”I hate networking.” We hear this all the time from executives, other professionals, and MBA students. They tell us it makes them feel uncomfortable and phony. But in today's world, networking is a necessity and there is actually nothing phony about it, everything is a question of approach and perspective.
Some people have a natural passion for networking —namely, the extroverts who love and thrive on social interaction— but many understandably see it as brown-nosing, exploitative, and inauthentic. Nevertheless, a mountain of research shows that better 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.
Fortunately, an aversion to networking can be overcome. Here are 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 network because they 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 tend to feel inauthentic while engaged in it, so they do it less often and, as a result, underperform in aspects of their jobs.
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.
Consider a work-related social function 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 palatable 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. Numerous studies in social psychology have demonstrated that people establish the most collaborative and longest-lasting connections when they work together on tasks that require one another’s contributions.
When your networking is driven by substantive, shared interests you’ve identified through serious research, 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. Juniors in their organizations or people belonging to minorities 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.
However, even those with lower rank and less power almost certainly have more to offer than they realize. Most people tend to think too narrowly about the resources they have that others might value. They 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.
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.
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.
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 focus on the collective benefits of making connections rather than personal ones feel more authentic while networking and are more likely to network.
Any work activity becomes more attractive when it’s linked to a higher goal. So frame your networking in those terms.
Many if not most of us are ambivalent about networking. We know that it’s critical to our professional success, yet we find it taxing 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.