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Six signs you may be taking yourself too seriously at work

CHICAGO – I recently saw a funny thing: a police officer at Midway Airport riding a Segway.

As he glided along, the officer kept the most gruff and serious expression on his face (all the better to counteract how goofy he looked on that thing). Nothing against the officer but anyone looks idiotic riding a Segway at four miles per hour through a crowded airport (or anywhere else for that matter).

Maybe it was the same way when cell phones were new. Though I can barely remember my first cell phone, I know it was about the size of a car battery and it was definitely the furthest thing from inconspicuous.

Maybe the first few cell phone users perfected the same stolid and serious expression to offset how weird it felt back then to be walking around and having a conversation with a person miles away. In those situations, it's easy to overcompensate.

Then, it's easy to be so ill at ease that you swing too far in the opposite direction and take yourself just a tad too seriously. Then what's really bad is that you look like a big idiot (of course, few people will ever tell you so).
Thinking about the Ginger*-riding cop and the early, awkward cell phone users got me thinking about how easy it is for all of us at times to unknowingly take ourselves too seriously at work. In certain triggering situations or when feeling more uninhibited than usual, any Midwest technology employee can lapse into an instantly regrettable state of acting and sounding like a self-important moron.

This column, therefore, is a warning. Think of it as a list of signals that you might be in danger of looking (to others) and feeling (as you look in the mirror the next day) mighty foolish by missing the warning signs and plunging down a ravine into will-someone-shut-that-guy-up land.

Here goes! If nothing in this list could ever possibly apply to you, post it on the break-room bulletin board for the benefit of some other poor schmo whose personal awareness isn’t as well developed as yours.


1) If for any reason you ever talk about yourself in the third person, you're teetering on the edge of an abyss. There's no excuse for it. I don't care if you're the CEO or the hot-shottest marketing hot shot the world has ever seen. It's crass and ill-bred to use your own name when referring to yourself.

Example: “The Joe Martin who broke those sales records in 2002, well, that Joe Martin is outta here unless he's seeing a 20 percent salary increase.” Truly, the only rational reaction to this sort of thing for anyone within earshot is to think: “This Joe Martin you speak of, well, he sounds like an idiot.” Can it.

2) Business dining situations (particularly when alcohol is involved) are prime times for grandiose and self-admiring confessionals. One time, my husband and I attempted to have a quiet dinner in a very dark Indian restaurant only to be entertained by the self-adoring dweeb at the next table.

“Now I'm sort of the philosopher king in my organization,” he started out. “The CEO loves me because I always whisper the right answer in his ear. Everyone else is totally clueless. I'm like the enfant terrible – you know, the young Turk.

“I'm like one of two people in the company who really ‘get it’. I force people to think outside the box. While I get a lot of grief for it, somebody's got to do it.”

Truly, my husband and I weren't trying to eavesdrop but the poor guy was talking so loudly we couldn't help it. We were torn between laughing uproariously at the stream of pompous drivel and actually throttling the dude.

You must know some person in your company well enough that you can ask him or her to kick you – hard – if you go on a rant like this. You'll thank them for it later. If you're the one subjected to the rant, go ahead and kick. You can later deny it was intentional.

No job could possibly pay you enough to expect you to listen to this sort of thing.

3) If you find yourself mentioning the most impressive data points while on your cell phone in a pathetic attempt to impress the total strangers around you – you know, the names of influential clients, the dollar amounts of deals or the lofty titles of your contacts – you are in deep.

Remember that no one cares a fig about your great accomplishments and the harder you work to seem so important the more of a fool you look. Doesn't that take some of the pressure off?

4) A variation on No. 3 is the need to make a long stream of quite mundane and tactical cellular calls when in the presence of other people who are attending to details that could easily and transparently wait until a more convenient time.

Each of us at times has surely been subjected to this at an airport, on a train or elsewhere: the business person who must check in with the office and give the firm instruction to move Charlie to 4 p.m., which is followed by an urgent call to a co-worker's phone to let them know that Sarah and Jack are delayed in Houston.

Get over yourself. So you have a real grown-up job, do you? You get to use the phone and schedule meetings? Wow. That sounds super keen. Some day, can you sit me down and tell me everything you do?

If you're looking to impress someone with your boring duties, have children or date really young people.

5) Another sign that you may be taking yourself just a wee bit too seriously is the need to remind co-workers that you just can't hang out and shoot the breeze the way you used to – the way that they still do, in fact – because of your new and pressing responsibilities.

As you might imagine, the newly promoted are especially vulnerable to this kind of self-delusion: “I'd totally love to have lunch like we always used to do all the way back last quarter,” you find yourself saying, “but, you know, now that I'm on this Riley account, the boss is depending on me.

“You guys have a great time. I'm just gonna hit this thing and try to save our butts.” Uh huh. Got it. Next time, just say “no thanks”. If you're afraid your message won't hit its mark, try: “No thanks. I'm way too senior to have lunch with you losers.”

6) The last warning sign is the tendency to name drop in your company as you become exposed to more senior people. You'd never do that, would you? Ah, but many people do. It's addictive once you start.

People's eyes get round when you casually mention the CFO's name in conversation – on a first-name basis, of course – so you do it again and again without ever suspecting that everyone is laughing at you for your ridiculous attempt to lift your internal stock price by the lamest possible means.

I’m sorry if this sounds harsh but people have been mocking name droppers since Neanderthal times at least (and those guys didn't even have names).


Grey-haired leaders will tell you, books will tell you and I'm telling you now that the more comfortable you become over time with your expanded roles and higher altitude in an organization, the more self-assured (not cocky) and composed your demeanor will be.

Trying too hard always looks like what it is. Don't do it. Don't overreach. Underreaching is far more effective.

It's truly a Zen thing: trying to show other people your power sucks away what little power you may actually have. So take a deep breath. You are fine just as you are. See if you can make it through the airport without using that cell phone. That's a great start. Now anyone up for Segway racing?

* Ginger was one of the code names for Segway during its development

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Deb responded 8 years ago: #1

Although I agree with most things you've said, the phrase "Trying too hard looks like what it is, don't do it." I was raised to do the best job that you can, and yes that means trying your hardest. If your co-workers have a problem with that, it's usually their own feelings of inadequacy, don't you think? And as far as making cell phone calls in the "airport" to reschedule a meeting, good Lord, I don't know who DOESN'T do that in this day and age. I know I personally "take care" of an issue like that immediately. I'm afraid I'll forget if I wait :)

Eric responded 5 years ago: #2

I think Homer Simpson would fit very well in your perspective - just kill 8 hours every working day. Doh!

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