Socializing for success at work

Here’s why all those water cooler conversations maybe much more important to your career than you ever realized.

October 21, 2014


Most young CPAs consider socializing an important part of their personal lives. But it can also be just as important to their work lives, where having the right connections and relationships can help professionals improve their job performance and advance their careers.

In fact, socializing for success has become the new normal for the accounting profession.

That’s something of a paradigm shift, said Doug Blizzard, vice president for membership at CAI, a nonprofit employers’ association handling HR, compliance, and people development.

The stereotype of the accountant who is only focused on numbers and oblivious to people isn’t accurate, he said. CPAs who don’t build relationships and don’t relate well to others can find their careers suffering for it.

“Generally speaking, it’s harder to trust the people you don’t know,” Blizzard said. “If you don’t socialize at work, people don't get to know you. If I don’t get to see you enough, I don’t know what your agendas are, and I don’t know what’s driving your actions. It makes it harder to trust you.”

Much has been made about the importance of networking, or socializing with people outside your organization. Yet workplace socializing is so important that it might even increase productivity. In a 2008 study, MIT researchers concluded that workers with more social connections had higher productivity, regardless of whether their office conversations were about work, last night’s game, or what was at the mall.

“It’s a bad thing to keep people chained to their desks because [when they’re socializing] they’re actually out collecting information,” Alex “Sandy” Pentland, the MIT professor who oversaw the study, said in an interview with Gallup Business Journal. It’s better to encourage workers to spread out, make friends, and build networks, he said.

But even an experienced networker can find socializing for success challenging. Joe Rugger, CPA, CGMA, helped boost membership and alumni engagement for his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, in his first job after college. He conducted dozens of presentations across dozens of campuses over the course of the year, teaching people how to interact effectively with others.

“My job was to travel the country and hang out with college kids,” he remembers.

But even this professional networker didn’t immediately leverage the power of socializing in his current job as CFO at Jonesboro Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratory in Jonesboro, Ark.

“Early on in my career at JP&O, I didn’t take the time to get to know people on a personal level,” he said. “It’s taken me several years to grasp how I can engage with my co-workers in a way that lets them know that I care about what’s going on with them personally, versus just focusing on putting our noses to the grindstone.”

You can trace the change in CPAs’ attitudes toward socializing to the way they’re re-evaluating their workdays.

“So many of us were trained to maximize billable hours,” Rugger said. “But you can’t bill clients for time you spent asking employees how their day is and what’s going on with their children.”

Nevertheless, Rugger said, “It’s very, very important to add the human element to our work.”

Make it a point to listen more than you talk, advises Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA/CITP, CGMA, a senior accounting manager with ArrowStream who also teaches accounting and business ethics.

“Be careful not to talk too much about yourself,” said Pittelkow, who organizes philanthropic efforts and is president of the Toastmasters chapter at ArrowStream. “If you walk into a conversation and start talking about what you do and all the things you have accomplished, that approach can lead people to believe you are a slick networker.

“Instead, ask questions and promote discussion topics that will encourage the other person to feel comfortable talking,” she adds.

Be a Successful Socializer

Here are the top tips for socializing at work from Pittelkow, Rugger, and Blizzard:

  1. Walk and talk: Take a five-minute break from your desk every 90 minutes, and walk around and say hi to a co-worker.
  2. Prep your intro: Practice a short “elevator speech” about who you are, what you stand for and what your interests are when you know you’re going to meet new co-workers.
  3. Be strategic: Introduce yourself to people you don’t know who interest you or have a job you’d like to know more about.
  4. Connect: Notice what’s on someone’s desk and ask about it as an icebreaker.
  5. Expand: Socialize with everyone on your team so there’s no hint of favoritism.
  6. Keep it classy: Drink in moderation and discuss only neutral topics at work functions.
  7. Unplug: Give LinkedIn a rest periodically and telephone your contacts.
  8. Check in: After you meet someone, follow up within 24 hours with a call, email, or text.

Sheon Ladson Wilson is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.

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