How Women Can Build Stronger Relationships at Work -- and Actually Boost Their Careers

Think strategically and actively about building your in-office network. The more you give, the more you'll get.

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By Lydia Belanger

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Each edition of this Women Entrepreneur series, Behind the Numbers, presents a stat about a disadvantage women face at work and in business, examines the dynamics at play and provides guidance to help women overcome obstacles.

There's greater benefit to building a strong support system at work than simply having someone to vent to at Friday happy hours. Surrounding yourself with colleagues who have a vested interest in your workplace success can actually help advance your skill set and career. But it's easier said than done -- and it's even tougher for women.

According to the Harvard Business Review, 19 percent of full-time male employees in large companies have what can be called a sponsor -- a senior-level colleague who's actively interested in helping them advance -- while just 13 percent of women have sponsors. Not great statistics for either gender, but why is it especially troublesome for women?

It's an interesting question, one with a complex answer. Women tend to be comfortable with building close relationships, and may feel more at ease demonstrating warmth and concern for others, according to leadership consultant Sally Helgesen, who authored the book How Women Rise with Marshall Goldsmith. But women hesitate to leverage those relationships; they don't want to seem like self-serving users who are motivated by their own personal gains. The two are not mutually exclusive, says Helgesen. It's OK to have friends who can also help propel your professional growth.

Related: Women Entrepreneurs Underestimate Themselves: What We Can Do About It

It's also important to understand the many different roles folks within your network can play. The aforementioned sponsor can be hard to come by, simply because there aren't enough senior colleagues to go around. But mentors, who can be valuable sounding boards, and even workplace allies (more simply put, friends who are just as invested in you as you are in them) can not only provide you with a stronger support system during the 9-to-5, but can actually make you a more attractive member of your organization.

"Your visibility in the organization is increased, so the chance that people know what you're capable of is therefore increased," says Helgesen. "It makes it easier to [eventually] attract a sponsor."

As you focus on building your network, follow Helgesen's tips below to break your own bad habits and make the most of relationships at work.

1. Ask for help—and keep asking.
The simple act of letting someone know you're looking to improve can both put you on their radar and let them know that you're serious about improving and growing at work. "If somebody's in a position to observe you, you can ask them something like, "After the next meeting, would you be willing to let me know if you think there's anything I can improve upon?'" Helgesen says of reaching out to folks, It's important to be specific about what you want feedback on. Here's one example she provides: "Say, "I'm looking to get better at making allies. Any thoughts on how I might be more effective in doing that? Are there organizations I should consider joining?"

Or you might ask someone to let you know if they hear you apologizing unnecessarily during a meeting, if that's something you want to work on. After the meeting, follow up: Ask your ally how you did, and really listen. "Don't offer an opinion, explain what you were thinking, contradict her or even agree with her," Helgesen says. "Then thank her for helping you. Do this whether what she said was helpful or not." You might also ask your ally to notice your behavior during the next meeting.

2. Offer your support in return.
Women often are worried they are being a burden. They tend to be hypersensitive about offending others, and their threshold for what constitutes an offense is lower than men's, on average, according to one study.

Don't make that mistake. Workplace alliances, at their best, are a two-way street. Think of yourself as a resource to others. "Women are often reluctant to say, "If you could help me on this, you might think of how I could be a help to you,'" Helgesen says. "That's not being a burden; that's making an offer." The person may say there's no way you can be of help at the moment, but they'll have the invitation to seek your assistance someday. Don't worry about returning the favor and making the relationship transactional. Just thank your ally for her help so she feels comfortable asking you for something, even years down the road.

3. Focus on learning, not perfection.
Women often feel the need to prove themselves at the workplace before putting much attention toward building relationships that can help them advance. Put perfection aside for now, says Helgesen, who in her book says that perfectionism is one of the habits that holds women back at work. "You can't become expert until you've done something for a while. That's going to leave you on your own for a long time," she says. "You really have to have a more balanced approach and do both at the same time."

Related: How We Can All Elevate Women and Give Them a Voice in the Business World

4. Think strategically, but follow your gut.
Identifying which of your workplace pals can also double as more strategic allies does not make you an opportunistic nightmare. But at the same time, don't put effort into building an alliance with someone you dislike -- there's a risk of mutual exploitation, which won't serve you or your growing network. Says Helgesen: "You want to build relationships that serve you strategically, which means you want to build relationships that you can leverage to help you achieve your objective rather than just having a big network or having a ton of friends."

Lydia Belanger
Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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