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.



Old connections can be the best.

As I was writing this week, a friend sent me a text.  She was just called on to do a teambuilding event for her company with 3 hours' notice.  We had worked together doing team development courses 15 years ago and since then she has moved to the West Coast, so we don't get to see each other very often anymore. 

We traded a couple of texts back and forth, and then I called her.  We spent 20 minutes on the phone as I helped her work through what she could do without a dedicated space or any equipment readily available.  Problem solved, we chatted for a minute about when we might be able to connect, and then she went to go solve her problem. 

I don't mention this story to show how great a guy I am, but rather to show the power of reconnection.  Researchers from Rutgers, George Washington and Northwestern Business Schools found that old ties that we have left on the wayside are an amazing resource.  Dan Levin, Jorge Walter and Keith Murnighan asked executive MBA students to reach out to formerly close colleagues who they didn't interact with anymore.  They found that these dormant ties had the advantages of both strong and weak ties. 

Cutest dormant ties ever. 

Cutest dormant ties ever. 

Weak ties were first described by Mark Granovetter.  These are connections that don't occur regularly, and are consequently less intense in both emotional and information exchange.  A positive consequence of this is that weak ties are the main avenue for new information and resources to travel across social networks.  Networks tend to be clusters more than perfect webs of connections.  We interact with the same people regularly, and while that repeated interaction creates comfort, trust and a shared experience, it can result in an echo chamber.  Weak ties are people who are loosely associated with a particular group and act as a link between groups. 

The research on reconnecting with dormant ties showed that these old colleagues still shared a sense of trust and perspective of being in a shared cluster, even though years had passed.  As an extra benefit, they also provided new information and connections like a weak tie because of all of their experiences since last being a strong tie.  

So reach out to that old classmate or colleague to reconnect.  I know I often feel embarrassed in that attempt, but the research shows that great benefits can be found in rekindling old connections. 

Benefits of feeling like you belong

Not the actual Olympic Marathoners

Not the actual Olympic Marathoners

I love it when a story pops up that connects with my work.


This past weekend, the US Olympic marathon trials occurred.  This event is the selection process for the team that the country will send to Rio in August.  During the women's trial, two training partners' experience inspired a story in New York Magazine

From the gun, two runners stood out in the women’s race, Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg. The two are friends and training partners, and on Saturday they matched from head to toe: identical racing kits, identical visors, even identical running-shorts tan lines. The pair kept toward the front of the pack, eventually breaking away from the rest for an impressive lead toward the end of the race. And then Flanagan started to flag, her slowdown especially apparent next to Cragg’s consistently strong strides. But instead of leaving her friend in the dust, Cragg stayed by her side. She ran ahead and got two water bottles — one for herself, one for Flanagan — and didn’t leave Flanagan behind until the very end of the race. Even as she eventually pulled away, she kept turning her head, as if to make sure her friend was still chugging along.


Flanagan went on to finish first, Cragg third.  Both made the Olympic team.  The author of the article goes on to point out a sports reporter suggesting that Flanagan would not have made the team without Cragg, and to argue that there is some science that supports this claim. 


The supporting science is research on motivation, social identity and minimal cues.   Stanford researchers Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton ran a series of studies that found that feeling like part of a team made individuals work harder on tasks, even when the goal was unachievable.  Now, this finding in itself isn't that surprising.  Most of us have been on a team and felt that motivation as we work side-by-side, suffering and succeeding as a group. 


The interesting thing about this research was that the participants were alone.  Some were just told that they were part of a team, and some were not told anything.  Just being told they were part of a team increased effort by almost 50% in the experimental group. 


Research on groups shows that this isn't a fluke.  When we feel like a part of a group, huge benefits follow:



Each of these experimental results happened without extensive 'team building'.  The experimental conditions were often implicit - a seating arrangement or reports of a fictional personality test - and still resulted in group effects.  It seems, as humans, we want to feel part of a group, and we see the opportunity to group in the smallest of details. 


So people want to be a part of groups, and seeing yourself as a part of a group has benefits in multiple arenas.  What can a leader do with this information?

  • Find genuine connections with people that become cues you are in the same groups: shared hobbies, experiences, other uncommonalities.
  • Make opportunities to come together - even eating together has benefits. 
  • Because small cues matter, and small cues are forgotten over time, keep in touch with those you value your connection with, even if it's just a small reminder of your connection. 


Your Three Networks.

In recent years, I have been asked by many clients "How do I build my network?"  that begs a few questions:  Why? What are you trying to build?  Is 'build' the right metaphor for the actionyou are taking?  What is your network? 

For my first letter out, I will address that last question.  Because you don't have a network. 

You have three. 

At least, you have three networks that are important in a business and career context, which is my focus here.  Really, you have an infinite number of networks. To explain, let me refer to Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications (Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences), by Stanley Wasserman and Katherine Faust; otherwise known as the 3 pound tome of Social Network Analysis (SNA). 

 The 3 lb tome is one of the key books for SNA researchers.  It lays out the fundamentals of network science and how to analyze relationships in a network.  In it, Wasserman and Faust tell us that networks are defined by what we are measuring.  They say "relations defined by linkages among units are a fundamental component of network theory."  Translated from academe to human, that means networks are the relationships between people or things, not the people themselves.  So you don't have A network. You have a work network, a family network, a fan network for your sports team, a network of DIYers.  Everything that you do in a social context is a network. 

Some might stop here and start hyperventilating.  'Now I have infinite networks? I wasn't even able to handle one!'  not to worry.  When talking about work, researchers from Harvard and Insead Business School in France found that three networks matter most for executives. 

Hermina Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter interviewed thousands of executives who had come to her school for training.  In the process of that, she found that these executives had three networks that mattered most to them:  a network of people who they go to get stuff done, a network of people they go to learn and develop, and a network of people they go to for outside perspective.  Here's my take on these:

Connecting with people to get things done: this is the network of colleagues, vendors, clients subordinates and bosses that are essential to you producing the work you produce.  Formally I call this your Operational Network.  Informally, it's you GSD network.

Connecting to learn:  this network is more diverse, but often overlapping with your operational network.  Learning is both present-need focused and future oriented, so we tend to reach out beyond our work associates.  This network includes current and former teachers and classmates, mentors, and the person you ask how to file TPS reports.  I call this network the Developmental Network.

Ibarra and her colleague's third network was a strategic network, built deliberately to get outside insight.  When coaching mid-level executives and early career leaders, I found that this network didn't resonate with them.  What they did express was a common need for a Support Network, so I shifted my focus there.

Your Support Network consists of the people you go to when you are in need.  Instead of GSD, it's the SHTF network.  Support can come in a variety of forms: emotional support,  financial support, resources and insight. 

At this point, this sounds very interesting and academic.  Three networks?  That's nice.  So what?

Looking at your networks based on how you connect instead of who you are connected to has some really positive consequences.  You don't look over people and get obsessed with super-star connections.  You can manage your network in a way that balances future and current needs, so you don't find yourself in a network dead end. You are more likely to succeed in a new business.  

With all that in mind, what can you actually do differently with three networks instead of one?  First, take some time to map out your networks.  Put together three lists:

  • Who do you got to for help getting things done?  Who comes to you with work to do?
  • Who do you go to learn new things?  Who comes to you?  Who did you go to in the past?
  • Who is there when you need a hand?  Who do you reach out to for emotional support?  Finance and resource support?

Those three lists will help you understand the landscape of your networks, and when it comes to develop them deliberately or to go to them with a novel request, you will be better prepared. 

If you'd like to see even more raw ideas, follow my Flipboard magazine, The Networked Leader.  It is a resource for notes and interesting articles I find. 

Uncommonalities: your secret to surviving mandatory social hour.


I posted this on LinkedIn last year.  It was my first take on putting my book work out into the world.  I am putting it hear to keep everything together. I am not sure about putting things up on LinkedIn or just linking to this blog now.  Maybe I will experiment a little.

Here you are again. The cocktail hour at the conference, training, mandatory work retreat for your company. They may or may not serve cocktails, but the intent is clear: you are supposed to network in a social environment. The organizers set aside this time in order to force people to socialize; build that mysterious 'social capital'. You, however, find yourself standing at a high top table, drink in hand, wondering what you are doing and how long until you can graciously slip out .

If that describes you, you are not alone. People dislike mandatory socializing, and they think that socializing for business gain is even worse. But you are there, and may as well make the best of it. And the best way to make the best of it is to make a game of it.

When I found myself in similar situations, I developed a game I called "Uncommonalities", based on the social psychology of groups and networks. In principal, uncommonalities has a single goal: find the least likely connection you can with the people you are meeting. When you meet a person, start by asking them about themselves to discover the interesting things about them. Not just the things that might interest you, but also the things that they find interesting about themselves. As you inquire about them, share similar facts about yourself and look for the least likely connection you can find. At that point, congratulate yourself on a job well done, but yelling out "I WIN!" is generally a poor idea at most networking events, so a silent celebration is best.

The reasons that Uncommonalities works as a networking strategy are that people enjoy talking about themselves, and when you give them that opportunity by being a good listener, you become a great conversationalist in their eyes. Being a good listener here involves keeping the focus on your conversation partner while still providing the opportunity revealing about yourself.

Sharing about yourself is an important part of the process. Podcaster, television host and comedian Chris Hardwick discusses his philosophy of connecting on his Nerdist podcast. His job on the podcast is to find out as much as he can about people for the benefit of his listeners. Hardwick's podcasts are ore conversational then journalistic, and he notes that "The way that conversations work is that you share stories until you find common ground.  If you just ask questions, people feel like they are interrogated." Even though we like talking about ourselves, conversations that are full of one-sided questions can get uncomfortable for people. Hardwick tries to relate by sharing his own stories. It's a way to give his guests a chance to breath and potential interesting points to connect with.

This is the key of uncommonalities. Finding connections is not just about interrogating your newly-found networking friend. It is about sharing and discovering in balance. This not only gives people that powerful opportunity to talk about themselves, but also a chance for you to find similar traits and experiences. Sharing these similar traits and experiences helps us engender a sense that social network researchers call homophily: the attraction we feel to people who are like us.

Not sure where to start? You are at the same event, so starting there is simple.   The shared practice of that event - your profession, your company, the learning topic - gives you an easy beginning. Ask them what brings them to the event, if they are presenting or if they found anything compelling in the previous day. If conversation doesn't come naturally from there, just try to understand your new connection's path to the event: ask them about where they live, and lived before; where they work and worked before.   Getting people to talk about where they have been and what they have done before is the easiest way to open up the conversation for coming to learn more about them and find that uncommonality.

Uncommonalities works by giving you a framework for your conversations that focuses on personal factors instead of personal gain. People don't enjoy being the feeling like you are connecting with them just to use them for something. Talking people about themselves and discovering your uncommonalities is the way to make a real connection rather than just another business card left in a pile on your desk.