If you avoid networking because it feels somehow distasteful or even downright loathsome, you’re not alone.
For example, take my client Stephanie, who just started as the head of merchandising at a large retail company. Stephanie knew she should strengthen her professional network, but when I first met with her, I think she would have cheerfully chosen a dental extraction over a networking event—as she described with a shudder, “I just don’t like it. It feels so awkward and unnatural.” Stephanie continued to explain that, in her view, networking felt calculating and inauthentic. She just couldn’t shake the feeling that she would be using others for her own selfish ends. With this view of networking, it’s no wonder Stephanie was turned off.
Research has shown that when people approach professional networking to gain career benefits, it leads to feelings of dirtiness and a desire for cleansing. The researchers explain, “instrumental networking for professional goals can impinge on an individual’s moral purity—a psychological state that results from a person’s view of the self as clean from a moral standpoint and through which a person feels virtuous—and thus make him feel dirty.” Problematically, the research also uncovered that this unpleasant feeling tends to impact those who most need to develop their networks—those with less power.
The reality is that cultivating an effective network offers substantial professional and personal benefits. A strong network is positively associated with finding new jobs, obtaining promotions, and receiving pay raises. Perhaps surprisingly, it is also associated with innovation, creativity, and even health and happiness.
What’s the solution to moving past the moral discomfort and this seeming bind? Turn the tables on your discomfort: Adopt a generous mindset and a service-driven approach. Think of networking as an opportunity to give, rather than to get. In the short term, this approach can help you overcome resistance to building a network. And in the long term, being a giver is the best strategy for building a valuable network imbued with reciprocity and rising in your career.
If you’re early in your career, switching careers, or new to an industry or community (similar to Stephanie’s position), you may doubt you have something valuable to offer. However, there’s always something you can extend to other; and you probably have more to offer than you realize. Turn to all or a few of these simple ways to be intentional in your interactions, offer real benefit to others, and build a strong and effective network.
Rather than thinking about selling yourself, focus on getting to know the other person and building a relationship. Show genuine curiosity in the person you are talking to and ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. People find disclosing information about themselves to be intrinsically rewarding. By inviting someone to share about themselves or soliciting their opinion, you will increase activity in the areas of their brain associated with reward and pleasure.
Simple questions such as, “how did you get into this profession?” or “what’s your biggest challenge?’ or “what do you most love about your role?” will help deepen the conversation and connection.
People have a fundamental need to be seen and heard, and yet there is an absence of high-quality listening in this busy world. Really good listeners add profound value to their interactions. When people talk with a good listener, they feel less anxious, can hold more complex nuanced thinking, and are willing to share more with other people.
Give 100% of your attention to your conversations, listen without interruption, and follow up with open and thoughtful questions. Your conversational partners will find you charming and likable. And in addition to these excellent benefits, you’re also more likely to learn something new.
Share experiences and perspectives
You have a wholly unique perspective, gained from the constellation of your professional and personal experiences and the position you’re in now. Research has shown that good innovative ideas are not typically born out of individual genius but instead arise from mixing with various individuals from different backgrounds and with different mindsets.
So regardless of whether you’re new to your career, the industry, or the community, recognize that you could help someone else see things in a new way or land on a great idea. For example, you may be able to share best practices from another company or industry in which you’ve worked. It’s also possible that an idea that may seem obvious or mundane to you could be a valuable insight to another. And fresh eyes or different perceptions are invaluable. As one senior finance executive explained to me, “I’m always interested in talking to industry newcomers. I’m curious to know what they’ve heard about us and how they see our company and the industry. That outside view is enlightening.”
Send a thoughtful follow-up
The opportunity for you to be a giver extends beyond your initial conversation. Think about the person you just met and follow up with an article, notice of an event, or podcast recommendation that they might appreciate. Also, could you be a connector? Consider whether there is someone you know that your new acquaintance might like to meet. Think about people you know who have similar interests, hold similar positions, or are in complementary industries and offer an introduction.
If you avoid networking because it feels like distasteful self-promotion, flip the script like Stephanie did and think about what you can give. Especially if you’re new to your career, job, or the community, remember that the benefits you can offer to another go beyond those strictly related to work and extend to more personal, relational benefits: making someone feel heard, appreciated, and valued.
By thinking more broadly about what you can offer to others and adopting a generous mindset, you can approach networking without moral qualms. And you’ll be well on your way to establishing strong, mutually beneficial relationships and an effective network.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.