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How to Get Ahead Professionally (and Help Your Co-Workers) if You’re Not a Fan of Self-Promotion

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Why aren’t we — knowledge workers — more collegial?

By collegial, I mean knowing who the good professionals are and supporting them.

It’s common in a lot of professions. Farmers know the other farmers in the district. They help each other, and each neighbor has a reputation, for better or worse. Owners of local businesses have Rotary Clubs, which helps them figure out exactly who to trust to make a deal. Doctors recommend specialists to their patients.

But we software developers, project managers and technical writers have next to none of this. Bosses make decisions about our futures, not other professionals.

It seems to me that we could stand to be a little more like doctors and lawyers — professionals who rule their industries.

Co-workers know who’s good. This social capital can and should become the core of our virtual CVs.

And it starts with collegiality.

OK, I didn’t mean we should support all of our colleagues. Some of them really are jackasses. But among the jackasses are a few geniuses, a few pearls decorating our cubicle dungheap.

The usual advice is that you need to promote yourself, to blog and tweet, to buff your LinkedIn profile. But some of us signed up for job descriptions other than self-marketing.

Think of it this way: You are not working for your boss. Legally, you are working for some corporation or organization. Your boss may give you assignments, but in the end we’re all really working for ourselves. You are selling your labor for money; and so, every day, improving the product — you. Professionals should not be concentrating on a boss’s praise; they should focus on building a reputation among their colleagues and in the job market.

Support your colleagues — but how? Beer and office treats will only go so far. You need to give a gift that is valuable.

I suggest you say “thank you.” Done right, it will boost your colleague’s market value and people will appreciate you for it, too.

Has a co-worker ever bailed you out with amazing, over-the-top work? Maybe by helping you restore a corrupted database, catching a tricky error in a spreadsheet, or contributing key data for your slides the day before a critical presentation? When colleagues show that they’re among the few who Get Things Done, they deserve a thank-you.

You’re already saying “thank you” when it’s needed. And an email thank-you, with a CC to the colleague’s boss, is also nice. That helps put your colleague on the boss’s good side.

But a one-time note of appreciation is unlikely to result in a raise — especially if the boss realizes that no one outside the office knows about it. It’s ironic, but even in this new era of openness, professional reputations can still remain a corporate secret, locked inside the office walls.

So the answer is to say a public thank-you. Something like a blog post. The world needs to know how good your colleague is.

For a public thank-you to mean anything, you’ll need to prove your identity and show that you stand behind your word. A rich online social profile is fairly hard to fake. So a public tweet or Facebook post will get the word out, believably.

An even bigger step is offering to serve as a reference, to speak up for the colleague when they next look for a job. There is no clearer sign of support than publicly committing to pitch your colleague to potential employers. And today’s phone reference process is incredibly broken. I mean, if you have a good  relationship with your boss, you have to hope he or she quits – under most circumstances, a boss is not going to want to help you leave if things are working well. So, if you want to really support your colleague, offer to serve as a reference.

Thank-yous and phone references are a great gift at any time, and particularly whenever you finish a project with a co-worker. They cost you nothing, and they mean money to your colleague — even a small effect in salary negotiations is worth a lot.

Just pay it forward, don’t be mercenary about it. Before you know it, your colleagues will realize what they’re missing: an environment where professionals, not bosses, rank and evaluate each other.

There are lots of ways to show support, but the bottom line is: We are not oppressed proles, living in fear of the boss’ sneer. We are strong professionals. The world is ours; let’s take it.

Josh Fox has long been obsessed about the fact that excellent workers produce five times the value, but don’t get five times the salary. He decided to do something about it: The result was Laudits.com, which helps you capture professional reputation with thank-yous and offers to serve as a reference.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.