Are Your Friends at Work Holding You Back?

Last Updated Apr 6, 2011 11:48 AM EDT

No one likes to admit this, but if you want to advance in your company, hard work and a solid track record won't be enough. You need to have a great reputation within your office--and that's determined in large part by whom you spend time with.

Here are five ways to tell if your network will help you succeed--or hold you back.

  1. Are They Whiners and Complainers? Every job has its challenges, and no company is without problems. If you're hanging with a co-worker who constantly gripes about the boss, working conditions or just life in general, your morale will suffer--and so will your reputation. Malcontents are viewed as an unproductive, corrosive influence.
  2. Are They the Office Slackers? Every office has someone who spends half their day schmoozing or tending to personal business. No matter how industrious you are, you'll be tarred by association if you spend every coffee break with the slacker.
  3. Do They Have Anything to Teach You? Your network shouldn't consist solely of people just like you. It's natural to be drawn to someone who has kids the same age as yours, graduated from the same business school or also is a Yankees fan. But if you want to get ahead, you need relationships with colleagues who have different skills, experience and knowledge. Who do you respect in your company? Who has capabilities and accomplishments that you admire?
  4. Are They Going to Look Out for You? A strong network isn't just a bunch of buddies who like you or are like you--it requires people whom you can count on to "watch your back," as networking expert Keith Ferrazzi points out in his book, Who's Got Your Back? You need people to warn you of potential pitfalls ("never challenge the VP's numbers in the staff meeting") and make you aware of new opportunities ("there may be an opening in sales in a month, you should apply"). And of course, the best way to cultivate these kinds of relationship is to be generous in kind.
  5. Is Your Network Broad Enough? Don't just associate with people from your department. Research by BNET blogger Jeffrey Pfeffer, also a Stanford business school professor, has shown that one key to professional success is to "occupy a brokerage position." As he notes in Power: Why Some People Have It - And Others Don't, the most powerful networks are broad and expose you to new contacts and new information. I have one friend (a quality improvement specialist at a major health care organization) who made it a practice to invite someone from a different department to lunch every week. Within months, her network rivaled many longtime employees'.
What are your secrets for developing a strong network? Are there other ways to tell if you're being held back?

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr user, chronos_tachyon