Networking opens up paths to opportunity, and it’s even more impactful when you look at the benefits of networking in the workplace. If you’re a power networker, you’ve probably got this covered. But for most people, networking at work is intimidating. The work environment brings in a level of complexity that you don’t deal with when you’re at a professional event. No matter where you work, there are office politics to consider. Violate some of the unwritten office etiquette rules, and your networking efforts might backfire on you.
The first step in networking at work is to know the unwritten rules. How acceptable is it at work to approach levels of management above your boss? Some companies openly promote and “open door” policy where you could simply set up a meeting with an upper level manager. In some companies, that would be seen as “going over the head” of your boss and could land you in a difficult spot with your immediate manager. Know what is acceptable in your workplace and use the right approach. For example, you might need to talk with your boss and ask for an introduction to someone at a higher level. You could explain that you’re looking for a mentor, or that you want to ask for advice on a topic that executive is an expert in.
Some people prefer to go the unofficial route of “bumping” in to an upper manager in the break room or at their favorite after-work hangout, thinking they can build a personal relationship that will impact work. Admittedly, this can be successful but also has risks. It can be seen as disingenuous because you are purposely building a personal relationship based on what that executive could do for you at work, not because you have a shared interest or personal connection.
A more natural way to network is to volunteer for committees or cross-functional projects. Many companies now have social committees who are responsible for planning employee events. Look around your office and see if there are things you can get involved with that will put you in contact with employees with whom you don’t interact in the normal course of your work.
You could also try smiling and saying hello. Acting open and friendly to people as you pass them in the hallway or see them in the break room invites interaction. Introduce yourself and ask to sit at a table with people you’ve seen but that you don’t know very well. Once you’ve spoken to them a few times, ask them to try out that great new café that opened near your office. Getting to know one person in a different department often leads to meeting the other people in their department and those they interact with during their normal day.
The more people you meet, the wider your network spreads and the higher your visibility in the workplace becomes. Even if you don’t know each person well, the fact that they know your name and who you are can have impact in a work environment. Career movement is often dependent upon your reputation. You can be a superstar at your job, but it has more impact when other employees know who you are and know about the work you are doing.