Small Talk: Mind Numbing or Career Building?

“If I work really hard and put my nose to the grindstone, people will notice. I don’t have time for chitchat, I have to get my work done!”

Does this sound like you? Someone you love? It’s time for an intervention.

Carrie Kish and I had an interesting round-table about Women in Leadership with one of our clients. To prepare, I finally read the books most working women are supposed to have read, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers and The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. All of these books start roughly the same way with statistics and figures that show, while women are better educated and entering the work force at the same (or higher) rate as men, they are not making it to the C-Suite or senior posts in government at the expected rate. One of the reasons consistently given for this is that women (and in my experience, many men as well), fall into the “people will judge me solely on my results” trap. One reason this doesn’t work is because if we don’t share our results and hard work with people, they will be overlooked. Another reason people get overlooked is that likeability is a key factor in getting promoted. It’s also an essential component in getting assistance from colleagues and vendors that don’t report to you. As matrix organizations become all the rage, a question we at CultureSync often get asked is, “how do I get people to do things for me when they don’t have to?”

The answer to getting the promotion? To having accomplishments get noticed? To getting things done? Micro-connections, which many confuse with small talk.

A micro-connection is that moment right before or right after a meeting when you chat with the people that showed up early or are lingering. It’s when you stop by someone’s desk just to say hello, without any purpose other than to connect. If you are like 80% of my clients, you don’t have the time. If you are like 95% of my clients, you hate small talk. These both contain interesting, and faulty, assumptions.

Assumption #1: I don’t have the time.
We are all busy, and only getting busier. Many people assume that these micro-connections are going to turn into hour-long conversations. I’ve found that because everyone is busy, five minutes or less is all you need. That five-minute investment will save you hours down the road when, instead of begging for help, the people you connected with want to see you succeed, and willingly provide their assistance. In these moments you will uncover potential challenges that can either be avoided or resolved before they hit critical mass. You can learn new things and also help with retention. The more connected people feel at work, the more likely they are to stay at their job. How much time is lost when looking for a new team member?

You don’t have to connect with every person every day, or even every week. What if on your way back from the bathroom, you stop by and say hello? What if it’s on the way to or from a meeting? If you work virtually, how about a quick text or call? I have many clients that schedule this act into their day and keep a list to ensure that they are connecting with everyone consistently. What do you want to try?

Assumption #2: I HATE small talk.
These micro-connections don’t have to be small talk. Sure, you can ask about someone’s weekend. That is a good way to form a friendly relationship, but if you’re anything like me or most of my clients, this often feels like a total waste of brain power.

One approach is to use the Click Down method to uncover someone’s values. Another is to think of some interesting questions to connect you on a deeper level. One of my personal favorites is a two-parter. Ask “where did you grow up?” and follow it with “what was that like?” We all have remarkable stories about our childhoods and the places where it played out.

Another interesting line of conversation is “why did you get into this industry/profession?” or “what is your favorite part of your job?” If you are making connections after a meeting or at a conference, ask opinion questions. “What did you think of that meeting?” or “what did you think of that speaker?”

Much of this is obvious. And yet, when was the last time you connected with someone unexpected at work? When was the last time you were at a party or conference or work lunch and thought to yourself: “could this be more mind-numbingly painful?” What experiment do you want to try to connect to your tribe in a new way? I hope that you share in the comments below.

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