Corporate life throws up some stressful moments. Bringing bad news to your boss; facing an interview panel; making a big presentation. But few things are worse than networking if you are an introvert.
You arrive at an event to find that everyone there apparently knows each other already. And then you look more closely and spot the fellow-sufferers. They are the people who are actually reading the conference blurb. They look at email on their phones with greater intensity than ever happens at the office. They endlessly circulate the room, like bits of plastic in the ocean waiting to be snagged on something. They take a seat in the main hall while the sound engineers are still testing the microphones.
Fortunately, there is advice out there on how to break the ice with strangers. Unfortunately, it’s abysmal. One sage counsels making contact in queues, because it is easier to talk to the person in front of you and behind you. You are meant to ambush people on the escalator, in the toilets and in the queue to get your name tag. In the line for coffee, open the door to jobs and sales by saying six incomprehensible words: “Juicing up for the big keynote?”
On it goes. Don’t be afraid to laugh, because nothing drains the tension from a room like someone who cannot stop chuckling. Bring personal information into the conversation, lest people think you are at a conference on treasury-management software only for commercial gain. Use the other person’s name twice, to appear truly engaged. And take notes on conversations afterwards so you can follow up with them.
Add these ingredients together, and you have the recipe for success:
“Juicing up for the big keynote?”
“Juicing up for the big keynote?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
[Scan name badge] “Keith, is it?”
[Laughing] “I’m having a baby, Keith.”
[Take out notepad]
If this is how to network, no wonder people go to the main hall early.
Making contacts on a site like LinkedIn is a lot less stressful. There is no eye contact, after all, and the rules of the road are agreed. And all those connection requests do appear to help with careers. A paper published last year by Karthik Rajkumar of LinkedIn and co-authors from academia found empirical evidence for the insight that underpins all kinds of networking—that, because they bring you new information, more infrequent and distant relationships (or “weak ties”) are more useful than close contacts.
The researchers randomly changed the “People You May Know” recommendations algorithm that LinkedIn shows its users, so that the prevalence of weaker and stronger connections varied among people on the site. The experiment showed that weaker ties (where a pair of users had only one mutual friend, say) were more likely to lead to job applications and job moves than those where people had 25 mutual friends or more.
This sounds like nirvana for introverts: start spamming everyone with connection requests, close the office door and wait for job offers. But it is not that easy. Even weak ties need tending. Even online, interacting with people is easier if you find it energising; a survey-based study of LinkedIn, by Joanna Davis of Augustana College and her co-authors, found that extroversion was a predictor of networking ability.
There isn’t a genuinely painless way for introverts to network. Still, methods to do it exist that are wiser than standing in a queue and hoping the guy who doesn’t know how to get coffee out of the machine is your ticket to career success.
The real secret is to save your energy for the people who are most likely to be interesting to you. In the online realm, for instance, Dr Rajkumar’s study does not find that the weaker the tie, the better. The sweet spot in networking on LinkedIn is someone with moderately weak ties to you: connecting with a person with ten mutual friends markedly increases the probability of changing jobs compared with someone with just one shared friend.
In other words, networking pays off if you can identify people who can bring you new information but are close enough to your world that this information is useful. In the offline world, a tool like ChatGPT should make it easier to find useful prospects in a list of event attendees. But you still need to overcome all your instincts and approach them.■
Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
The best bosses know how to subtract work (Aug 31st)
How to get the most out of mentoring (Aug 24th)
A retiring consultant’s advice on consultants (Jul 17th)
Also: How the Bartleby column got its name
https://www.economist.com/business/2023/09/07/networking-for-introverts-a-how-to-guide Networking for introverts: a how-to guide