In the spirit of progress toward positive change, let’s look at being reactive instead of proactive in your professional relationships.
In a perfect world, new employees would be warmly welcomed into their departments and actively nurtured by enthusiastic colleagues. They would ask you to lunch, introduce you around, initiate stimulating conversations, become your mentor, and offer to collaborate on projects. In short, you would be embraced and supported by members of your “own community” so that your transition would be efficient and effective.
Unfortunately, most jobs are far from perfect. So, if you passively wait for others to initiate interactions, you are likely to be sitting in your office alone and isolated a great deal of the time. It is also the case that when you don’t extend yourself, others may negatively perceive you as aloof, disengaged, or unfriendly. Most importantly, you may be missing out on important relationships, access to critical networks, professional opportunities, and the mentoring you need to thrive.
To be clear, new employees should not be single-handedly responsible for initiating relationships and integrating themselves into their new departments. But this is often the reality, especially for women in mostly male departments, and faculty of color in predominantly white departments. If this is your situation, you cannot sit back and reactively wait for senior member (who will have a say in your promotions) to reach out to you and include you in their networks and activities. Instead, your goal should be to proactively initiate relationships with your senior colleagues so that you are spending time each week talking about your industry with them.
Moving from a Reactive to a Proactive Stance in Your Professional Relationships
Moving from a reactive to proactive stance can be a difficult challenge. It may be that:
- You may think it is their responsibility to initiate a relationship with you (but it’s really not) – OR –
- It might be hard to connect with people who are interpersonally awkward, unpleasant, cranky, salty, don’t share your politics, and/or made it clear that they didn’t want you hired in the first place
1) Adjust Expectations
While it should not have been solely your responsibility to build relationships with your senior colleagues, that may in fact, be your departmental reality. So, recognize the reality of YOUR context and go ahead and take the first step in establishing professional relationships. Realize you don’t have to like these people, but they are your colleagues and it is critically important for you to be proactive in developing positive and healthy professional relationships with them.
2) Ask Someone To Lunch
If lunch feels like too big of a commitment, then try coffee. If you can’t even fathom the idea of coffee with some of your old crusty colleagues (lol), then promise yourself you will linger for five minutes in their doorway or near their cubicle before/after work and have a focused conversation. This will get easier each time you do it, and you can build from doorway to coffee, and coffee to lunch eventually.
3) Ask People For Advice
The easiest conversation starter is to ask someone for their advice. It could be something general or something quite specific, but it should be something related to your job. People love to give advice to their “junior” colleagues and it creates a foundation for you to seek out their counsel later on when you really have a problem and don’t know how to resolve it. Asking for advice does NOT communicate weakness or incompetence; it communicates professionalism and a desire to establish a mentoring relationship with the person you’re asking.
4) Talk About Your Work
Lunch and coffee dates can be wonderful opportunities to talk about your work. By letting your colleagues know what projects you are working on, what conceptual or methodological problems you’re facing, and where you hope to go in the future, you are technically “networking.” The purpose of networking is connecting people, ideas, and opportunities. If your colleagues don’t know what you’re doing and/or what you need, it’s difficult for them to connect with you, and connect you with others. This is far more productive than using your brief time together to complain, gossip, cry, discuss personal problems, or talk about departmental politics. Keep the conversation focused on your work, and keep in mind that ALL your colleagues (even the ones you don’t like) can have important and helpful things to say about your work.
5) Open Yourself To Others
I learned that everyone is in my life for a purpose and has a tremendous gift to share with me. My job is to open up to them so I can receive their gift. You may think: why should I waste time chatting with someone I can’t relate to? Stop and remind yourself that he/she may be the key to what you need to be even more successful in life. Then approach that conversation with a true sense of wonder by asking: Why is this person in my life, and what can I learn from him/her? When you move towards your colleagues in a spirit of openness and hopeful expectation, it shifts the energy of the interaction and you may be delightfully surprised by what they can offer you.
Each of these steps can help you move from a reactive stance (waiting for your colleagues to establish relationships with me) to a proactive stance where you initiate contact, shape your own relationships, ask for what you need, and focus the interactions on what matters. Using your personal power to move forward in this way will help you feel more connected to others in your department, open networks of opportunity, and help to solidify your professional relationships. And the more comfortable you are having substantive conversations with your colleagues, the easier it will be when you are at conferences, meetings, and workshops.
I hope that this week brings you the desire to analyze your relationship patterns, and the courage to make positive change.