about it. Your body has the same physiological responses to both fear and excitement—nervous stomach, sweaty palms, dry mouth. And since your mind only knows what you tell it, it doesn’t know the difference.

In other words, it really is okay to have some butterflies as long as you walk into the party telling yourself, “I’m excited . . . I’m excited… I’m excited!

Choose an Emotion to Lead With

When President-elect Obama tapped Elizabeth Alexander to be the inaugural poet, there was a flurry of interviews leading up to her big performance. One question everyone had was, “Are you nervous?” (a question I would venture to guess was not put to the first inaugural poet, Robert Frost).

Each time she was asked, Alexander spoke of feeling excited, thrilled, honored, humbled—but never scared. Why? The way she put it: “To be scared would not be helpful.”

The second you feel anxiety or insecurity kick in, take a deep breath and calmly remind yourself, This is not helpful right now. Then decide which emotion would be helpful at a high-powered office party. How about pride in your work, enthusiasm to meet interesting people, or determination to let people know about your contributions?

Make Your Accomplishments Known

Everyone knows the holiday party is an opportunity to make a good impression on higher ups. Unfortunately not everyone does it.

This isn’t just about confidence. You can have all the confidence in the world and still be reluctant to self-promote out of a steadfast belief that a person’s work should speak for itself. It doesn’t. Men understand this, which is why they’re more comfortable tooting their own horn.

I know it’s hard to talk about how great you are, especially when you’re not convinced yourself. But it’s a heck of a lot harder to get noticed if you keep your own accomplishments a closely guarded secret. If you’re not telling your story, who will?

If you’re not naturally gifted at self- promotion, don’t worry; like any skill, it can be acquired. You don’t want to sound scripted but you do want to practice what to say in advance.

For example, when a senior exec asks things are going, be prepared to talk about your work in terms of some specific benefit to the organization. Typically that means thing like goals met, time/money made/saved, positive press, etc.

If you’re concerned about sounding boastful, frame your accomplishments in terms of the helpful emotion you just identified. “Things are great. I’m really exciting to be working on the XYZ project because we were able to produce twice as much in half the time.” Or, “I’m incredibly proud of our team for hitting our numbers for the last four quarters running.”

Finally, remember that just because someone has a fancy title doesn’t mean they’re smarter or more capable than you. As Will Rogers said, “Everyone’s ignorant, only on different subjects.” So relax, keep your alcohol intake to a safe minimum, and enjoy the party.

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