I recently received this question from a Fast Track reader:
I really like my new company and my new boss, and at his urging I have been signing up for lots of extracurricular activities like volunteer events and the office sports teams. But yesterday my sister called me a “joiner” and now I am worried that my new coworkers think I'm just trying to kiss up. Is this the impression I’m giving, and if so, what can I do about it?
I personally love office extracurriculars. They expose you to people in your organization you might not be in a position to meet otherwise (like executives), and they also provide a built-in outlet to do something other than work. Sometimes it’s hard to get a life when you're focusing all of your energy on launching a career in a new place. Extracurriculars bridge the gap.
I don't necessarily think signing up for these makes you look like a brown-noser, even if your boss did suggest it. What may make you look like a brown-noser is to always be the one who raises your hand for extra assignments or new responsibilities that will increase your contribution and/or enhance your skill set. In this case, you shouldn't care too much, because your boss will love you and having better career prospects overall is more important than trying to please everyone.
To mitigate the effect of potential brown-nosing, show genuine interest in what you're signing up for. Demonstrate to your colleagues that you are doing it because you're intrigued, not just because the boss told you to. Also, try for subtly. Truly obnoxious brown-nosing usually involves non stop compliments in the boss’ direction, and/or trying to ingratiate yourself at every opportunity. Perhaps needless to say, but don't be so blatant.
If, for whatever reason, you've gone overboard kissing up, pay attention to the signs that your colleagues feel the same way. Such signs might include sarcastic comments, getting left out of group outings or lunches, hearing that people are talking about you behind your back, and getting feedback in a review that indicates that you don't work as well with colleagues as you could. If you spot these, stop your over-the-top behavior immediately and poke a little fun at yourself in front of your co-workers.
This is also a good opportunity to increase your self-awareness in general. Practice observing closely how your coworkers are reacting to you. Read their body language, listen to what is being said in between the lines, and note how generally friendly/unfriendly they are toward you. Also, when brown-nosing is an issue, note how your boss seems to feel about your overtures. For example, does she seem uncomfortable, or is your behavior going over well? Finally, role play a sample conversation with your boss to a trusted friend or mentor, and get an objective read on it.
Just by asking the question here, you’ve taken an excellent first step toward establishing better relationships with those with whom you work.