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Why No One at Work Wants to Be Your Friend

February 12, 2017, 11:00 PM UTC
Taking a selfie in the office.
Taking a selfie in the office.
South_agency Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What are some strategies for making allies in the office?” is written by Beth Storz, president and innovation process consultant at Ideas To Go and co-author of Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward.

Building better alliances in the workplace means we need to become a sounding board and a positive force for supporting colleagues in their endeavors, especially when the goal is to work together to create new ideas. But to do so, we must work around our inherent biases that put us in judgment mode and prevent us from collaborating productively with others.

Consider these tips for getting around the ways our brains are wired, which may be hindering our ability to build workplace alliances:

Be a problem solver

When people are tossing around ideas, our negativity bias leads us to first point out what’s wrong with the idea. When ideas are shared, we typically reveal our bias with “yes, but…” language. However, if we want to gain allies at the workplace, we need to curb that urge, and cultivate a different mindset. First, make an effort to point out what you’re “for” with the idea—what’s innovative, what’s useful, what aspect could be valuable. Then, voice any concerns by stating what you “wish for” that could make the idea stronger, better, or work for you.

This type of mindset supports your colleagues by keeping what’s good in their ideas alive, versus shutting them down. By “wishing,” you are seen as a problem solver who helps push toward solutions. Additionally, alliances become stronger when you work collaboratively on them. Finally, you make it safe for that person to come to you with ideas, even if they aren’t fully baked, because they know that you’ll approach them with a positive mindset. It’s always more fun to be around someone who is a positive force. And the fact that you aren’t just pandering to them helps build trust.

Bring in new perspectives

Another way to build alliances is to offer up a different perspective. Make it clear to your colleagues that you’re simply bringing in new possibilities for them to think about, and not telling them they’re wrong. Adding additional perspectives helps to guard against availability bias, which is using what’s most readily available, or immediately comes to mind, to make decisions. Guard against availability bias by helping the group search far and wide for diverse perspectives. What different questions should you ask to make sure your ideas zig when everyone else’s zag?

Try to keep your colleagues’ ideas on the table as long as possible so they can continue to multiply. Delay the natural drift from “possibilities to be explored” to “nominees to be endorsed.” It’s always easier to make a wild idea possible than to make an old or boring idea exciting.


Look at opportunities from a different angle

As humans, we can’t avoid believing that our way of seeing the world is the objective truth. This is why we need to pay attention to our framing bias. With framing, we tend to look at an issue with our own mental filter and overlook broader opportunities. For example, when thinking through what category a new invention competes in, we could be thinking too narrowly (writing instruments), and miss out on a larger segment (communication mechanisms). If we haven’t identified the right problem, we won’t come up with the right solution.

One way to get around our framing bias is to use a technique called “word swap”: Write down the problem, and then take turns swapping out the adjectives and nouns to frame the problem differently. For example: “How might we get more customers?” becomes “How might we attract more customers?” or “How can we develop more ambassadors?” Not only will you be offering up a fun tool, but you’ll get past the thought inertia that can often plague a team.

All of these techniques can be valuable ways to make allies out of coworkers and build strong relationships from which you can both benefit—while also getting beyond those cognitive biases that stifle new ideas.