Friend or Foe? The Value of Relationships in Coworker Advocacy

Have you ever thought about who’s sticking up for you at work, when you’re not in the room? That can be a comforting or scary thought depending on how much you’ve invested in relationships during your tenure at your workplace.  

You need those people who can stick up for you when you’re not in the room more than you may realize.  In fact, a recent study found that nearly 75% of white-collar workers, both men and women, admitted to gossiping in the workplace about their colleagues or other company issues on a regular basis. While this may be human nature for the majority, wouldn’t it benefit you to have your ears burning because your name is being honored or even defended by the right people when you’re not there?

As a career professional, it will always be beneficial to have strong relationships with colleagues. Having people who will advocate for you behind the scenes is just one of the personal and career benefits. That’s true even if you’re currently in your dream position and have no desire to make a switch in the immediate future. Here’s a poignant example that came my way recently from an acquaintance on the value of advocacy to your career reputation.

My acquaintance has a coworker who at times is known to plant “poisonous seeds” about his colleagues, including her, in an attempt to inflate his own chances at promotion or opportunity if he perceives someone else will get the golden egg, so to speak.

One day, during an informal meeting where my acquaintance was out of the room, their manager was musing aloud about an important project that had not yet been assigned.  When my acquaintance’s name came up, the poison-seed colleague began his modus operandi of dropping seemingly innocent “breadcrumbs” that looked like this:  His fellow coworker was “very busy” with her current workload and he felt “concerned” about how she was “juggling so much.” He added that he knew she was probably feeling “overwhelmed” by the pressure.  Talk about an underhanded way of creating a breadcrumb laden path for the manager to follow down a misleading road.  Who do you think got the plump role? 

Based on repeated past instances like this, the poisonous-seed farmer would have been a shoo-in as he had many times before. But this time, a different colleague jumped in and quelled any notion that the absent coworker was anything less than brilliant at handing her demanding workload.  The other coworker listed examples of this brilliance as witnessed by her project management skills, constant good humor in spite of her work demands, and the numerous highly visible global programs she was overseeing with great success.  The breadcrumb-dropper quickly had to back-peddle and agree aloud about how adept the absent colleague really was in order to save face.  His plan was thwarted. (Cue my evil laugh here!)

After later learning about this exchange, and thanking the defending colleague for saving her reputation, my acquaintance relayed to me that she received one of her best performance reviews in years. She has since been given much more leeway to pursue projects of her own interest.   Imagine the damage that could have been done if her coworker hadn’t intervened and how that story could have ended differently.

If the person being thrown under the bus were you, wouldn’t you want to have another friend there who could speak up in your defense? How do you develop relationships that lead to such advocacy?

Simply by engaging in these five simple actions below, you’ll create life-altering and even career-saving relationships with advocacy as a benefit. 

1.  Establish a network outside your immediate role, even outside your company. 

The potential to have long-term benefits in unexpected situations will outlast your current position. Layoffs happen, and if it happens to you, it will be your network of contacts that will help you find another job. The data backs that up. At least 60% of all jobs are found via networking, as opposed to, for example, applying online to a company or to another line of business in your current company, where you don’t have any personal or professional ties.  

I’ve personally seen this play out time and time again with those who bounce back the fastest after layoffs. The alternative can result in floundering for months or even years, due to the decision to stay at one’s desk and work harder instead of smarter. Building human capital has to be part of the job.

Great news – you can build this capital right in your own company.  To further extend your network, get involved in at least one company initiative per year to support the company cause, which allows others to see your transferrable skills in action, and meet new colleagues.

2.  Get to know your colleagues personally.

One of the ways to build these relationships with colleagues is to ensure that you’re putting in the effort outside of the office. Grab a coffee or go out to lunch.  It’s. That. Simple. Really. This is a common theme that I stress emphatically in my workshops, especially about the fact that men are traditionally more likely to put in the time to get lunch with colleagues.  You can read more about that here.

3.  Offer to assist a coworker with her/his project. 

One of my closest working relationships was a trading arrangement with a coworker.  I hated Excel and she hated PowerPoint.  Any time we had projects due in these respective formats, we would “trade services” and work on one another’s content for layout, accuracy, and aesthetics.  It was a wonderful win-win and our work moved along faster as a result because we were working in our strengths to support one another. 

4.  Be the advocate for others when you know the truth about their work.

I once had a boss who tended to pick on the co-worker I described in Tip #3. He labeled her work as “sloppy.” This criticism stemmed from his dislike of how messy her desk was. I was the voice in the room who would flatly disagree with his assessment. I provided specific examples of her acute accuracy and her value to an important project.

You may not always be able to save others or reverse opinions. But by speaking up with sincerity, specifics, and with conviction, you demonstrate integrity, as well as confidence that you can be professional and a dissenting voice when it matters.

5.  Be consistent.

Building relationships with colleagues is about being your best authentic self (in fact, we’ve gathered data to support this as a “next level leadership” behavior) and proving that you are a reliable, trusting colleague. It’s that positive consistency that will earn you the respect in the office and subsequently turn your coworker into advocates, too. 

What one action will you take this month to build advocacy through relationships? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts and hope you have fun trying out any of these tips!

Let's Talk!