A New Way to Look at Networking

In some of the career-development workshops I offer, I ask attendees to give me their business cards. I choose one card randomly and ask the owner to raise his or her hand. Then I walk over, look the person in the eye, and say, “It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’m returning from a hiking trip in the Grand Canyon. I’m 100 miles from Tucson and my car has just broken down. I really need a ride home. Can you come and get me?”

The typical role-playing response involves significant squirming and a string of excuses. I hear about sleeping children, spouses that wouldn’t understand, challenges with night vision and suggestions that involve calling AAA. Some participants even point out that they don’t really know me. “But I have your card,” I say. “When we met, you said that I should call you anytime, and I really need you.” I end the exchange by expressing profound disappointment at the broken promise before we move into a philosophical discussion about our motivations for networking.

These conversations came to mind when I read Rob Jenkins’s recent piece on networking, in which he asserted that academic types tend to find it disingenuous to forge connections in the hope that the new contacts might prove useful. I think he’s right: That does feel creepy. But a simple reframing can make the networking process feel better.

Instead of viewing the process of meeting others as a way to advance our professional success, what if we viewed the new connections as a way to enrich our personal lives and legacies? Rather than asking, “What can they do for me?,” what if we asked, “What might I learn from them?” or even better, “What might I do for them?”

If that seems sappy, consider research findings reported by Adam Grant, a faculty member at the Wharton School and author of Give and Take. He classifies networkers as “givers,” “takers,” or “matchers.” His analysis suggests that quid pro quo networkers are far less successful than those who help others without expecting something in return. In short, it’s better to be a giver than a taker or even to expect reciprocity. Besides, it just feels better not to expect every relationship to deliver a return on investment.

Have you ever helped someone without an expectation of reciprocity? How do you decide how to invest your emotional energy? What are the downsides of quid pro quo expectations?

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