You already know that, for most professionals, a broad, diverse social network is vital to career success.
Career support is just one of the benefits that tend to flow to a person with many connections. The importance of being embedded in a vibrant network is so great that social scientists are studying how it impacts the uneven distribution of opportunity and wealth in our society.
In their fascinating book, “Connected,” professors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler say that, “Positional inequality” occurs not because of who we are but because of who we are connected to. These connections … often matter more than our race, class, gender, or education.”
“To address social disparities, then, we must recognize that our connections matter much more than the color of our skin or the size of our wallets. To address differences in education, health, or income, we must also address the personal connections of the people we are trying to help,” they say.
Their research supports what self-help experts have long been saying. In order to improve our job satisfaction, as well our overall well-being, we should consciously tend our web of relationships, always seeking to broaden our circle, while also staying in touch with those we already know.
But even when we understand the importance of networking, we may put it off or avoid it altogether.
If you’re like me, when you pass on a chance to meet and greet, you can probably come up with a plausible reason. But if you want to get serious about expanding your network, it’s time to challenge some of those rationales. Here are seven common excuses for not networking, as well as the reasons you should get out there and mingle anyway.
1. I hate networking events. There are benefits from meetings designed so that participants can exchange business cards and stories. But there’s no need to attend if you don’t want to. Most networking happens when people are focused on something else. The crowds of volunteers who traveled last month to help Texas hurricane victims did not have networking on their minds. Yet countless enduring relationships were forged as people worked side-by-side to rescue and assist Harvey’s victims.
2. I already have friends, and I don’t even have time to see them. Certainly it’s valuable to keep up a flow of communications with people you already know. But network scientists suggest that an “open,” varied network is a key predictor of career success. If you just hang out with the old gang, in the same industries or the same religion, your network is “closed” and your worldview may be narrow. With a closed network, you will miss countless chances to expand your knowledge and find opportunities a little further afield.
3. I’m too busy working. One of the reasons to network is to become more effective at work. You’ll learn more, and trigger new ideas, as you expand your circle, and that may help you manage priorities and be more creative. And even when you can’t get out of the office, you can find ways to network during the meetings that you already must attend. Arrive early, chat with other attendees, and during each session engage in the discussion instead of staring at your phone.
4. I’m not good at small talk and I hate talking about myself. Even very shy people can be fantastic networkers if they are interested in other people. Most folks you meet will enjoy talking about themselves, at least if you make it easy. So go to each event with a few questions in mind. Shift the focus to the others with simple queries like, “how do you know the host?” or “what did you like best about the speaker?”
5. The only people who’ll meet for coffee are the ones who can’t help me. Stalking people who are already in demand is a rookie mistake. Your goal in networking is to become acquainted with a wide variety of people. And every single person is important. You cannot predict who is connected where, or will be one day. Maybe you can’t get a lunch date with that busy executive, but you can get to know a junior person in the same field. And one day you may be able to help each other.
6. It’s scary to go to an event where you don’t know a soul. It can be daunting to be a stranger in a place where everybody else seems to know someone. Your anxiety may be partly genetic, and perhaps when you enter the room your brain triggers a bigger-than-average release of stress hormones, like adrenaline or cortisol. But you can learn to get past that kind of fear by practicing in relatively easy circumstances, then gradually increasing the challenge. Start by going alone to an undemanding get-together, like an easy class, and work up to more intimidating situations.
7. I’m uncomfortable with people who are that different. It may not be easy to interact with those who don’t think like you. But if you can take a few deep breaths and endure the discomfort, it could be worth it. The ping of angst you feel when you contemplate attending a different kind of gathering may be a nudge from your unconscious that this opportunity is worth considering. You’ll grow if you notice your fear, find a way to calm down, and then move ahead by focusing on listening.
Networking isn’t about begging short-term help or racking up a brag-worthy list of connections. It’s about talking with folks wherever you go, learning from a wider range of people, and building and nurturing a variety of relationships.