How to Build Career Relationships That Support Your Goals

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Big" by Grace Lordan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What kind of people can help you elevate your career? Do you deliberately develop relationships that help you reach your goals?

Behavioral science expert Grace Lordan explains how you can change your life by identifying who you want to become and then making a plan to turn your ideal future self into a reality. One step is to find people who can support your career goals and actively foster relationships with them.

Keep reading to learn how to build career relationships that are mutually beneficial.

Building Career Relationships

Lordan asserts that you must plan how you’ll develop the career relationships that will help you become your ideal self. Start with the people you already know: Every month, ask someone you know for help on your journey to becoming your ideal self. Lordan recommends starting with people you know at work, as they’ll likely have the relevant expertise.

(Shortform note: If you work in a fully remote environment, you may not know your colleagues well in general and so struggle to pinpoint who might be able to help you on your journey to becoming your ideal self. If so, start by befriending your colleagues. Try setting up virtual happy hours, joining or beginning a social Slack channel, or following your colleagues’ social media accounts.)

Additionally, every month, reach out to people you don’t know who could help you—like a leader in an industry you want to break into—and ask them to meet. Maximize the chances they’ll say yes by explicitly stating how your request can add to their lives; this takes advantage of the framing effect, which dictates that how you communicate information influences how someone interprets it. For example, offer to buy them dinner if they’ll agree to speak with you.

(Shortform note: In Build, Tony Fadell recommends an alternate method for reaching out to people you don’t know—especially industry leaders who are unlikely to respond to you. Follow them on Twitter, then regularly send them small bits of information that they might find helpful. Eventually, that person will start to recognize and like you because you’ve been helpful. Once they start responding and you have a relationship, then ask them for a favor. Fadell doesn’t mention using the framing effect, but doing so when you ask for a favor might maximize the chances they’ll say yes.)

When deciding who you’ll reach out to, Lordan recommends actively seeking out diverse perspectives. Thanks to your similarity bias—your preference for people who are like you—you may try to speak with people who are all like you (and therefore like each other). You may also have a stereotype bias—an assumption about all the individuals in a group—that affects your list; for example, you might want to speak only with alumni of elite schools because you believe they’re the only ones who are smart. Both tendencies are counterproductive. In reality, diverse perspectives are more likely to help you on your journey, as the more diverse the people you speak with, the wider the range of experiences you’ll encounter—and the more varied the advice they’ll give.

(Shortform note: It’s possible that your similarity bias and stereotype bias have led you to create a professional network that mostly consists of people who are like you. If so, how can you find people with diverse perspectives and a wide range of experiences who can help you on your journey? One possibility is to get involved with an Employee Resource Group—an employee-led group that aims to foster diversity at your company. Attending open events or joining their group as an ally can introduce you to people with diverse backgrounds who you may not otherwise meet.)

Tips for Handling Other People

Lordan points out that, as you work toward your ideal self, you’ll meet several people you’ll need to impress. To handle them well, start by making clear that you fit their expectations. Lordan explains that we all use a representativeness heuristic when making decisions: If A is like the members of Group B, we assume that A is a member of Group B. This heuristic is problematic when used to limit others. For example, someone who thinks that all glasses-wearers are smart might hire the glasses-wearer over the contacts-wearer, despite evidence that the contacts-wearer is smarter.

However, Lordan explains that you can take advantage of this heuristic. To do so, find out how you might indicate that you’re a member of the group you want to join. Then, figure out how to obtain those indications. For example, if everybody at the company you want to join is a member of a particular country club, join that country club.

(Shortform note: You can achieve your dreams not just by altering yourself to fit others’ expectations, as Lordan suggests, but also by altering your own expectations. You likely follow several representativeness heuristics when making decisions that don’t just limit others but limit yourself. For example, if you’re a startup CEO, you may initially focus on impressing investors who wear designer shoes because you think they have the most money—only to later realize that the richest investors often dress most casually. Use trial and error to figure out what mistaken heuristics you follow, then adjust your behavior accordingly to make better decisions.)

The second key to handling other people is to get in with the popular kids. If there’s some social group that could help you on your way to becoming your ideal self, Lordan urges you to become part of it. By doing so, you’ll benefit from intergroup bias—our tendency to prefer people who are in our “in-group,” or circle—and so may receive, for example, protection during hard times. You’ll also benefit from the halo effect: the tendency to form an overall positive impression of a person based on a single positive trait or characteristic (in this case, being a member of the group).

(Shortform note: You can only benefit from intergroup bias and the halo effect if you’re part of a closely knit group—but how do you actually get them to like you? In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie explains that all people crave feeling important, so you can get people to like you by subtly indicating to them that you think they’re important. Try genuinely complimenting them when you don’t want anything in return, publicly praising their work, and encouraging them to talk about themselves.)

Third, Lordan suggests that you learn how to redirect meetings so that they’re more likely to provide you with an outcome that could help you on your path to becoming your ideal self. Meetings often devolve into informational cascades: One person says something, then everybody else repeats variations on that thing without proposing anything new. This happens because, in a group, we want the others to like us—and so we tend to go with what the group says instead of risking controversy. 

If you want to say something new in a meeting where everybody is repeating the same thing, Lordan recommends a three-step process. Begin by reiterating something the group has already said, in accordance with the group’s proven tendency to echo the previous participant. Then, share your distinct viewpoint concisely. Finally, name someone else in the room whom you want to speak next; having more than one person speak on the same point will cause others in the room to pay more attention to it.

Other Ways to Avoid an Informational Cascade

If you’re running the meeting and want to stop an informational cascade before it happens, try switching the order by which people make decisions. In The Legal Analyst, Ward Farnsworth explains that military courts sometimes vote on tribunal decisions in reverse ranking order: The lowest-ranking soldier votes first, while the highest-ranking soldier votes last. Farnsworth proposes that this system helps avoid informational cascades; the lowest-ranking soldier feels more comfortable voting how she actually thinks because she doesn’t feel pressured to agree with the higher-ranking soldier. Similarly, asking lower-ranking people to provide input first may provide you with a more honest perspective. 

Alternatively, if you’re participating in the meeting and suspect that your opinion may not jibe with that of everybody else in the room, try sharing your opinion first. This way, you might be able to sway the informational cascade your way—and avoid having to redirect it once it’s already started.
How to Build Career Relationships That Support Your Goals

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  • Why most of our attempts to transform our lives fail
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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