Everybody overlooks this key to career advancement.
There’s no shortage of networking advice on how to introduce yourself to a sales prospect, strike up a conversation with an expert at a conference, or stay in touch with a potential job lead. But all of those tips leave you with one big, gaping hole in your interpersonal skills: How to create friendly, social relationships with the people you actually see at work every day.
Yes, you probably have a core crew of co-workers you eat lunch with, and you might even be one of those people with a “work spouse,” but that’s not enough.
You’ll boost your career prospects—both within and beyond your workplace—if you strengthen your connections with your existing colleagues, explains career coach Todd Dewett. “The professionals with the best network breadth and depth win in the long run,” he says.
Here’s how to go from uncomfortable elevator silences to being that person who seems to know everybody in the building.
Just say hello. “If you’re approaching someone you’ve seen on a regular basis but never spoken with, find an opportunity to introduce yourself,” says Amanda Augustine, a career advice expert at TopResume. Strike up a conversation when you meet on the way to the parking lot or run into them in the break room. And don’t be afraid to point out the obvious. Career experts say something as basic as, “I don’t think we were ever introduced,” or, “I’ve seen you here a million times and I’m sorry—I never caught your name,” is a perfectly fine conversation starter.
Aim for “business casual” formality. That is, your tone should be somewhere between introducing yourself to a presenter at an industry conference and grabbing coffee with your best office pal, according to Dewett. “It is acceptable to be less formal initially, yet you should be more formal than you would be while interacting with your close colleagues.” Avoid being too familiar at first, especially if it’s someone you’ve never spoken with before. “Be respectful that you don’t know them, even though you’re technically on the same team,” Dewett says.
Stalk them (just a tiny bit). Even if you’re just aiming to introduce yourself at the vending machine, it’s a good idea to get at least a little bit of background beforehand. “Google their name, look them up in the company directory, and check out their professional social media accounts such as their LinkedIn profile and possibly their Twitter handle,” Augustine suggests. Stay off Facebook or other sites that skew more social than professional; it could be off-putting if you bring up parts of their personal or social life they’ve never mentioned to you.
Seek out people outside your circle. Workforce diversity is a key issue for companies these days, so you need to be willing to and comfortable with reaching out to people who, on first glance, might not seem to have much in common with you. “We do have a tendency to interact with people who are similar to us in some way,” says Adelphi University president and leadership expert Christine M. Riordan. Make an active effort to engage with people outside your “in-group,” she says, because that will help you overcome any latent biases you might harbor. “Recognize your biases and stereotypes and make sure those don’t hold you back from talking with people who are different from you,” Riordan said.
Raise your profile. Stumped on how to meet people outside your floor or department, especially if you work for a large employer? “Make connections across organizational chart lines,” Dewett says. Volunteer for committees that draw members from beyond your department and keep an eye out for work projects that will put you in contact with people in other departments or divisions.
Look for mutual acquaintances. Alternately, if you see someone you do know heading out to get coffee with someone you don’t know, ask if you can join them. “Have a colleague who knows the individual you would like to meet introduce you or invite both of you to lunch,” suggests James Craft, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.
Stay away from lightning-rod topics. Almost all career experts say it’s a bad idea to bring up politics or religion (unless you happen to work in one or the other, and even if that’s the case, tread lightly). And don’t speak negatively about anyone else at work. Not only could you come away with an unwanted reputation as a gossip, you never know who the person you’re talking to is friendly with or where your words could travel.
Don’t forget to shut up and listen. “Too often, people talk too much, or worry about what they will say next,” Riordan says. If you’re preoccupied with what you’re saying, you’re not going to be able to really listen to what the other person is saying and respond in a manner that lets them know you’re paying attention—crucial for relationship-building. “Good listeners paraphrase what they’ve heard and ask clarifying questions,” Riordan says. “They make eye contact, nod their heads, and are fully engaged in the conversation.”