Networking is one of the most enduring business buzz words. It applies to all functions and industries. There are books and courses that teach why and how to effectively network your way to success. LinkedIn has an entire business model built around it. Occasionally, in order to not seem repetitive, we will use the word connection. While we tend to use them interchangeably I would argue these are actually two different things. Both are useful and have their place in our personal and professional lives. The challenge is we tend to approach them as interchangeably as the words. Yet, we know when someone has networked to us versus connected with us.
Networking is something computers do. Connection is something living creatures do. At the risk of potentially sounding confusing a network is an interconnection to one another typically for an exchange of information. A connection is a shared experience with someone else. Still with me? Good. We’ve all attended networking events with plenty of business in hand. The conversation tends to be focused on what the other person does. We collect the business card, exchange pleasantries and afterwards don’t follow up with the person. Unless, of course, there is a mutually beneficial reason to do so. When we connect with another human being we develop a sense of how we feel around that person. We remember personality traits, preferences and the experience of knowing that person. More importantly we want to talk with that person again and get to know more about them. The funny thing about connection is we did naturally as children, teenagers and even in college. This formed our inner circle of friends. When we entered the workforce somewhere along the way we got the message that we need to network to as many people as possible. This network will help us find jobs, business partners or information we need. We may not be as concerned with the personality traits of the other individual as long as we reach the desired goal.
Don’t dismay, networking has its place and so does connection. Here are five reasons you should focus more on connecting than networking.
1. Connection just feels good. When was the last time you left a networking event and said “wow, I feel great about myself”? Hmmm. How did you feel after having a great conversation with a co-worker or someone in the same industry as you? And by great I mean you learned more about the person beyond how they earn a living. Perhaps you attended the same school, worked at the same company or are from the same small town in California. That common bond sparked a conversation that allowed you to peek behind the curtain. That good feeling is not a fluke. As you connected with that person your body released oxytocin, the hug hormone. The release of oxytocin tells your brain you like interacting with the person and to do it again. This will lead your brain to act in such a way that will encourage reconnecting with the person. You may start to mimic their movements or laugh at what they say when it isn’t funny. Biologically speaking you are trying to form a connection with the person so that you can continue to feel good. Networking to a person doesn’t really cause you to open up. If we’ve networked well we will release dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine reinforces the feeling we get from accomplishing a goal and serotonin is about the feeling of being respected.
2. It’s appropriate in the workplace. We spend most of our days with co-workers, employees, customers, etc. yet somehow we feel we should limit our connection within these groups. The best team is a connected team. Being vulnerable with your colleagues and even your leadership can have a profound impact on productivity and results. Stop squirming in your seat. I’m not suggesting that you divulge your deepest secrets to your team. People perform for people they trust. Trust is built through connection (the release of oxytocin). The most successful leaders throughout time have consistently cited connection as one of the tools of their success. Yet, we get to work and experience very little of it. People are busy and have their own agenda. It’s like the emails you get from people who have forgotten there’s a human being on the receiving end. One of the most profound moments I have ever had at work was with a high-ranking executive who at one time was my one-over manager. He was leaving the company and I went to say my goodbyes. He had been a great mentor to me but I don’t believe we were ever connected, or so I thought. He was so raw and vulnerable while he revealed the true reason he was leaving. It takes an immense amount of trust to believe the person sitting across from you in that moment won’t run out the door and tell everyone what you just said. But by him doing that it allowed me to do the same with others who I thought would be a good risk. Not all risks work out, but I’ll get to that.
3. Connection isn’t a numbers game. When LinkedIn started to gain in popularity I believe people were secretly trying to up their “connection” numbers. Once you hit 500 links your status just shows as “500+”. This is the quintessential premise behind networking. You want to create pathways that help you reach a goal or accomplish a task. In some companies the only way to find out about job opportunities or be considered is to be highly networked. Connection on the other hand isn’t about the quantity, it’s about the quality. Within even the largest network you must have strong connections that will act on your behalf. These people can become your advocates if necessary. But that’s not why you connect with them, it’s a side effect of connecting with them. Believe me, people know when you’re trying to connect with them for that purpose alone. Developing meaningful relationships with people is also good for getting feedback Not to mention having a work “spouse” or “sibling” helps the day go by faster. It creates a strong sense of team and togetherness. A team with a sense of togetherness will be more productive and will take failure much better than a team who is torn apart. While it’s the leader’s job to create the environment for team cohesion, each member must be willing to put their trust on the line. Any member that doesn’t runs the risk of being cut from the team. The same is true in the animal kingdom. Animals tend to live in groups. If one animal in the group doesn’t rely on the others they are cast out.
4. Connection isn’t about status. There is something appealing to most about having people in your network with high titles. But there is something truly satisfying about being connected with someone who knows you don’t eat gluten and your favorite color is purple. It may be cool to be able to say you spoke with a certain high ranking official but it’s way cooler to say someone called you because they thought of you. We can expand our individual network by linking to someone with a large network. The assumption is the higher an individual is in the hierarchy the larger the network. So not true. People who know how to connect with others are typically good networkers and boast the largest pool of people in their circle. These people are known as nodes or hubs – #KevinBacon. A person’s professional or social position should not in any way dictate connecting with them. You want to have a mutually beneficial relationship with someone that feels good to both of you.
5. Be specific with your connections. Remember when I said that not all risks work out? You have to carefully consider who you will connect with. Networking is different in this regard. Knowing the shortest pathway to information or an individual is great. Having direct access to that pathway is invaluable. I have plenty of people in my network. The occasional email, call or text is good in order to stay in touch. Sometimes a true connection is spontaneous and sometimes you have to work at it. But there are some connections you should not make. I recall connecting with a coworker who I thought would become a friend. This was someone I could seeing spending time with outside of work. It turns out that person used our connection to serve their own purposes. I know this because when I suspected this person might have ulterior motives for connecting with me I gave them false information about something. The next day someone I trusted repeated the information to me not knowing I was the source. In cases like that, you live it and learn it. Choose wisely and don’t connect with people who don’t want to connect with you. They may prefer to just be networked to you and that’s okay. Don’t take it personal. There are all sorts of reasons they may not want to connect. But keep an open mind on them for later. You never know.
Now that I’ve given you the reasons to focus on connection here are some suggestions on how to do it.
- Be genuine. Bring yourself to the interaction while maintaining a professional demeanor when warranted. The situation may call for being more personal than professional.
- Be vulnerable. Share a little of yourself. It doesn’t have to be your whole life story. I’m a very private person but when I feel a connection to someone I’m more inclined to share.
- Consider the other gender and other races. Even though networking is good men tend to network with men and women tend to network with women; same with the races. Your pool of connections (and your network) should be like the united colors of Benetton. If everyone in your circle looks like you, it’s really a square.
- Find common ground. I don’t do well with small talk. Partly because I’m an introvert but mainly because it typically doesn’t lead somewhere after five minutes. Small talk can be a great way to find common ground from which to springboard into meaningful conversation. After five or ten minutes it may not go very far. My standard go-to common ground topics are school, home town and sports team. Nine times out of ten I can get somewhere with these topics. Topics to avoid are religion and politics.
- Share a brief story about yourself. Sharing a quick anecdote that relates to the situation can break the ice. I’ve done it in this post without revealing my life story. It helps illustrate the point I’m trying to make while sharing a bit about myself that may resonate with someone else. Storytelling never goes out of style.
- For goodness sake, just do it!
About the author. Nile Harris is a word weaver and dream believer with 2o years of experience in healthcare and finance. This aspiring speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own. Connect with Nile at her LinkedIn profile and follow @theNileHarris.