Most career experts agree that a strong professional network is a cornerstone of a successful career. The popularity of social media sites like LinkedIn, which is aimed at professionals, is one indicator that many have bought into these ideas. LinkedIn is one of the most popular social networks online with over 500 million members.
There are other stats about networking that support claims about its importance. For example, some estimate that upwards of 85 percent of open positions are filled through the process.
But, it’s hard to measure the real impact your network has on your professional trajectory. Some think that it’s worth questioning our beliefs about the importance of the practice and that our estimates about its impact could be overstated. Perhaps there is a better way to spend your time.
Is Networking Really Worth It?
Shana Lebowitz debated networking’s effectiveness, in comparison to the time and energy engaging in it demands, for Business Insider. Her questions about networking arose despite the fact that her own employment came about through a social contact.
“A few years ago, I was looking for a new job and mentioned as much to an old coworker (who’d become a friend) when we got together for drinks,” Lebowitz states in her piece entitled, Don’t bother inviting me to catch up over coffee – I’m done networking and I’m starting to think you should be, too. “Days later, she emailed me a Business Insider job posting that I’d missed in my search and, well, the rest is history.”
However, despite this personal experience (which she wrote she wasn’t quite sure counted as networking) Lebowitz went on a quest to find out whether or not the practice is really all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it’s better to actually work and apply yourself to your job than it is to schmooze? She noticed that despite her own belief in the importance of networking, she wasn’t finding much time for it, due to the demands of her job. She felt pressure to bond with her professional peers, but wondered if it was really the best use of her time.
“Still, I couldn’t help but think back to a 2017 New York Times op-ed by Wharton psychologist Adam Grand, in which he debunked the myth that networking will propel you to success,” Lebowitz wrote. “Instead, Grant wrote, producing actual good work will get you noticed and get you where you want to go.”
After some soul-searching and some pointed conversations with other professionals (some who defended the importance of the practice and others who said they don’t much bother) Lebowitz decided that networking isn’t for her. At least, it’s not something that she’s going to go about engaging with intentionally.
The idea that networking can be a waste of time and energy might resonates with you. On the other hand, you might feel passionately that it’s a worth all the effort. But, no matter how you feel, critics make some great points about the challenges of the practice and how it can hold workers back.
Let’s break this down a little further:
The challenges of networking:
Many professionals find that building and maintaining a robust network is pretty difficult for a host of reasons. Here are a few of the most common challenges:
- Introverts often find networking to be especially difficult and draining. These folks do best when they’re allowed to spend a good bit of time working quietly and autonomously. Many don’t enjoy networking, as a general rule. And some introverts downright fear it.
- Networking online can take a lot of time. And, spending too much time on social media can be really bad for your career. “Every minute you spend on social media is a minute lost on your career,” author Richard St.John told CNBC. “One will make you money, the other won’t.”
- Networkers can run into various biases that make the practice more difficult. When researchers followed 1,815 male and female Wall Street analysts with the same number of school-based connections they found that men were more likely to get professional help from their contacts than women. Racial biases can also play a major role in networking’s effectiveness. And, age, weight and other factors often matter as well.
- Networking can be a distraction. Instead of focusing on what’s going on right now, it pulls you into the future and stops you from being present. This can be disruptive, and it can hinder your ability to fully engage with your job in the here and now.
- The whole thing can feel really uncomfortable and more than a little phony. A lot of workers don’t enjoy the feeling of building new connections when the process feels forced and false.
Networking does have its drawbacks, especially when it’s strictly defined. But, does networking have to mean intentionally going out of your way to schmooze with someone you don’t know? Definitely not.
There are ways to develop and enhance relationships effectively and comfortably without taking anything away from your job.
The fix – Network your way
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to networking. Instead, it’s best to engage in ways that are best for you. Here are some tips for networking your way, while keeping the drawbacks of the practice to an absolute minimum.
Loosen up the labels
Be careful not to define networking too strictly when deciding internally whether or not it’s right for you. Networking isn’t just defined as work-conferences and schmooze-drenched lunches. It’s really just about being, and staying, connected to others.
No one can do everything entirely themselves. Everyone can benefit from a little support once in a while. And, that’s really what networking comes down to in the end. It’s about using your resources.
If you’re moving to a new city, for example, why not reach out to people that you know who are already there who might be able to help you get settled and find work? Likewise, if you’re thinking of changing careers, there’s a lot you can learn from reaching out to friends who are already working in your new industry.
Networking doesn’t have to be so formal and intimidating. Don’t think of it too strictly or it could easily become overwhelming. Instead, know that networking is really just about staying connected to the people you’ve met throughout your life. There are excellent reasons, both personal as well as professional, for keeping these relationships going. It’s not all about work.
Networking shouldn’t feel forced or uncomfortable. There are tons of ways to network without the yuck factor that so many have come to dread. Instead, it should feel natural and normal since the whole process is really just about staying connected to others in authentic and meaningful ways.
Identify your networking comfort zone
It helps to network in ways that are best for you. If you like being online, than professional social networking sites might be the best way for you to keep up with your contacts. If you enjoy getting together with friends one-on-one, than do that. Alternatively, if you prefer socializing within a big group, embrace opportunities to do so when possible.
Get to know yourself and your own networking preferences. Than, don’t worry too much if you stay in your comfort zone for the most part. Only push beyond if you really want to do so. Networking in ways that feel easy and natural will help you to be your best self during these interactions, and that will help you shine.
Networking is for introverts, too
The process of building and maintaining professional contacts can be especially challenging for introverts. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Introverts can be awesome networkers. But, they do well when the approach things in ways that work best for them.
Introverts should always remember to try to play to their strengths when it comes to networking, or anything else for that matter. They are usually great listeners, and very deep-thinkers, for example. These are excellent networking traits. However, introverts usually do better in quieter and more focused settings than in a big group. So, learn what works best for you.
It may also help to remember that good networkers keep the focus on the other guy, not on themselves. This should come easily and naturally for introverts.
Introverts also do well with some preparation. Don’t walk into a “networking opportunity,” whether it’s a casual lunch date or a more formal meeting, without doing some work in advance. Come up with a few questions and few topics to discuss in ahead of time. That will help you to feel more relaxed and fully present during the meeting.
Don’t stress it
Networking shouldn’t stress you out. If it is getting to you, then you should pull back and invest that energy into your job instead.
Remember that networking doesn’t have to be an unnatural process. It’s just about building authentic connections with others and strengthening those bonds. This is something that benefits your whole life, not just your work.
Sadly, in this day and age, you might need a reminder once in a while to touch base with your human contacts. It’s all too easy to live and work in something a vacuum these days. But, that’s not only bad for your career, it’s damaging to the overall quality of your life in general.
You need other people in your life, for all kinds of reasons. So, don’t let the concept of “networking” stress you out. Instead, just keep in mind that staying close with others, and meeting new people once in a while, is good for you in all kinds of ways. Embracing this idea will help you to become a great networker, whether you define it that way or not. And, you won’t feel like you’re giving anything up either.
Tell Us What You Think
Do you think that networking is worth the time and effort? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.