By Robert Strohmeyer
In an increasingly competitive marketplace, skills alone will take you only so far. You’ll need training, no doubt, and you’ll need experience. But the not-so-arcane secret to career success is actually more accessible than you might think. As the poet Margaret Walker famously put it, “Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go.”
Now as much as ever, emotional intelligence and social graces are essential qualities for professional growth. Unfortunately, common courtesies aren’t that common, so those who make time for good old-fashioned friendliness tend to stand out in a crowd. The following five healthy social habits will help you build your professional network and a successful career.
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While it’s not unusual for people to show up late in work settings, punctuality remains a virtue. Not only does it ensure better use of time, but it demonstrates respect for the people you’re working with, as well.
I’ve worked in several startups where all meetings started five minutes late, and then too many meetings ran five minutes over, causing attendees to arrive late to their next meeting.
As an executive and hiring manager, I view punctuality and timeliness as the most critical indicators of an employee’s or candidate’s professionalism. Once a person gives the impression that they’re casually late for meetings or deadlines, it’s pretty hard to undo.
This disregard for people’s time is more than just toxic; it’s counterproductive. It creates an environment where everyone is running behind and trying to catch up, and moments that could have been spent getting work done are squandered. If you spend five minutes per meeting waiting for someone to show up, and you have five meetings a day, five days a week, at the end of the week you’ve lost more than two hours of your time. That adds up to an entire business day of your time every month, wasted.
Set a standard of punctuality in your professional life and stick to it. Start meetings on time even if a few people are late, and teammates will respond in kind. End meetings on time, using the last few minutes to capture next actions and set follow-ups, and you’ll help stop the cycle of disrespect. While a few colleagues may murmur about what a stickler you are, most will appreciate your respect for their time.
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Nobody likes feeling that their efforts are taken for granted. The American Psychological Association reports that individuals who feel valued at work are happier, more productive and more appreciative of their colleagues.
Whether you’re a team leader or a teammate, the people you work with need to feel appreciated. It’s important to give credit where due and ensure you share the glory when things go well. Just as important is the basic act of saying “thank you” for even small things.
Thank your meeting attendees for showing up on time. Thank colleagues for feedback, even when it’s critical. Thank people for contributing useful points to a discussion and for presenting to the group. These small gestures, when expressed sincerely, can make a big difference in the way people feel about working with you.
If you’re a manager or team lead, it’s even more important. But be careful to only give sincere thanks and credit, and avoid superficial or overgeneralized group thank-yous. As a 2020 Harvard Business Review study highlighted, not everyone contributes the same things and the same amount. Taking the time to give thanks personally, and for specific contributions, goes a lot further than a trite “thanks for everything, everybody.”
Even if you think you’re “just bad with names,” it’s important to make a habit of learning and using people’s names correctly. As Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” It remains as true today as it was in 1936, though globalization and increased cultural diversity mean we may need to work a little harder at it today.
In the 21st-century workplace, you’re likely to collaborate with colleagues from a variety of cultures and with names that may sound complicated. It’s tempting to shorten or avoid saying names that are difficult for you to pronounce, but it’s well worth the effort to learn people’s names and get them right.
Rajat Panwar, associate professor of responsible business practices at Oregon State University, writes in Harvard Business Review, “When you refuse to make an effort to pronounce someone’s name correctly, it suggests that you’re choosing your own linguistic comfort over their identity.”
Instead, subtly confirm early on that you’re hearing and correctly pronouncing a new contact’s name. Don’t make an issue of it, but show them respect by caring enough to get it right.
Address people by name and be proactive about making introductions. It not only builds bridges, but it also helps people feel seen, included and valued.
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In business, it’s seldom a good idea to leave people hanging. The more time that passes after a meeting, the more likely that key takeaways and next actions will fade into oblivion.
It’s always best to spend the last few minutes of a meeting documenting key points, decisions and next steps, but it’s also important to send a follow-up email recapping them for everyone in the group.
Colleagues who receive meeting follow-ups are more likely to recall and execute their next actions than those who don’t, since people often leave meetings with unclear expectations about who was supposed to do what next. A proactive meeting recap nips that problem in the bud. And sales prospects are 22% more likely to convert after a follow-up email than without one.
Finally, if you want to be remembered well and have a shot at another meeting, don’t wait to send thank-you emails. Be proactive after sales presentations, interviews and just about any other meeting to show gratitude and frame the key points of the conversation.
Too often in daily life we find ourselves so concerned with getting our point across, or ensuring we’re seen or heard, that we fail to check in with our colleagues’ points of view. This can be disastrous, or at least career-limiting.
Understanding the perspectives of others is essential to understanding your own place in any organization. But if you don’t overtly ask people for their point of view, they’re unlikely to give it to you. This is especially true of people who may be your detractors in the workplace or of people subordinate to you.
But if you don’t seek feedback from them proactively, you’re likely to encounter it only in a crisis later on.
Likewise, if you’re actively trying to influence someone with a sales pitch or project proposal, it’s always best to learn their perceptions early on rather than assume you nailed it and learn the truth when it’s too late.
Set the expectation with colleagues and employees that you want their honest feedback. Don’t skip opportunities to ask them what they think about a project or idea you’ve shared or how you handled a call or meeting. These moments of earnest interest in the opinions of others help to ensure those around you feel seen and valued while giving you priceless insight into how to position or present topics in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Strohmeyer is a serial entrepreneur and executive with more than 30 years of experience starting and running companies. He has served in leadership roles at three successful software startups over the past decade, and his writing on business and technology has appeared in such publications as Wired, PCWorld, Forbes, Executive Travel, Smart Business, Businessweek and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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