A Community Built from a Game

CC Share Alike-Attribution  image Cyclonebiskit

CC Share Alike-Attribution image Cyclonebiskit

In the summer of 2016, a viral infection hit the mobile phones of the world.  Like all things viral, it spread without warning and most adults probably were infected by their kids.  This particular viral event was the game Pokemon GO.  Pokemon GO is a location-based video game that you play with your cellphone based on the classic kids' collectable card game.  In the game, you wander around with your GPS on and collect little creatures called Pokemon and then make your way to specific spots where there are  arenas to have them battle one another. 


This game was a such a trend last summer that bars were publicizing the pokemon attractiveness of their locations, people were hopping fences to get to special spots in the game and political candidates were referencing it on the campaign trail.  But for at least one family, it was more than just a trend. 


I saw this story on twitter, with the names redacted.  A mother with a son on the autism spectrum tells how she introduced her son to Pokemon GO.  Her son reacted as excitedly as most kids did to the game.  But more than that, he became engaged. 


A little boy saw him and recognized what he was doing. They immediately had something in common. He asked Ralphie how many he had caught. Ralph didn't really answer him, other than to shriek "POKEMON!!!!" and jump up and down with excitement while flapping his arms. Then the little boy showed him how many HE had caught (over 100!) and Ralph said "WOWWWW!" and they high-fived.


The mother went on to tell how other people interacted with her son, giving advice, cheering him on and comparing catches.  Because of autism, Ralph was not often approached by other kids looking to connect, and when that did happen, he often didn’t react in ways that were positive.  The connection this day was rare and amazing for her family; a wonderful outcome of a silly game. 


It really wasn't the game that brought out the socializing in Ralphie and the strangers he encountered.  The game made it possible, yes, but the community that evolved around the game made the interaction possible.  In the academic world, this is called a community of practice, and it’s a powerful connector.


Communities of practice were conceptualized by Etienne Wenger in the 1990s.   He describes them as the collection of people who share a set of goals, practices and identities.  Communities of practice aren't a work team - they don't have the same goal.  They are trying to get similar things done in their own space.  Unlike the story of Robbers Cave, communities of practice share identity not through achieving something together, but by achieving similar things independently.  This dynamic plays out through having shared engagement, shared context and a common experience.


1.    Shared engagement - Shared engagement is knowing the process of someone's work because you see it or do it yourself. Shared engagement isn’t working together but doing the same or similar work.  Pokemon GO players weren’t trying to collect digital animals for the same team, they each had their own.  But they did have the same rules and processes for how to go about getting them all.  

2.    Shared context - for Ralphie, the new shared context was the game.  For professionals, the shared context is the realities of working in firms or corporations, the type of clients they serve, the way work shapes their personal lives.  This context can be the same without being exactly the same:  accountants share a context, even if they don't work for the same big accounting firm.  

3.    Common experience - When people have shared engagement and contexts, they generate and are exposed to shared stories, similar people, and similar adventures and misadventures.  The common experience is the connective tissue of a community of practice when people change contexts or work:  the common experience still remains to keep people from being completely disconnected.


One of the effects of a community of practice, according to Wenger, is a shared identity centered on the practice. I've already covered the positive effect of shared identity and how to find small clues we are in the same groups.  The community of practice is another link that we share with people.  Communities of practice don't require that we share the same goal or work side-by-side regularly.  In fact, communities of practice can include people we compete against and people we have never worked side-by-side with.  The connection in a community of practice is anchored on the context and processes of our work.  There is commonality in our experience even when we don't have common experiences. 


So what can knowledge of the community of practice do for The Networked Leader? First, it helps to know that you are a part of a community, whether you are aware of it or not. Even if you have only ever practiced banjo by yourself on your front porch, you are in the banjo Community of Practice.  You share the experience of fingernail ripping and the context of Deliverance jokes.  You belong.  Turning this knowledge into action may involve finding an active group to participate in or just connecting around your practice.  In either case, knowing that you are a legitimate member of a community is powerful. 


Second, communities of practice are great places to learn.  While the practice is similar, and the context often similar, the members of a community of practice have different experiences which provide potentially huge insights.  When we see someone as being like us, the differences are magnified <<<link>>>, and similar-but-different is a great place to find innovative answers to problems.


Finally, formal communities of practice such as associations, guilds or conferences are great sources of weak ties - those connections that provide the avenue for new information, resources and opportunities to come into our world. 


Young Ralphie found a community of practice that accepted and embraced him for his joy in a new game.  Communities of practice can be great opportunities for all of us to connect, belong and learn. Just remember these keys:


1.    If you practice, you belong.  No matter how novice or expert you are. 

2.    Communities of practice are places of learning.  They provide a wellspring of experience and insight at your fingertips

3.    Shared practices anchor connections.  Coming together with a community of practice is an opportunity to expand your networks and reach out beyond your company or school.


Your Brain, networking and rejection

One of the reoccurring challenges for people is engaging their network - first connections at conferences and cocktail hours;  seeking aid to get something done or learn something.  We have a hard time reaching out.  This hard time is difficult to describe, and often leaves us afraid.

Why are we scared?

To explore the aversion to connecting with someone, we need to play a game called Cyberball.  Or, rather, look at an adventure in Cyberball.  Cyberball is a game developed by Christopher Cheung, Wilma Choi and Kip Williams in order to examine social ostracism, exclusion and rejection.   It is a video game that simulates an old-fashioned game of catch, with a twist.  The experimental participant plays on a screen with two other people, tossing the virtual ball around.   The twist is that the other two people are actually computer programs and at a certain time, they start playing with each other and ignore the participant.  Kip Williams has used this for over 15 years to uncover our reactions to being left out both online and in the real world. 

Cyberball's relation to the concern people have when engaging in rejection is intuitive: we all dislike rejection and being left out.  But more than intuitive, there is hardwired evidence for this aversion.  Williams partnered up with neuroscientists to examine participants' reactions to cyberball while inside an fMRI machine.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines take images of blood flow in the brain to see what parts are more active during different cognitive tasks. 

In this case, the researchers knew that ostracism in person and on screen would lower people's sense of belonging, control, self-esteem and having a meaningful existence.  They wanted to see how the brain reacted during those events to increase our understanding of the social brain. 

fMRI research is done in hospitals, because that is where the MRI machines are.  This location lead to a coincidence that helped Eisnberg, Lieberman and Williams understand how we feel social rejection.  One day while examiningthe images in the fMRI lab, a researcher working on a physical pain study was working next to them.  They commented on the similarities between the two images: both subjects had the same areas of the brain lit up in their images.  It turns out, we feel the social pain of rejection in the same place we feel actual, physical pain. 

Writing about it later, Lieberman suggests:

The mammalian need to recognize social threats appears to have hijacked the physical pain system to do what the pain system does - remind us when there is a threat to one of our basic needs.

Lieberman discusses much more about the brain in his book, and I will be referring to it frequently.  For now, I am stopping here with the question that always causes me to pause with brain research:  So what?  While it's interesting to know what your brain is doing, what can you actually do about it? 

In this case, you can take some measures to reduce the likelihood of rejection.  And that's a lesson we can learn from first-graders. 

In 1983, Martha Putallaz of Duke University did a study examining the entry behavior of young children in a lab and compare that to their social standing later in the school year.  She used confederates, much like the programs in Cyberball, to test how a child attempted to enter the social dynamic of a pair playing together.  After videotaping, she observed some consistent behavior:

Talking about themselves

Asking Informational Questions



Besides these behavior, the research team also evaluated the relevance of the statements and questions the child made.  Each statement was given a score on a scale measuring how much it was connected with the existing conversation to how much it was completely unrelated. 

Three months after the experiment, Putallaz evaluated the social status of each child using a version of social network analysis and found that the behaviors each correlated with popularity or unpopularity.   She examined how each response behavior, along with his relevance score, correlated with popularity.  

If you look back at my post Be Interesting, you may guess that talking about yourself does not increase popularity, and you would be right.  Also, with the boys in question here, talking about themselves was also an avenue to change the subject.  It was very low in relevance to what was happening in the room. 

Another intuitive answer backed up: when given a score based on the number of agreeing statements minus disagreeing statements, high A-D equaled higher popularity three months later.  Again, relevance worked in the same direction: kids who agreed more than disagreed tended to read the room and talk about what was going on instead of other topics. 

Talking about other topics was the downfall of the informational question behavior.  Children who asked a lot of informational questions in the experiment were highly likely to ignore the context and ask about irrelevant things.  So while asking "what's going on?  What are you playing?" may seem like a sound engagement strategy, it wasn't the one pursued here.  Questions were more along the line of "Do you know how big a human brain weighs?" or " What's your favorite tree?" in this example. 

This research on kids joining behavior shows us that providing relevant information is very important, and that being agreeable is very important.  

So what do we take away from this?


    1. Anxiety when joining in social situations is real.  Your brain feels the pain of rejection just as much as it feels physical injury. 

    2. When joining a conversation, fit yourself into the context.  Keep your questions and comments relevant to the subject at hand.  

    3. Be agreeable.  This doesn't mean you need to say 'Yes' to everything, but a high ratio of agreement to disagreement contributes to future relationship strength. 

The succesful asking strategy of a reknowned politician

When I talk to people about their networks, asking for help is the most common challenge listed.  There are a couple of reasons for this, and one is that people are unclear on good ways to ask for help.  Here is an allegory I share to help people hone their asking skills:   

Some time ago, a politician-in-exile ran from the despotic military of the illegal regime that replaced her democratically elected government.  Just before she was captured,  she managed to get a request for aid out to a sympathetic retired general, setting into motion a series of events the world has remembered since. 

Her message:  "Help me Obi-wan, you're my only hope."

This image belongs to Lucas Arts.&nbsp; You probably already know that.&nbsp;

This image belongs to Lucas Arts.  You probably already know that. 

While technically not history, Princess Leia's hologram is a great example of a 'good ask'.  The Princess was sending a request out into her network.  She had never met Obi-wan Kenobi, but new of him from her father.  Ultimately, her request resulted in the overthrow of the evil Empire and re-institution of the galactic government, so it can be called a success. (Episodes VII-IX pending)  But what was it about this message that made it so effective? 

Princess Leia used some key components in her ask that encouraged response.  Breaking down her request, we see this structure:

  1. Framing the relationship

  2. Asking specifically

  3. Making it personal

Framing the relationship

Princess Leia frames her connection to Obiwan.  "You served my father in the Clone Wars".  This established the links - Obiwan to Bail Organna to Leia.  It also reminds Obiwan of the nature of the relationship - "You served my father."   When making a request of someone not directly linked this two-part process is invaluable.  When we describe the path from them to us,  we evoke the relationships in between and begin to recreate the connection that was in those relationships.  And when we remind people of the nature of the relationship, we help set the stage for the kind of connection we are hoping to recreate. 

Framing the relationship also helps with direct connections.  Here, reminding the nature of the relationship doesn’t require a reminder of the path as it is a direct connection, but the quality or history of the relationship may be useful context.  For example, let them know that you recall their expertise on the subject you need help on in order to set the frame.

Ask Specifically

After framing the connection, the process of asking requires specific information.  The easiest way to think of this is Why, What, How.

Let's look at Princess Leia again.  Her message contains the three key pieces:


"I regret that I am unable to present my father's request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed."


"I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it."


"You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan." 

Why, what and how each have a different purpose.  Why give the motivation for your call and when done well, taps into their motivations. What reduces uncertainty.  A vague request can fill the recipient with anxiety, and the easiest way to deal with that is to just ignore it.  Finally, How reduces cognitive load.  The recipient doesn't need to work out possibilities and contemplate what to do.  You have given him a clear call to action.  

Make it Personal

The final piece of princess Leia's request is possibly the most important.   "Help me, Obiwan.  You're my only hope."  This makes the request personal by letting Obiwan know that she came to him for a reason, and not just because he is around or just to make the connection.  Obiwan is best person to help her here.  When you ask someone for help, let them know that you are looking for them personally, not just any warm body.  Point out to them why you chose to ask them in particular. Is it a skill they have, a trust you have in their judgment; some trait they excel in? In advice to request seekers, author Tim Ferris points out that if you can google it, you don't need to ask for help, and if you ask for help when you can google the answer, you frustrate busy people. 


So Princess Leaia lined up the four principles very well.  She framed the connection, she was specific with Why, What and How, and she made it personal.  Do that with your requests, and you increase your chances to overthrow the Evil Empire that is plaguing you. 


To finish, let me give an example:


Hello readers and listeners, thank you for following along these months with the newsletter and the newly launched podcast.  <<Framing the relationship>> One of my goals in putting this out is to build an audience in order to make my dream of a book a reality and I need help getting the word out.  << Specific: Why>> The number one way that audiences grow is by word-of-mouth. <<Specific: What>> So please, if you like the newsletter, tell a friend about it, forward it, or post a link on Facebook to the blog post. <<Specific: How>>   A trusted friend's recommendation is one hundred times more effective in getting a new subscriber than an ad or promotion.  <<Personal>> So please, share the newsletter, review the podcast on itunes, and let people know how much you enjoy The Networked Leader and Mandatory Cocktail Hour.





We're back!


It's been a while.  You know how it is: summer happens, kids aren't in school and want more time, you spend a couple weeks at the beach, habits fade away. 

Well, I'm back.  It took some effort to roll out this letter, because I felt like I had broken a promise.  I said I would write regularly, and I missed a long period of time.  What's the right way to come back from that?

How about writing about just that?  I realized recently that I wrote about the benefits of reactivating dormant ties some time ago, but just hand-waved about the reality of reconnecting.  I gave the what, but not the how.  And the how matters. 

Part of what I spent my time away doing was reading.  One of the best books I read this summer was Brene Brown's Daring Greatly.  Brown is a PhD in Social Work who has done extensive research on shame and vulnerability.  You can see a TED talk of hers where she tells the story of her research here.  It's a great book, with amazing insights into universal experiences about how we treat ourselves and our relationships to others. 

Brown defines shame as different from guilt with a simple twist of phrase: guilt is feeling bad because we did something.  Shame is feeling bad because of how we define ourselves.  Shame is the internalization of guilt.  We feel guilty because we haven't called in a while.  We feel ashamed because we are a bad friend. 

This was the insight that struck me when reading the book: I felt guilty about violating the pattern of newsletters over the summer.  Then I felt shame because I was not a good newsletter-writing-person.   And we do the same thing with relationships that we let fade away.  At first, a twinge of guilt over our lack of connecting creeps in.  Then, we start defining ourselves through our guilt: we are ashamed of ourselves as friends, as colleagues, as sons/daughters/siblings.  When we feel shame, we define ourselves as not being good enough for whoever we faded away from. In fact, Brown describes shame at its root as an issue of connection:

Shame is the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.

Ironically, when it comes to maintaining connections, shame leads to deeper disconnection.  When we are ashamed, we avoid the thing that inspires that shame.  In the case of faded connections, we put off reconnecting longer and longer.  At some point, our shame-filled mind tells us, "It's been so long, she will start the conversation with blaming you for not calling," or "How can you write him now? You don't have anything to share or give," or "You can't just call because you need something.  You haven't called in ages."  As time goes by, the situation recycles on itself and "you haven't chatted in days" slowly morphs into "you haven't chatted in a year", with an even deeper sense of shame.

So what can we do? Brown has a wide collection of tools for overcoming shame, but three that she uses herself stand out for getting beyond having not reached out:

1.    Own the story

2.    Talk to yourself the way you would someone else

3.    Be courageous and reach out

When you "own the story", you make yourself a protagonist instead of a bystander.  You become the actor who drives what happens instead of waiting for something to happen to you.  Owning the story includes taking responsibility for what has happened so far, which isn't fun.  But taking responsibility and making things happen are better choices than sitting on the sideline in your own life.

We are often hardest on ourselves.  In this case, imagine how you would react if someone you hadn't heard from in ages reached out.  Would you be annoyed at the months or years gone by, or would you be interested in what's happening in their life and how they are doing?  Echoing back to my previous post on dormant ties, people like hearing from old friends, they have been distant themselves and you taking the time to reach out means something.

That leads to the third point.  While "Do it anyway" (warning, music and Muppets) feels like hollow advice, your reaching out is a sign that you are engaging with the relationship.  Reaching out makes people feel good.  It takes some courage to get past the voices in your head, but reaching out begins the rebirth of the connection. 

So this is me, ignoring the voices in my head that are saying that I blew it when I stopped sending newsletters over the summer.  Reaching out, sending letters.  I hope you continue to enjoy them. 

Keys to creating energy in your network

My wife has an old friend from college who would rally the gang together to go out to the bar on a regular basis.  He was a few years older than her, tireless in his pursuit of fun, and infectious in his enthusiasm.  "It's the 15th to last Tuesday of my college career!  You have to come out with me!" 


This made his call to arms every Tuesday until he graduated, and in the years followingprogressed from corporate high-riser to building his own marketing business.  After growing that business to over $40 million in revenue, he moved on to be the executive director of a theater company.   Through it all - college shenanigans, corporate life, entrepreneurship and the arts, he maintained that same infectious energy that made him the Pied Piper of Durham, NC. 


This kind of energy is something most of us have experienced.  A person comes along and you find yourself wanting to work with them, or just be around them while they do their magic.  It's an experience that feels good but  impossible to nail down in order to replicate.  Except someone has.


Rob Cross is a professor at The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.  His research expertise is in organizational network analysis - the application of social network analysis to improve organizational effectiveness.   Cross and some colleagues examined several organizations to find out more about energizing encounters at work, and they found that energizers have some common traits and some common experiences.


Along with Andrew Parker and Wayne Baker, Cross found that there are certain people in organizations that increase the feeling of energy for everyone they encounter.  When you engage with an energizer, you feelmore motivated, more valued and just generally better than before.   Along with the upside for everyone who interacts with him, there is a clear benefit to being an energizer.  Cross, Baker and Parker note that:


Energizers are more likely to have their ideas considered and put into action.

They motivate others to act.

People devote themselves more fully to interactions with an energizer.

Energizers also attract the commitment of other high performers.

People position themselves to work for these engaging colleagues.


The energizer doesn't reach out to cultivate a network.  People reach out to him - they want him as part of their developmental and operational networks.  The energizer cultivates his network by being attractive - not physically, but relationally.  So what makes these people a fountain of energy?  Cross, Baker and Parker found five things.


1.    Energizers focus on possibilities

When talking with an energizer, they focus on what can happen, rather than focusing on what is impossible.  More specifically, the energizer focuses on the possibilities that can make their goals and plans come to fruition, rather than fixating on problems and negative externalities.  This often shows up as having a vision and leading toward it.  It's a standard requirement for work leaders.  However, even outside of work, a vision has value.  Our Pied Piper had a vision in college of his buddies out enjoying a Tuesday night, celebrating their youth and friendship.  He focused on the possibilities instead of worrying about problems (homework) and a clear vision of what college should be. 


2.    Energizers create space for others to contribute in meaningful ways.

Sometimes a visionary can feel like a taskmaster.  They share the idea of a better future, but make it clear that you are merely an instrument in creating that future, instead of a participant.  Energizers create participation.  Cathy Salit, author of Performance Breakthrough, calls this building your ensemble:  bringing together people who will improve your performance while you improve theirs.  The ensemble is different from the team – in the ensemble, the audience applauds all the players, not just the stars. 



3.    Energizers are fully engaged when they connect with you. 

At any given restaurant, at this very minute, a table full of people are sitting together, each staring at their individual phone. This has become an epidemic in our culture to the point that 'texting neck' is now a condition doctors see.  Being with someone when their intention and attention are somewhere else is de-energizing.  Energizers engage fully when they are with people.  To connect with people, they use body language, eye contact, and a conversation style that that make you feel heard.  Whether they are the loud, central storyteller or the quiet, introverted listener, thisengagement makes people feel energized after communicating with them.


4.    Energizers engage and help people see progress. 

Through engaging their ensemble fully, the energizer moves towards their vision.  They may not progress the way that they expect or want, but they celebrate wins where they are and have the flexibility to see wins that they hadn't anticipated.  Finding 'wins', even small ones, is a key motivator according to Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and consultant Steven J. Kramer.  In their book The Progress Principle  they describe key ways to motivate employees.  It turns out that the biggest influence of creating a positive, motivated inner work life is making progress - even small, noticeable progress - towards meaningful goals.


5.    Energizers foster belief in the goal.

When you work with an energizer, you not only see the vision and feel like you contribute to it, but you believe that it is worthwhile and important.  Cross, Baker and Parker found that this belief was created by one key factor: integrity.

An energizers integrity has an impact on energy creation in two important ways.  First, energizers speak their minds rather than harbor hidden agendas…Second, integrity between words and action is critical.

Energizers avoid politics and are reliable contributors.  They demonstrate their belief in the goal through working on it and staying focused on the vision instead of politics. 



In reading this, you may recognize your own Pied Piper: someone you know who rallies people around a vision and ideal, who motivates and engages.  However, it may not be clear how to be that person yourself, or even if it's possible to be that person.  So what's the benefit of knowing about energizers? 

Going back to Salit's book Breakthrough Performance, the benefit of knowing this is that you can perform your way into being an energizer.


While it may seem a daunting performance, try these small steps first:


Focus on the positive and the possible -   Emphasizing aches, pains and problem points drains energy.  While problems need to be acknowledged, use them as stepping points to discuss possibilities and your future vision.

Put your phone down - Engage with the people who are with you, physically, right now.  Make eye contact, ignore the countless screens clamoring for your attention, and let people know they are important. 

Solicit input - the easiest way to make people feel like they are contributing meaningfully is to ask them for their contribution.  As Ben Franklin said, "Nothing makes someone think you are wise more than asking them for their opinion on a matter." 

Be reliable -  Doing what you say you will builds energy simply and effectively.

Celebrate wins, big or small - look for the progress towards your goals, and celebrate them with the people who have helped you achieve them.

Where we really learn at work

My interest in social networks and how we connect first developed through research I did on learning in organizations.  Over the last 10 years, researchers have been focusing on informal learning - learning outside the classroom.  Current popular models suggests that as little as 10% of what we learn about how to be effective in our jobs comes from formal, classroom learning.  I was interested in seeing how formal and informal were connected. For my doctoral research, I worked find the linkage between formal and informal learning.  Because it was thebroader category of the two, I had to analyze informal learning closely for my research.   What I found was that informal learning was ubiquitous and social.

The best piece of research I found was done by Scott Tannenbaum when we was at SUNY Albany.  He surveyed 500 people across seven organizations, asking them to assign a percentage of their work-related knowledge to sources gleaned from earlier research. 

The findings have some interesting gems:

  • 10% of reported learning was from trial and error
  • 10% of reportedlearning was self-directed study or reading 
  • Like other research, about 20% of learning was attributed to formal classroom training, either in the organization or schooling, double the currently vogue benchmark. 
  • About 10% of reported learning was due to on-the-job training. 

A quick study will see that this adds up to about 50%.   The other 50% of learning is where the importance of developmental networks comes into play.  In Tannenbaum's research, just under 50% of learning came directly from other people: current or former supervisors; current or former coworkers; colleagues from different companies; even family and friends. 

The common reaction to this research is to decry how little learning is attributed to the classroom.  For my money, that buries the lead.  The big story here is that we learn most from the people around us - coworkers, bosses, colleagues and family.  Learning is social, and it happens not in a special room, but all over the place. 

Your experience probably reflects this.  When you have a challenge at work, what do you do?  You ask someone you think knows the answer.  When you are learning a new process, you don't wait for a class.  You ask your boss how she does it.  You ask your colleague how he gets thing done.  Whatever you are learning at work, the people around you are the most likely source for knowledge. 

It's worthwhile to note that this research was done in 1997 - before Google was on everyone's desk, never mind in everyone's hands.  Google does mean that we go to people less now.  You don't need Jason's expertise on early 1990's sitcoms to remember the episode of Just Shoot Me when that guy wanted to climb a tree.  The great Google will provide.  However, our reliance on Google makes it even more important to know who knows the information not online, like the key steps in getting things done in the office, or how to manage the emotional state of a key stakeholder you need to work with.  These very context-specific pieces of knowledge are where the people around us are invaluable, and why we still go to people to learn. 

So what can you do with this knowledge?  Get better at going out into your network looking for information, and get better at being a resource to your network.    For both of these, research by Rob Cross, at Darden Business School of the University of Virginia, shows traits of relationships that make it easier to share information. 

Over the course of two studies, Cross went into multiple organizations and asked people what characteristics made them more likely to go to someone when they needed information.  The three he found were

  • Knowing what information they knew
  • Valueing their information as being expert, or at least more expert than your own
  • Thinking the person was Accesible to you; that they would answer your question in a timeframe that was useful.

When it comes to going out to your network, make it a point to learn what people know.  Find out who has expertise in specific aspects of the organization, work processes and stakeholders.  It is important that you set out to learn what people know, rather than to learn who knows the things you want to know.  The first is flattering and taking an interest in people.  The second is manipulative and making people instrumental to your goals.

When it comes to being a resource to your network, being accessible is a great way to be valuable.  When people do not know what you know, it may take a while to help them discover that.  When people reach out to you not knowing how accessible you are, it is easy to show them how responsive you can be.  A general rule to follow is that if it takes less than five minutes, do it in the next few minutes.  If it takes longer, let the person looking for information know if you can respond and how long it will take for you.   

We learn from each other, and in the age of Google, the knowledge we get from people around us is more valuable because of its non-robot-indexed nature.  So go out and find out what people know and are expert in.  And be a willing teacher and resource for knowledge.  This will make you both quicker at finding information when you need it, but also cultivate a strong developmental network. 

How the Butterfly Effect Happens in Your Network

Last week, I had the honor of listening to Chris Rosati speak about his adventures, starting with how he pulled a Robin Hood caper with a Krispy Kreme truck.  Here's a five minute video about his exploits that's well worth the watch:


Chris has ALS and decided that the best way to spend his remaining days is to spread kindness.  He decided that giving people donuts, a random act of kindness, would be a great start.  And that was what it was: a start. Chris later started Inspire Media Network to create films about kind acts, and BIGG (Big Ideas for the Great Good) clubs to support school children exercising acts of kindness. 

You may be wondering, at this point, what this has to do with networks, leadership and networking.  Chris Rosati developed one more thing, which he calls "Butterfly Grants".  The Butterfly Grants are sums of money given to people so that they can make someone else smile, be happy, or feel joy. He hoped that this act would lead to a cascade of kindness somewhere: a Butterfly Effect of social action.  The Butterfly Effect is the idea that a small action in one place - say a butterfly flapping its wings in North Carolina - can have a huge effect somewhere else - say causing a hurricane in the South China Sea.

Chris's Butterfly Grants are trying to stimulate that in daily culture: a big change due to some small acts of kindness.  It's a wonderful metaphor.  Or more, because network science shows that behaviors spread through a network in unexpected ways. 

Nicholas Christakis of Harvard and James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego are researchers who found curious network effects when they took a non-traditional look at data from a longitudinal heart disease study.  They took the Framingham Heart Study data set and analyzed the relational information: who participants listed as family and who they listed as close contacts in case the researchers couldn't find them.  This created a network diagram for each interval where the heart research data was taken.  When they looked at how relationships interacted with behaviors, they found something amazing.

Weight and tobacco use are two of the variables that are measured for the study.  If someone in the study lost or gained weight, they found that their close friends were 30% more likely to have lost or gained weight.  More interesting than that is that when a friend of a friend lost or gained weight, someone was 10% more likely to have lost or gained. 

The direct friend effecting our behavior is intuitive. It makes sense that someone we see regularly and care about can affect our behavior and result in a weight shift.  But the fact that a person we don't see regularly, if at all, has an influence on us is pretty amazing.  And this wasn't just with weight loss.  Starting and stopping smoking had similar effects from friends and friends of friends. 

This is great news for Chris Rosati and his hope that acts of kindness can spread.  While no research has yet shown that kindness spreads, we've seen multiple behaviors spread through networks so that people we don't even know are effected by our actions.  That means that a random act of kindness can have a multiplying effect as it spreads through your network.  Network science proves the butterfly effect in people's actions! 

So what can you do with this knowledge?  First, if you haven't yet, go watch the video about Chris Rosati's life mission.  It is powerful.  Second, do something kind for someone.  Big, small, it doesn’t matter.  An act of kindness will then ripple through your network.

Finally, a key point to realize: as much as your network affects you, you affect your network.  This is the core concept behind "The Networked Leader": leaders makes choices to shape their network.  Not just what connections they have, but the quality of the climate in the network.   When you are kind, your network becomes more kind.  When you are supportive, your network becomes more supportive. While it may sound new-agey, network science shows that you do receive back from your network the behaviors you put out into it.

So create the network climate you want.  Want help?  Be helpful.  Want coaching?  Help someone learn.  Like Chris Rosati spreading kindness, spread what you want to see, and it will eventually permeate your network. 

The Power of Shared Goals

I started my career running outdoor teambuilding programs.  People joined me out in the woods for a series of absurd challenges that we would now call 'gamified learning', but back then, to sound more respectable, we called initiatives .  Regularly, people would ask if working on a puzzle or playing a game together really helped teams.  Some classic psychology research tell us it does. 

In 1954, researchers from the University of Oklahoma brought a group of Boy Scouts to the Robbers Cave State park as part of an experiment.  Their research goal was to understand how group identity formed - both a feeling of 'us' and 'them' - and explore a way to break down the division between groups. 

This research was in the grand tradition of mid-century psychology - involved, extensive and dramatic.  The 22 boys were divided into two different groups and placed in separate camping areas, far away from one another.  For the first week, there was no interaction.  Each group formed its own identity, naming themselves The Eagles and The Rattlers.  They even built internal hierarchies with some kids getting more respect than others. 

In the second week, competition was created.  The researchers began a round of games such as kick ball and tug of war pitting the two groups against one another.  The competition quickly spilled over to areas outside the game.  Each group became jealous of shared resources such as the mess hall and ball field.  Before the competition, very little inter-group conflict existed.  Now the level of tension rose so high that boys were pre-emptively planning violence if someone violated a team flag or perceived boundary.  The peak of conflict resulted in cabins being raided and personal property being stolen. 

The researchers were not finished yet.  In the final week, they increased the non-competitive interactions between the groups: shared mealtimes and shared times at the waterfront swimming zone.  This didn't change anything in the dynamics of the groups.  They were still Eagle vs Rattler, with animosity and name calling between the two. 

Something did change the relationship, though: first, a shared crisis.   A water pipe was sabotaged by the research team and the two groups were called upon to fix it.  At first hesitant to work together, they teamed up to find the problem and repair it before a water shortage effected them all.  This step was followed by a joint trip to a new campground where the two groups mingled.  Everyone helped set up tents, prepare food and even jump start the bus they took there.  The identities as members of a group were not erased, but the barriers seem tohave disappeared.  One researcher noted at the end of the experiment :

As they rode home from the last day, it was difficult to tell who was an Eagle and who was a Rattler.  The group had come together in a way that was unbelievable two weeks previous.  

So, what does the Robber's Cave experiment tell us beyond the fact that in the 50's they did the coolest experiments?  There are two big takeaways. 


    1. We can be very terrible with people who are not part of our group. 

    2. Sharing a goal brings people together quickly. 

The first point is an inverse to the benefits to belonging:  when we think someone doesn't belong, we can be pretty bad to them. 

The second is the underlying principle behind most teambuilding initiatives.  Bring people together and give them a compelling, common goal, and they come together.  Coincidentally, it also puts people solidly in our operational network:  when we share a goal, we tend to share a process, and that helps generate a strong network connection. 

What can we do with this?  When you have a challenging relationship with someone, try to find something you both value and can work on as a pair.  A shared goal will bring you together, create a sense of unity and help move the relationship into a better place.



Be interested instead of interesting

Actual Book.&nbsp; Not Actual Advice here.

Actual Book.  Not Actual Advice here.

I recently talked to Sheila Heen of Triad Consulting, and in that conversation she had an interesting response to the question of "How do you introduce yourself at a mandatory cocktail hour?"  First she mentioned her discomfort with that situation, despite her professional need to participate in it regularly.  Then she discussed her colleague's great skill at connecting with people in these events compared to her self-assessed clumsiness with them.  And finally after that pre-amble, she explained that a key she learned was to be more interested than interesting


Sheila described how her business partner would go to events, walk over to the bar and come back with the entire life story of a person he just met.  Sheila was shocked by this, started to watch him closely, and finally asked him what his trick was. His answer? Ask questions more than talk about himself.  Simple. 


Simple, but challenging.  It's common for us to be pre-occupied with "What do I say next?"  and "What do I want this person to know about me?"  When we focus on our own performance in the conversation, we come across, subtly, as a self-serving conversationalist.  Our goal in the conversation is all about ourselves and not about the person we talk to.  There is a term for this kind of behavior: conversational narcissism. 


Sociologist Charles Derber coined the term conversational narcissist in his book The Pursuit of Attention.  Derber analyzed over 1,000 conversations, in both one-on-one and group settings, and found that he could frame these conversations as competitions for attention and interest.  His framework was based on a subtle wrestling of control in a conversation, where most people tried to express themselves and understand others in a satisfying balance.  Some people, however, were disinterested in understanding, or even hearing, others.  These were the conversational narcissists, who steered the conversation to themselves whenever they could.


While some are extreme, we all have a little conversational narcissism in us.  Everyone likes to talk about themselves to some extent, because everyone appreciates a good listener.  The best way to be that listener for someone you have just met?  Be interested.


Dale Carnegie was an early advocate of being interested.   In his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie tells of a time he talked with a botanist:


But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it…I told him that I had been immensely entertained and instructed - and I had. I told him I wished I had his knowledge - and I did. I told him that I should love to wander the fields with him - and I have. I told him I must see him again - and I did. And so I had him thinking of me as a good conversationalist when, in reality, I had been merely a good listener and had encouraged him to talk.


The amazing thing about this is that the botanist thought that Carnegie was a great conversationalist, when Carnegie spent more time asking questions than talking.  This is typical of the stories that Carnegie tells in his book.  His stories share skills, principles and practices to become more liked by being more interested in people than working to be interesting to people. 


So what can you do to be more interested?  Sheila taught herself to ask questions about the person she was speaking with.  Not just basic factual questions, but questions that could open up who they are. 


Instead of "What do you do?", she asks " How did you end up in the role you are in?" 

Instead of "Where do you live?" she asks 'Where did you grow up and how did that lead you here?" 


These questions invite an answer that is a story, one where the storyteller can be the protagonist. (We all love being the hero of our stories.)  It is more than just information exchange.  It is an expression of themselves. 


Another thing we can do to be interested is to follow a tactic from Derber: avoid shift responses and focus on support responses.  Shift responses are conversational tactics that steer the focus to yourself and your stories.  Support responses keep the other person at the center, and either agree or add more content.  For example, if someone says "I'm hungry", a shift response would be "Really?  I just ate.  Best sandwich I ever had."   A support response would be "Would you like to stop for lunch?" or "When did you eat last?" 


Support responses are the response of someone being interested.  Shift responses are the work of someone trying to be interesting and the center of attention.  If you are looking fora way to make a good connection, avoid the shift.


So when you find yourself in a mandatory cocktail hour, or the social equivalent, work to be interested instead of interesting:


·         Ask questions.  Not just factual questions, but questions that let people tell their story.  Try using 'how' questions instead of 'what'

·         Don't be a conversational narcissist.  Use support responses instead of shift responses.  When you speak up, try to use that as an opportunity to keep the conversation focused on the other person or their ideas.   Resist the urge to pull the focus to yourself

A Story about My Dad...


My father was an independent truck driver, which, when you are an 8 eight year old boy,  is one of the coolest jobs in the world.  He did short-haul work across New England, bringing wood, sod, fish, pipes, mulch - whatever needed delivering - to various building sites.  While it was a fascinating job, I always imagined my dad alone when I thought of him working.  Sitting in the cab, higher than any other drivers on the road, behind a steering wheel that my young arms couldn't even reach across.  He was a quiet man, a classic introvert,  and I thought that riding along alone suited him. 


Then one summer Dad bought a truck with a sleeper cab.  I went on deliveries with him all summer long and learned something interesting.  Dad would pull me out of bed at 4:00 am, and I would go back to sleep in the truck to wake up during the second or third stop at 7:30 am.  I watched Dad unload, navigate to the next delivery, unload again, and eventually go to breakfast at 10:00 am. 


During this, I saw that my dad wasn't alone.  Every stop required coordination with site managers, construction workers or landscapers.  Every pickup involved down time in the dispatcher's office while thy loaded his trailer with new materials.  And at all of these times, I saw a side of my Dad I had never seen.  Dad was chatty.


Chatty may not be the right word.  The term I like best for now is wala'au - a Hawaiian term that roughly translates to "talk story".  Dad would talk story at his stops. Sharing a joke or something small that happened in his day.  Asking someone he had met before abouttheir family or hobby.  Gently giving someone a hard time for a fumble they made.  Dad was great at talk story, and I came t realize, this made him a great connector. 


Most of the business that my Dad had was due to his talk story between hours in the truck.  As a young kid, I hadn't considered where work came from, but as I struck out on my own independent career in my 20's, I realized that Dad's habits involved some great skills I could adopt. 


What did my Dad do?  Part of it was related to being an introvert.  Part of it was just the power of small talk. 


First thing was that Dad listened.  He was a quiet sounding board for people, because he didn't feel compelled to chime in all the time.  Listening is a powerful way to make people feel valued. 


Secondly, Dad listened to, and talked about, small things.  While people often deride small talk, it is an essential part of getting to know people.  Small talk may be about the weather, but it is also about who we are.  Our small talk exposes our true selves - our small desires, our little annoyances.  In fact, current research suggests that small talk makes us feel a little more like we belong, and just a little better in general. 


So chat about the weather.  Ask about your coworker's kids's recital.  Discuss small things and most importantly, listen about small things.  Your connections will grow slowly and surely, and you will have a better day for it.