We hear this all the time from executives, colleagues, friends. They tell us that networking makes them feel uncomfortable and phony—even dirty. Although some people have a natural passion for it—namely, the extroverts who love and thrive on social interaction—many understandably see it as brown-nosing, exploitative, and inauthentic.
But in today’s world, networking is a necessity. A mountain of research shows that professional networks lead to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority. Building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.
Indeed numerous studies show that your success also depends on your ability to network effectively both internally (to get yourself assigned to choice clients or gratifying projects) and externally (to bring business into the firm). Those who regard these activities as distasteful and avoid them have proven to be landing fewer business opportunities than their peers.
Fortunately, aversion to networking can be overcome. We’ve identified four strategies to help people change their mindset.
1. Focus on Learning
Most people have a dominant motivational focus—what psychologists refer to as either a “promotion” or a “prevention” mindset. Those in the former category think primarily about the growth, advancement, and accomplishments that networking can bring them, while those in the latter see it as something they are obligated to take part in for professional reasons.
Promotion-focused people networked because they want to and approach the activity with excitement, curiosity, and an open mind about all the possibilities that might unfold. Prevention-focused people see networking as a necessary evil and feel inauthentic while engaging in it, so they do it less often and, as a result, underperform in aspects of their jobs.
Thankfully, Carol Dweck has documented in her book (Mindset), it’s possible to shift your mindset from prevention to promotion, so that you see networking as an opportunity for discovery and learning rather than a chore.
Imagine a work-related social event you feel obliged to attend. You can tell yourself, “I hate these kinds of events. I’m going to have to put on a show and schmooze and pretend to like it.” Or you can tell yourself, “Who knows—it could be interesting. Sometimes when you least expect it, you have a conversation that brings up new ideas and leads to new experiences and opportunities.”
If you are an introvert, you can’t simply will yourself to be extroverted, of course. But everyone can choose which motivational focus to bring to networking. Concentrate on the positives—how it’s going to help you boost the knowledge and skills that are needed in your job—and the activity will begin to seem much more worthwhile.
2. Identify Common Interests
The next step in making networking more acceptable is to think about how your interests and goals align with those of people you meet and how that can help you forge meaningful working relationships. People establish the most collaborative and longest-lasting connections when they work together on tasks that require one another’s contributions. Indeed, this “task interdependence” can be one of the biggest sources of positive energy in professional relationships.
When your networking is driven by substantive, shared interests you’ve identified through active listening, empathy, and even serious research (yes my dears, you have to maximize your chances, when the stakes are high ! J) it will feel more authentic and meaningful and is more likely to lead to relationships that have those qualities too.
3. Think Broadly About What You Can Give
Even when you do not share an interest with someone, you can probably find something valuable to offer by thinking beyond the obvious. Of course, this isn’t always easy. We’ve found that people who feel powerless—because they are junior in their organizations, because they belong to a minority, or for other reasons—often believe they have too little to give and are therefore the least likely to engage in networking, even though they’re the ones who will probably derive the most benefit from it.
For instance, senior people are typically much more comfortable networking than junior people are because of their greater power in the organization. This makes sense. When people believe they have a lot to offer others, such as wise advice, mentorship, access, and resources, networking feels easier and less selfish.
However, even those with lower rank and less power almost certainly have more to offer than they realize. In their book Influence Without Authority, Allan Cohen and David Bradford note that most people tend to think too narrowly about the resources they have that others might value. Many of us tend focus on tangible, task-related things such as money, social connections, technical support, and information, while ignoring less obvious assets such as gratitude, recognition, and enhanced reputation. For instance, although mentors typically like helping others, they tend to enjoy it all the more when they are thanked for their assistance.
The more heartfelt the expression of gratitude, the greater its value to the recipient. One young professional shared that when she turned 30, she wrote to the 30 people she felt had contributed the most to her professional growth, thanking them and describing the specific ways each had helped her. The recipients no doubt appreciated the personalized update and acknowledgement.
When gratitude is expressed publicly, it can also enhance an adviser’s reputation in the workplace. Think of the effect you have when you sing your boss’s praises to your colleagues and superiors, outlining all the ways you’ve progressed under his or her tutelage.
When your networking is driven by shared interests, it will feel more authentic
People also appreciate those who understand their values and identities and make them feel included. Juan, an Argentinian executive based in the Toronto office of a Canadian property management company, told us about Hendrik, a junior hire from Germany who rallied everyone in the office to join a series of soccer games that he single-handedly organized. His fellow expats—and there were many, because the company’s workforce was internationally diverse—finally had something fun to do with their colleagues, and Hendrik’s status and connections immediately shot up. In spite of his low-power position, he had brought something new to the table.
You might also have unique insights or knowledge that could be useful to those with whom you’re networking. For example, junior people are often better informed than their senior colleagues about generational trends and new markets and technologies. The relationship is therefore likely to end up in a two-way street.
When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them, networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless—and therefore more worthy of your time.
4. Find a Higher Purpose
Another factor that affects people’s interest in and effectiveness at networking is the primary purpose they have in mind when they do it. People who focused on the collective benefits of making connections (“support my firm” and “help my clients”) rather than on personal ones (“support or help my career”) feel more authentic and less dirty while networking, are more likely to network, and had more billable hours as a result.
Any work activity becomes more attractive when it’s linked to a higher goal. So frame your networking in those terms. For instance, this approach has proven to help female executives overcome their discomfort about pursuing relationships with journalists and publicists. When they were reminded that women’s voices are underrepresented in business and that the media attention that would result from their building stronger networks might help counter gender bias, their deep-seated reluctance often vanishes.
Andrea Stairs, managing director of eBay Canada, had just such a change in perspective. “I had to get over the feeling that it would be self-centered and unseemly to put myself out there in the media,” she told us. “I realized that my visibility is actually good for my company and for the image of women in the business world in general. Seeing my media presence as a way to support my colleagues and other professional women freed me to take action and embrace connections I didn’t formerly cultivate.”
Many if not most of us are ambivalent about networking. We know that it’s critical to our professional success, yet we find it awkward and often distasteful. These strategies can help you overcome your aversion. By shifting to a promotion mindset, identifying and exploring shared interests, expanding your view of what you have to offer, and motivating yourself with a higher purpose, you’ll become more excited about and effective at building relationships that bear fruit for everyone.