The Psychology of Networking

Joseph Barber recommends some best practices for introverts.

October 1, 2018
 
 
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With my Ph.D. in animal behavior, I have been specifically trained to identify and analyze subtle changes in the behavior of animals that I observe. The fact that I spent my time watching chickens for my Ph.D. will become relevant in a moment as I start talking about networking.

As an animal behaviorist, I have developed testable hypotheses about why behavior changes, and what internal or external factors lead to such changes. As a career adviser, I still use this scientific knowledge when it comes to human behavior -- we are just another type of animal, after all.

One of the most interesting career-related situations that is rich with behavior is networking. It is a social behavior, which tend to be some of the most complex behaviors we see in the animal kingdom. If I were trying to create a behavioral ethogram (a well-defined list of behaviors that observers can use when collecting data on behavior), I might define networking along the lines of a social, affiliative interaction involving direct or indirect physical or vocal communication between at least two individuals

If that is all networking is, then why can it seem so stressful to many of us? In terms of how I, and the many introverts like me, perceive networking, I might change the definition slightly to state: a social affiliative interaction involving direct or indirect physical or vocal communication between at least two individuals that results in a measurable stress response -- and one individual (or possibly even both) running back to their room, hiding under their covers and vowing never to do it again.

That’s not a scientific definition, but it is an accurate description of how many people experience networking events. That is how I experience them when faced with meeting lots of new people in a short, concentrated space of time (hello, every conference I have attended). Given that I studied chickens, perhaps my interest in understanding the struggles to network effectively makes a little more sense. If chickens were actually a cowardly species (they are not -- read this), then I would certainly associate myself with them when it comes to networking.

But chickens are not cowardly in the least. They are highly social, superinquisitive, and have been shown in research to identify up to 90 other chickens they have interacted with as familiar. They are probably much better networkers than I will ever be -- if they didn’t peck the living daylights out of unfamiliar birds they meet and tread in their own poop, that is. So, if chickens can actually be effective networkers in their own way, then there is also plenty of hope for those of us who find some parts of the networking experience draining and overwhelming at times. Here are some best practices for introverts based in the science of animal behavior, more or less:

Keep your social groups small. Speaking with another person where the ratio is one to one rather than one to many is always going to be easier to manage. You will find that this networking approach suddenly just feels like having a conversation and is not bad at all. It is OK to avoid large networking events, or find opportunities for small groups conversations within them, and it is great to prioritize one-on-one informational interviews with people in career fields that interest you.

Focus on the needs of others to distract you from any negative emotional states. One of the key approaches to any networking outreach is to make sure the person with whom you are interacting feels positive about that interaction. I have talked about the fear response I get if someone asks if they can “just grab a coffee” here. If someone I didn’t know reached out and asked if I could forward their résumé on to a hiring manager in my office, it would first make me feel a little awkward -- how can I say no politely other than just ignoring the request? -- and then perhaps a little angry. Why am I now spending so much time worrying about how to say no? Why would this person put me in a position to be angry at myself? All of these negative feelings become connected with the person who reached out to me.

So how do you make people feel positive? You value them for who they are and appreciate what they are willing to share, and you thank them -- authentically and often. For example, if someone were to reach out to me and ask what some of the trends are in the field of career professionalism for Ph.D.s and postdocs, I would need to give this some serious thought. Serious thought takes time, and even after a lot of this time, I still wouldn’t be able to come up with a very satisfying answer for this high-level question. The question is a neutral one -- it doesn’t make me feel bad, but it doesn’t leave me feeling positive.

Now, if I was asked what I have done at the University of Pennsylvania to focus on career professionalism for Ph.D.s, it wouldn’t require deep thinking. It would give me an opportunity to talk about something I have invested lots of time in already and that am likely to be engaged by. If the person I am talking to finds hearing about the approaches I have taken with my team at Penn to be interesting and valuable, then that is going to make me feel good.

Positively reinforce behaviors you want to see more frequently. If you have given your dog or cat a treat immediately after they have performed a behavior you like and want to see more of, then you are engaged in the process of positive reinforcement training. Once an animal makes a connection between a behavior and the reward, the behavior will occur more often.

You can train most animals in this way. If you want people you meet through your networking outreach to continue to provide you with great insight, then make sure that you positively reinforce them, too. Always send a thank-you note or email to people who have taken the time to speak with you within 24 hours after meeting them. This works just as effectively after speaking with employers at a career fair or an actual job interview. The longer you wait, the less effective the reinforcement is.

If a contact you have met suggests someone else you can speak with, go ahead and do so. Thank your new contact after you have met them, and then get back in contact with your initial contact to tell them how helpful your conversation was with the person they recommended. Everyone likes to be thanked. If you are authentic in your thanks, you might find that your contact is more willing to suggest someone else that they know as your next outreach contact.

Use your social connectors effectively. People often ask me how they can tap in to the many second-degree connections that they have on LinkedIn. (Second-degree connections are people whom you don’t know but someone whom you know does know). That is a fantastic way to grow your networking and make the sometimes scary step of reaching out to new people much more effective.

Let’s say I want to reach out to James, who works as a senior scientist in a biotech firm I am interested in. I don’t know James, but I see that I am connected to Magda on LinkedIn, and Magda is connected to James. I can leverage my existing relationship with Magda in one of three ways to establish a connection with James. I could ask Magda to share the email she has for James. First-degree connections on LinkedIn can see each other’s email addresses. With this email, I could reach out directly, but that could still be a hit-or-miss approach if I don’t leverage my social connections. Or I could ask Magda to introduce me to James. Magda might send an email to James directly, copying me in and asking if James would be able to speak with me. That is the most effective approach, but it requires the most effort from Magda. As a third alternative and good middle-ground approach is to ask Magda if I can use her name when reach out to James. For example, I might write:

"Hi, James, I saw on LinkedIn that we both know Magda Patel. I worked with her for a couple of years at Penn in the student consulting club. I contacted Magda, and she highly recommend that I reach out to you and said that you would be a great person to ask about some of the genetic sequencing projects at your company. This is an area I am very interested in exploring in terms of industry career paths, and so I would love to hear a little about your experience in this field. Can I send you a couple of quick questions by email or set up a time to chat on the phone, if that is easier? This would be so helpful in my exploration of possible paths to focus on when I graduate next year."

The reason that James might be more likely to respond to this email is that he might not want to lose his social standing and reputation that he now feels he has with other people -- in this case, Magda. If Magda highly recommends him, and says he is such a great person to talk with, and then he turns down my request, it will result in an immediate loss of perceived status. If I reached out to James directly without involving Magda, he could easily ignore my outreach without feeling too bad. As soon as another person is involved, James is likely to be much more aware of how he is perceived both by me and the person whom he knows. The truth is, I may have just asked Magda if she recommended James and thought he would be great to reach out to, and she might have just said yes, but that is good enough to get the social connection process started.

So there you go: some easy to use, biologically sound, behavioral-based approaches to help you (and your chickens) with networking!

Bio

Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Career Consortium logoand a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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