It’s not the size of your network that matters, but how you go about nurturing relationships among your contacts. Dr Rob Yeung explores the latest research
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This article was first published in the July/August 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
A recent study confirmed the importance of networking in building a successful career. Researchers led by Purdue University’s Caitlin Porter monitored 371 employees over two years and found that employees who spent more time building, maintaining and using relationships with people outside of their own organisation tended to receive more job offers.
Given that the vast majority of job offers come with higher salaries, I suspect most people would judge that a desirable outcome.
However, an effective network is not merely large. Research by Rob Cross at the University of Virginia and Robert Thomas at Tufts University identified a slight inverse relationship between the size of people’s networks and their work performance.
The strength of each relationship may matter more than the sheer number of relationships when it comes to networking. It is relatively easy to go to a conference and introduce yourself to a dozen people. But weeks after the event, how many of them would be genuinely pleased to take your call or meet you for an informal drink – let alone agree to a request for a favour? High performers focus more on longer, deeper conversations with the aim of developing a small number of genuine relationships or even friendships.
When seeking to capitalise on your network of contacts for career gain, consider that your warmth and friendliness may be more important than your skill and knowledge. In a classic series of studies, Tiziana Casciaro from the University of Toronto and Miguel Sousa Lobo from INSEAD in France collected data on patterns of collaboration in both the private and public sector. Based on their data, the research duo concluded that employees ‘consistently showed a preference for people they liked but considered mediocre at the task over competent but unpleasant people’. In other words, your colleagues may want to work with you based more on your interpersonal skills than your intellect. The implication: ensure that you build a reputation throughout your interactions with others as someone who is likeable as well as smart.
Other people are likely to seek you out for projects and advice when they enjoy your company. However, research suggests that in at least one situation, you should probably not rely too heavily on this strategy for yourself. Michael McDonald and James Westphal at the University of Texas at Austin gathered data on the advice-seeking behaviour of 241 chief executives as well as the subsequent financial performance of their companies.
When faced with poor company performance, CEOs who sought advice from either colleagues with a similar background or friends tended to achieve lower performance improvements for their companies. That suggests that people with too similar a background or people with whom you have genuine social relationships may either be unable or unwilling to give you the kind of guidance and criticism that you may need.
The kinds of people you network with will also determine your success. A study led by Zhongfeng Su at Nanjing University in China looked at the networking behaviour of Chinese entrepreneurs. Engaging in political networking – attempting to cultivate links with government officials – was correlated with poorer business performance. In contrast, engaging in business networking with buyers, suppliers and competitors was associated with better business performance.
I mention the study by Su’s team not to imply that everyone must network more with buyers, suppliers and competitors and never with government officials. Instead, the point is that there are likely to be marked differences in the kinds of networking that will be appropriate and effective for people in different roles, industries and countries.
Perhaps the best advice on networking is to identify and learn from high-performing individuals with strong, effective networks who are in your line of work and industry. What do they do – and how might you emulate it for yourself?
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.
CPD technical article
"People with whom you have genuine social relationships may be unable to give you the kind of guidance and criticism you need"