5 Misconceptions About Networking

By Herminia Ibarra Harvard Business Review

A good network keeps you informed. Teaches you new things. Makes you more innovative. Gives you a sounding board to flesh out your ideas. Helps you get things done when you’re in a hurry. And, much more (see my recent Lean In video on how networks augment your impact).

But, for every person who sees the value of maintaining a far-reaching and diverse set of professional connections, many more struggle to overcome innate resistance to, if not distaste for, networking. In my 20 years of teaching about how to build and use networks more effectively, I have found that the biggest barriers people typically face are not a matter of skill but mind-set.

Listening closely to my MBA students’ and executives’ recurrent dilemmas, I have concluded that any one or more of five basic misconceptions can keep people from reaping networking’s full benefits. Which of these are holding you back?

Misconception 1: Networking is mostly a waste of time. A lack of experience with networking can lead people to question whether it’s a valuable use of their time, especially when the relationships being developed are not immediately related to the task at hand. Joe, a Latin American executive in a large company striving to promote greater collaboration, for example, told me that every single co-worker who visits his country asks him to meet. Last year alone he had received close to 60 people, a heavy burden on top of the day job. Rightly, he wonders whether it’s the best use of his time.

But, just because networks can do all these things, it doesn’t mean that yours will. It all depends on what kind of network you have, and how you go about building it. Most people are not intentional when it comes to their networks. Like Joe, they respond to requests, and reach out to others only when they have specific needs. Reaching out to people that you have identified as strategically important to your agenda is more likely to pay off.

Misconception 2. People are either naturally gifted at networking or they are not, and it’s generally difficult to change that. Many people believe that networking comes easily for the extroverted and runs counter to a shy person’s intrinsic nature. If they see themselves as lacking that innate talent, they don’t invest because they don’t believe effort will get them very far.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that people’s basic beliefs about “nature versus nurture” when it comes to personal attributes like intelligence or leadership skill have important consequences for the amount of effort they will put into learning something that does not come naturally to them. People with “fixed” theories believe that capacities are essentially inborn; people with growth mind-sets believe they can be developed over time.

As shown in a forthcoming academic paper by Kuwabara, Hildebrand, and Zou, if you believe that networking is a skill you can develop you are more likely to be motivated to improve it, work at it harder at it, and get better returns for your networking than someone with a fixed mind-set.

Misconception 3: Relationships should form naturally. One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about networking is that relationships should form and grow spontaneously, among people who naturally like each other. Working at it strategically and methodically, they believe, is instrumental, somehow even unethical.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it produces networks that are neither useful to you nor useful to your contacts because they are too homogenous. Decades of research in social psychology shows that left to our own devices we form and maintain relationships with people just like us and with people who are convenient to get to know to because we bump into them often (and if we bump into them often they are more likely to be like us).

These “narcissistic and lazy” networks can never give us the breadth and diversity of inputs we need to understand the world around us, to make good decisions and to get people who are different from us on board with our ideas. That’s why we should develop our professional networks deliberately, as part of an intentional and concerted effort to identify and cultivate relationships with relevant parties.

Misconception 4. Networks are inherently self-serving or selfish. Many people who fail to engage in networking justify their choice as a matter of personal values. They find networking “insincere” or “manipulative” — a way of obtaining unfair advantage, and therefore, a violation of the principle of meritocracy. Others, however, see networking in terms of reciprocity and giving back as much as one gets.

One study discovered that views about the ethics of networking tend to split by level. While junior professionals were prone to feeling “dirty” about the instrumental networking they knew they had to do to advance their careers, their seniors did not feel the slightest bit conflicted about it because they believed they had something of comparable value to offer.

The difference came down to confidence or doubt about the worth of their contributions, with junior professionals feeling more like supplicants than parties to equitable exchange. My own research suggests that the only way to conceive of networking in nobler, more appealing ways is to do it, and experience for oneself its value, not only for you but for your team and organization.

Misconception 5: Our strong ties are the most valuable. Another misconception that gets in the way of building a more useful network is the intuitive idea that our most important relationships in our network are our strong ties — close, high trust relationships with people who know us well, our inner circle. While these are indeed important, we tend to underestimate the importance of our “weak ties” — our relationships with people we don’t know well yet or we don’t see very often—the outer circle of our network.

The problem with our trusted advisers and circle of usual suspects is not that they don’t want to help. It’s that they are likely to have the same information and perspective that we do. Lots of research shows that innovation and strategic insight flow through these weaker ties that add connectivity to our networks by allowing us to reach out to people we don’t currently know through the people we do. That’s how we learn new things and access far flung information and resources.

One of the biggest complaints that the executives I teach have about their current networks is that they are more an accident of the past than a source of support for the future. Weak ties, the people on the periphery of our current networks, those we don’t know very well yet, hold the key to our network’s evolution.

Our mind-sets about networking affect the time and effort we put into it, and ultimately, the return we get on our investment. Why widen your circle of acquaintances speculatively, when there is hardly enough time for the real work? If you think you’re never going to be good at it? Or, that it is in the end, a little sleazy, at best political?

Mind-sets can change and do but only with direct experience. The only way you will come to understand that networking is one of the most important resources for your job and career is try it, and discover the value for yourself.

Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior and the Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning at Insead. She is the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career(Harvard Business Review Press, 2003). Follow her on Twitter @HerminiaIbarra and visit her website.

Networking for Introverts

shy-introvert
Networking can be enjoyable if you match it to your strengths and interests.

The night before a conference where I was scheduled to speak, I found myself in a crowded bar just south of Greenwich Village. The organizers had arranged a VIP reception, and — having just moved to New York — I figured I should attend. Indeed, I had good conversations with four interesting people whom I’ll probably keep in touch with. But when I walked out the door an hour later, I was thrilled with my revelation: I’m never doing that again.

It wasn’t the fault of the conference or the bar or the attendees. It was my realization that I’ve always hated socializing in noisy environments where you have to scream to be heard. As an introvert, I find it overwhelming — and that means I’m not at my best when connecting. In fact, many people find networking in general to be stressful or distasteful. But I’ve come to realize that networking is downright enjoyable when you match it to your strengths and interests, rather than forcing yourself to attend what the business world presents as archetypal “networking events.” Here’s how I’ve embraced networking in my own way.

Create your own events. If you’re game for any kind of networking, you don’t have to think too hard about which types of events to attend; as long as it’s the right crowd, you can make the connections you need. But if you prefer “minimally stimulating environments,” as many introverts do, others’ choices — from boozy harbor cruises to swanky after parties — may not be right for you. Instead, I’m increasingly trying to control my networking environment by creating my own events. In the next couple of months, I’m planning to bring together “interest groups” of colleagues whom I think would enjoy each other for dinner parties, from female journalists to business authors to fellow attendees of a conference I enjoy.

Understand when you’re at your best. My circadian rhythms are fairly normal, but I’m definitely not a morning person. Early in my career, I dutifully signed up to attend 500-person networking breakfasts, because “that’s what you do” as a businessperson. I eventually realized the shock of waking up at 6 a.m. to get downtown in time was making my entire day less productive, so I swore them off. (I gave up early morning exercise for the same reason.) For introverts, networking requires a little more cognitive effort: it’s fun, but you have to psych yourself up to be “on.” I don’t need to have the additional burden of doing it when I’m tired. I now stack the deck in my favor by refusing any meetings before 8 am or after 9 pm.

Rate the likelihood of connecting. Every networking event should be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis: if you weren’t here, what would you be doing, instead? Running the numbers is particularly important for introverts, because even if the alternative isn’t something overtly productive like writing a new business proposal, the cost side of the equation can be steep: you may be exhausting yourself emotionally for hours or days afterward. Ask yourself who’s likely to attend, and whether they’re your target audience (however you define that — potential clients, interesting colleagues, etc.). Then follow up by asking how likely it is that you’ll actually get to connect with them. Large, loud events hinder your chances. If it’s an intimate dinner, I’ll almost always say yes; if it’s a raucous roofdeck gathering, I’ll probably sneak out the back.

Calibrate your schedule. Athletes understand they need time for muscle recovery, so they follow up intense training days with time off. Introverts should do the same. As I write this, I’m in the midst of a “writing day,” where my plan is to bang out three blog posts; my only “meeting” today is with a repairman. Yesterday, on the other hand, I had three in-person meetings and two conference calls. Batching my activities allows me to focus, and alternating between social and quiet time enables me to be at my best when I do interact with people. Even if a networking opportunity appears interesting, I’m likely to decline if it’s on the heels of several busy days; I’ve come to understand I won’t be able to tap its full potential because I’ll feel emotionally run down. On the other hand, I’m more likely to say yes to an event, even if it’s just outside my wheelhouse, if the timing works and I know I’ll be fresh and open to engaging with new people.

Finding the type of gatherings that work for you will make your networking much more successful — and more enjoyable. There’s a reason so many events take place in noisy bars: some people love that. For those of us without that predilection, we need to start saying no to torturing ourselves in the belief that it’ll ultimately be good for us. Instead, we have to reclaim networking and do it our own way.

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by Dorie Clark Harvard Business Review