5-second summary
  • Seeking emotional support for professional matters doesn’t just make you feel better – science tells us it actually helps you make better decisions.
  • Identifying the kind of support you need is the first step to building your network.
  • Your network may include people you currently work with, former coworkers, or professional contacts from outside your organization.

Everybody, from entry-level professionals to C-suite executives, needs support at work from time to time. Whether you need a gut check on an awkward interaction or help troubleshooting a stalled project, it turns out, many brains are better than one. 

When it comes to solving complex problems, groups perform better than even the highest-performing individuals, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We found that groups of size three, four, and five outperformed the best individuals … [We] attribute this performance to the ability of people to work together to generate and adopt correct responses, reject erroneous responses, and effectively process information,” says Lead Researcher Dr. Patrick Laughlin.

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But what happens when you’re working from home without a team member in sight? What if you’ve never met any of your fellow team members in-person?

Cultivating an emotional support network, or “pod,” can ensure you have the reinforcements you need, when you need them.

What is an emotional support network? 

Your emotional support network is a group of trusted people you can turn to when you need sustainable support in your professional life. Think of them as your close confidantes for professional matters.

This isn’t the same as having close friends at work (but hey, research shows that those relationships are important too!). Your emotional support network is more outcome-focused. The people in this group are more like your sparring partners. You’ll exchange perspectives and talk through situations with the explicit purpose of developing next steps, gaining confidence, or deciding how to feel about an interaction in the workplace. For example:

  • “I feel like I have a lot of miscommunication with the sales team. Do you have any advice about how to get on the same page?”
  • “I’m hoping to convince my manager that I should work from home full time. Will you give me feedback on what I plan to say in my application to go remote?”
  • “I want to get a promotion, and I put together a plan I want to show to leadership. Is my plan addressing what they want to see from me?”

Your support pod might consist of one person or a few people, each member willing to talk through something you’re grappling with. But keep in mind that it’s useful to have different support pods for different types of challenges, even though some people may belong to more than one pod. You may even have tiers of people within your pods, with tier-one members as your default go-to people. Tier two folks may have specialized knowledge you hope to tap into. Tier three may be aspirational, i.e., relationships you’d like to cultivate. 

difficult convo with leadership vs developing personal brand infographic

But, while these conversations will be primarily work-focused, it can be hard to draw a firm line. Even problems that are more personal in nature – from an ill loved one to uncertain childcare – impact our ability to do our best work, and your support pod could offer guidance and wisdom in those areas, too. Just don’t use your pod as a substitute for your HR department or licensed health professionals.

2 benefits of an emotional support network

There are two reasons that building an emotional support pod is well worth the effort. 

1. Targeted support is more helpful 

If you’re struggling with something that’s unique to your role, you’ll find more helpful and relevant support from somebody who understands your professional responsibilities.

We’ve seen this play out here at Atlassian. We’ve hired psychologists to facilitate conversations that connected managers from different teams. In those interactions, leaders were prompted to share what they were going through, including in areas that felt particularly difficult. This vulnerability opened channels of communication that often prompted helpful suggestions from other attendees. Or sometimes, managers simply held space for each other to talk through their feelings.

Participants reported that they left the sessions better able to identify suitable next steps to take. “When workers find the right spar partners – the right ears to bounce feelings off of – they’ll be able to more effectively take action,” report Annaliese McGavin and Shanta Dey, the two psychologists Atlassian works with. 

2. Healthy venting relieves pressure

Whatever problem you’re dealing with, research shows that venting about it can help reduce your stress levels. But, be forewarned: not all venting is created equal. Continuing to rehash an issue without any action or effective feedback from somebody else will actually only worsen your negative emotions. The key to relay your feelings to somebody who is ready and able to be an active listener

So, your work BFF might be more than willing to listen to you blow off some steam about your meeting that ran off the rails. However, if they aren’t equipped to step in, challenge your thought processes, and potentially lead you to solutions and new perspectives, that ranting and raving will only get you more worked up. 

A more targeted and strategic support network will have additional context about your situation. That makes them a better fit to help you process and move forward from challenges – and not just obsess over them.

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How to build your pod

The evidence is convincing, but it all leads to this question: How do you build your own emotional support network?

Some companies have a more formal and structured process to emphasize wellbeing and encourage employees to bond. For example:

  • When I worked for the nonprofit KABOOM!, we had a “directors group” that met quarterly for happy hour and to connect in small groups. 
  • Prior to the pandemic, Mayo Clinic was encouraging physicians to enjoy meals together so that they could share stories and support each other – something that they couldn’t ordinarily make time for. Mayo Clinic would even pick up the check when physicians did so.
  • As mentioned earlier, we’ve started facilitating manager conversations here at Atlassian and have received tons of positive feedback about their effectiveness for enabling peer conversations.

Rest assured that you don’t need to wait for your company to set up a formalized program or initiative. You can put yourself in the driver’s seat and take your own steps to build the emotional support networks you need.

1. Understand where you need support 

Keep in mind that these support networks are outcome-focused – your goal is to find people that can offer relevant and targeted advice for whatever you’re dealing with. 

To find them, you need clarity about what you need support on. What are you struggling with that you’d like to get some guidance and other perspectives on?

EXAMPLE: You want to build and strengthen your personal brand as a product manager but aren’t sure what steps to take. 

2. Identify the traits you’re looking for

Now that you know the challenge you need help with, it’s time to think about what type of person would be the most suitable to offer support.

You don’t need to come up with names right now. You can start by imagining what the ideal person looks like:

  • What experiences have they had?
  • What behaviors do they model well?
  • What challenges do they face in their job? 

You might be looking for someone who’s been where you’ve been before – like a fellow project manager (PM)  who grew a following on LinkedIn. Or, you might benefit from someone who isn’t in your exact position, but who has relevant skills that you want to grow. 

EXAMPLE: I would benefit from learning from people who are regularly posting thought leadership content to social media, participating in industry speaking events, and contributing guest posts to relevant publications. They don’t need to be fellow PMs – I’m primarily looking for people who are skilled at building their personal brands and establishing themselves as experts. They can help me navigate the opportunities I should take advantage of this year.

3. Keep an eye out for a match

You’ve figured out what you’re looking for, and that’s your road map as you start searching for people who fit that mold. 

There might be a few people who immediately spring to mind. But if you’re struggling to come up with any names, you can start to identify suitable people by:

  • Observing people you work and interact with. If you see someone that makes you think, “Hey, I’d like to carry myself more like that…” they could be a potential support person.
  • Asking your existing contacts for recommendations. Remember to be specific about what you need by saying something like, “I’d love to connect with a few people who are great at personal branding, both online and offline. Do you know anyone I should talk to?”
  • Reflecting on former coworkers. Don’t forget about your previous teammates. Even if you aren’t working together directly anymore, they can be an excellent resource for support. Having trouble recalling who you worked with and what specific skills, experiences, and expertise they bring to the table? Check out their LinkedIn profiles for a refresher. 

4. Make the ask and align your expectations 

Your emotional support network doesn’t need to be a super structured or regimented thing. No agendas, scheduled meetings, or “you’re in my support network now, here’s your t-shirt…” types of conversations.

But even so, it doesn’t hurt to approach people and confirm that they’re willing to be a listening ear and a source of guidance when you run into sticky spots. 

Doing so ensures that you’re both comfortable with that dynamic, and it could also change the way they discuss experiences with you. They’ll likely dedicate more time, energy, and attention to a conversation when they know you’re coming to them expressly for advice and support. 

Nervous about making the ask? That’s normal, but the good news is that most people will be flattered that you think highly enough of them that you trust their guidance. 

When approaching the conversation, be straightforward, complimentary, and genuine. For example:

“I really respect the brand you’ve built for yourself as an expert in the product-management space. I’d love to get your advice on how you balance personal branding with the demands of your role. Would you be open to me booking a time to talk through that with you?” 

If they agree to that first conversation, you’ve set the stage to confirm that they’re okay with you continuing to approach them for similar discussions moving forward. That could look like: 

“Thanks so much for your guidance about personal branding. Are you comfortable if I approach you for similar conversations in the future?” 

If they say no to this request or even your first one? Don’t take it personally. It’s possible they might not have the time. You’re both better off recognizing that now so you can build a support network that’s fully invested.

People can’t do that when they’re spread too thin – in which case, they might need to turn to a support network of their own.

Why you need an emotional-support network at work