From a Dirty Networker to Glue Guy

A coaching client recently called me from a professional conference.  The afternoon was blocked off for networking, so he "came back to the room to make some calls and maybe take a nap."  His reaction to the explicit networking time was not surprising.  People deeply dislike networking. In fact, people feel that networking is dirty.  Literally dirty.   A study out of Harvard showed how people reacted to using social events for professional gain.  Researchers Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino and Maryam Kouchaki asked participants to either recall events where they deliberately attempted to make a business connection or asked them to recall an event where a relationship was started spontaneously.  After writing about their event, both groups were asked to play a fill-in-the-blank game.  The words with blanks included S __ __ P, W __ __ H, and S H __ __ R.  Each of these words can be filled with a cleaning related word (SOAP, WASH, SHOWER) as well as neutral words (SHIP, WISH, SHEAR).  The result of the word test was that people who thought of planned relationship building events were twice as likely to fill in words that were cleaning related than people who thought of spontaneous events.  The researchers concluded that just remembering instrumental networking experiences made participants feel dirty. 


But why?  Why would it bother us so much?  Connecting with someone because of the benefit that they give, rather than who they are, makes the relationship about you, not them.  To use the words of Cascario, Gino and Kouchaki, these are instrumental ties: connections where you make a tool of someone.   They are inherently selfish, and we may have a natural aversion to selfish behavior.  Some of our ancestors certainly do.


James Anderson studies Capuchin monkeys and their surprisingly human social behavior.  In one experiment, he and his fellow researchers had monkeys watch two humans exchange gifts.  One human was consistently selfish: they did not participate in a giving, or even reciprocal, manner in repeated exchanges.  When the humans were done demonstrating the exchanges, they each offered the Capuchin a treat.  The monkeys would regularly shun the human who demonstrated the selfish behavior.  The treats being offered by each researcher was the same, and the only behavior they saw was how the researchers interacted.  The scientists concluded that the monkeys were actively rejecting the selfish human in order to send him a signal about unacceptable behavior. 


So it's very likely that somewhere deep in our brains there are instincts to punish selfish social transactions.  And whether or not it comes from a genetic ancestor, even thinking about connecting for selfish ends makes us think about a need to clean.  The challenge is that we achieve more by connecting with people.  Sometimes we feel a need to connect with someone who can help us out.  If we want to connect in a way that doesn't feel dirty and doesn't risk being shunned, what do we do? 


Recently retired NBA Champion Shane Battier provides an answer.  Even though Battier is a member of a small club of basketball players who have won the NCAA Championship and NBA Championship, he always felt he didn't quite fit in.  A child of a mixed-race marriage, growing up he always felt like an outsider in whatever group he was a part of. In a recent article he wrote for The Players' Tribune, he describes the strategy he has used to fit in then that helped him in his career:

But early on, I figured out a simple concept that would guide me throughout the rest of my life: People like people who help them win. It doesn’t matter if someone thinks you’re goofy or nerdy or different, if you can help someone win at something, they’ll like you.  So you should have seen little Shane on the kickball field, mini afro and all. I was a beast on the diamond, diving for balls, sliding headfirst whenever I could -– and winning. It was never about the credit that I received. It was about the credit the team got. My teammates knew what I had done to help them and that’s what mattered. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but even back when I needed a hall pass to use the bathroom, I was a glue guy.


Battier built relationships not by trying to get what he could out of people, but by helping the people around him win.  His list of the qualities that it takes to be a glue guy includes being skillful enough to fill in where the team needed him; being willing to look dumb when he thought a teammate was too proud to ask a clarifying question; not being concerned about his individual statistics in the game;  and helping to build a community on a team through organizing team events like fantasy sports leagues. 

How well did Battier's glue guy strategy work?  The NCAA Championship and two NBA Championships may be good metrics.   But for me, Shane Battier power as a glue guy, and the effect of his connecting through helping others win, is best demonstrated by The Heatles.  For several years, Battier has run a karaoke event for his charity, the Take Charge Foundation.  Every year since joining the Miami Heat, the stars on his team join him in singing, on stage, in front of hundreds of people.  And sometimes looking like this:

The power of being a glue guy is the power of connecting with people who will help you, even to the point of looking foolish, without the result of you feeling like a dirty networker or being shunned for your selfish behavior.  Being a glue guy means winning by helping others win.

So work at being a glue guy/glue gal:

  • Build community in your team. 
  • Level up an essential skill that will keep you in the game. 
  • Ask the questions others are too afraid to ask. 
  • Win first, worry about personal stats later.