Office parties can fast-track a career or bring it to a dead halt.
More and more office parties today, even those of the holiday variety, are a variation of work. To succeed, remember every interaction can benefit you or not. The impression you make during these informal situations will influence how people perceive you; how they'll deal with you in the more structured work environment; what assignments they’ll give you; what meetings you’ll be invited to; and, ultimately, what type of career opportunities you’ll have.
What can you do to ensure you are well positioned for the year ahead? Plan, prepare, and practice. Here’s how:
1. Be selective about which parties and events you attend.
You’re better off not going to a party than being in a place with a group that could be awkward, embarrassing, or place you in a difficult situation.
2. Generally, don’t drink alcohol.
Ginger ale in a wine glass looks a lot like other drinks, and it’s hard to tell the difference between vodka and water. But like any rule, there are situations where it would be awkward to refuse a drink, like when everyone is at dinner and sharing a glass of wine. However, nobody says you have to finish that glass.
3. Don’t be negative about people, colleagues, bosses, clients, even casual acquaintances.
You rarely know the contact network of the people you are talking to. This can be tricky in social situations where people become provocative, but there are all sorts of phrases you can use which don’t commit you and diffuse the issue. For example, "Interesting-didn't know that."
4. Plan your conversation.
Think about what you’re going to talk about beforehand, only make sure you make it appear spontaneous. Have a variety of topics on the ready and be sure to scan the day’s headlines to brush up on current events. If you’re talking with someone you don’t know, start with something neutral. In general, sports, arts, and entertainment are usually safe, but more importantly stick with what you know. Don’t get engaged in a topic you know nothing about. And in general, politics and religion are minefields and just talking about business, well, that can make you look too limited. But do look for opportunities to make a point related to your expertise and keep in mind that listening is always safe. The talker will appreciate your actively listening to them.
5. Plan how you'll enter a party where you may not know many people.
Plan how you will introduce yourself. Know the history of the group. Learn who is apt to attend and do some research online to learn about their backgrounds. Here’s one more piece of advice I received from a board director: When scanning the room, look for odd numbers, single people, and groups of three or five. There is more likely to be an opportunity to enter the group and the conversation.
In closing, trust and credibility are your most important personal assets. At the end of the day, a senior executive will reflect: Can I really trust Mary? Do I believe she can keep a confidence? Is she predictable and dependable? Can I believe what she says? Informal events like holiday parties frequently test this trust and confidence factor. If your trustworthiness is questioned or damaged, you have a major career problem. So guard it. It is your most important asset.