Get yourself a Barney

A true wingperson is more than simply a cheerleader and they can make us better.

Have you met Ted?

If you’re a fan of How I Met Your Mother, you’ll recognise Barney’s catchphrase. As self-appointed wingman to his friend Ted, he essentially chats up a series of women for him for dates.

Have you got a Barney in your life? For Ted, characterised as more shy and more self-effacing, Barney plays a crucial role in getting him connected. He’s Ted’s bro.

A wingman or wingwoman can make a massive difference to your career (as well as your love life, but that's out of the remit of this blog). When you hit a career blockage, have a bad meeting or sink beneath pressure, your wingperson can help you regroup and move on.

They’ll be there for you and cheer you up. And if you’re really lucky, they’ll tell you some home truths about yourself.

In fact, if they don’t do this, they’re not actually doing their job properly. A work buddy is one thing; the person you moan to about your boss being short with you or who makes you a cup of tea when you’re flagging. The buddy will comfort you when you’re down, commiserate when you didn’t get a promotion, chat with you when you’re bored and cover for you when you’re late.

This is not a wingperson. The wingperson – or WP – plays a different role in your career. They will make connections for you and talk about you when you’re not there. They will create opportunities for you. They will be thrilled with your success, even if it is sometimes better than their own. A great WP thinks about you when you’re not around.

They push you out of your comfort zone. They tell you what you got wrong. They make suggestions about how you should change that they know you won’t want to hear. They keep on at you about those changes, even if you tell them not to, because they care as much about your career potential as you do and, honestly, in my personal experience, sometimes they care more.

Listening to them and then acting on what they say is essential. It’s a big part of having a growth mindset – and that’s the mindset you need to succeed. 

They are not just your cheerleader; they are much more important than this.

In an interesting experiment, Professor Serena Chen at the University of California, together with Professor Juliana Breines from the University of Rhode Island, worked with participants in three groups, all of whom had been asked to name their biggest weakness.

One set were asked to write themselves a letter talking about their weakness from a "compassionate and understanding" perspective. Another set were asked to write in terms of boosting their self-esteem – to focus on validating themselves rather than on that weakness. The third group were the control and weren’t asked to do anything.

Participants in the "weaknesses seen with compassion" group showed much more of a growth mindset and were much more likely to agree that with hard work they could change compared with the other two groups. A follow-up experiment showed that behaviour change was much more likely from people who experienced compassionate but clear understanding about what they had got wrong than from those who had been given unconditional approval.

Here’s how a wingperson differs from a buddy or a cheerleader. They’ll point out your mistakes with kindness and compassion, and won’t let you get away with being stuck. Self-esteem by Harvard Business Review’s analysis is overrated. You need a wingman to make sure you are really working on your weaknesses, not just glossing over them.

If you haven’t got one, find one. And as Barney also says: it never hurts to suit up.

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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