Somehow, even though many of us are working from home now, we feel more connected than ever. This is a common refrain I’ve recently heard in both business and friendship circles.
Whether through synchronous or asynchronous channels, people are spending more time communicating with each other. It’s a welcome remedy to the feelings of isolation that people are feeling, whether they’re at home alone or living with their children or parents. That video call or quick text exchange can provide small moments of needed escape and connection with others.
In addition to the emotional benefits we get from this increased communication, we gain another benefit: We’re improving our ability to connect with others and provide value to them. And we can use those same skills to learn how to effectively leverage our professional networks.
The importance of effectively leveraging your network is not a new idea. “Interdependence is a higher value than independence,” is the first sentence in the classic self-help book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
Data overwhelmingly agrees: in 2014 CEB (now Gartner) identified the importance of network leadership -- the competency to both create and capture value in our network. More recent findings from Gartner and SHL show that higher levels of change agility, innovation and leader effectiveness correlate to the ability to leverage your network.
The message is clear: To be successful in today’s working environment, we can’t ignore the power of networks. To leverage our networks more effectively, we need to change our approach to networking. Simply building a network is not enough. We need a new measure of success: the amount of value we create within our network.
The give and take that makes the world go round
We create value and connection through giving and sharing. We see this on the atomic level: When atoms give electrons to other atoms through ionic bonding, the act itself creates a new attraction between the two atoms. With covalent bonding -- an atom sharing electrons with another atom -- the atom creates new value by sharing a common resource.
Robert Cialdini identifies a similar attraction between humans with the principle of reciprocity: People are more likely to give if they have first received. For example, how many times have you held a door open for someone after they’ve first held a door open for you?
To leverage reciprocity, Cialdini says that you should be the first to give, and your giving should be both personalized and unexpected. In Adam Grant's work on givers and takers, he finds that givers -- people who give more value to their network than they take -- are more likely to be higher performers within their organization.
Here are three things you can do today to create more value within your network.
1. Prioritize people who need help now
With the drastic rise in unemployment during the pandemic, everyone reading this article most likely knows (or will know) someone who lost their job via a furlough, layoff, or decrease in demand. You might feel awkward reaching out to someone who has recently been laid off. But this is the time when that person needs your help most.
Get yourself into the right mindset and proactively reach out to offer help and schedule time to talk with them. Be open, and use your networks and experience to help someone trying to figure out what’s next. Doing so provides value to people in your network and creates a connection with the person you help out.
2. Go beyond the usual suspects
Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter identify three types of networking:
- Operational: related to performance in a current role
- Personal: related to personal development
- Strategic: related to bigger picture or future priorities
Of the three types of networking, strategic is the most underutilized. Balancing all three types of networking -- including the bigger-picture thinking of strategic networking -- is key to creating more value in your network.
As you think about who to connect with, ask yourself who has the experience or perspective to help you see the bigger picture and think about which key questions should considered. Conversely, who in your network could you play a more strategic role for? Who could you help to see the bigger picture because of the perspective, knowledge or experiences you bring?
3. Treat each give and take as unique
Keith Ferrazzi warns of the risks of what I call "shallow networking." If you’ve been on LinkedIn, you know exactly what shallow networking looks like: receiving an impersonal, boilerplate message from someone trying to network with you. Shallow networking uses principles of efficiency to scale up one’s networking efforts. But that approach to networking doesn’t create value or meaningful connections.
Remember: The goal in networking is to create more value, not to create more connections. Ferrazzi encourages us to be intentional with our efforts and focus on establishing a few good connections. Ask yourself these questions as you network to help you be intentional:
- Why am I reaching out? What is the purpose?
- Why am I reaching out to this person? What is unique about what they bring?
- What value is in it for them? What value is in it for me?
- Is there a way I can create more value with this connection?
As you network during and after the pandemic, focus on how you can create value for the person you’re connecting with. Being a giver during this time of stress and isolation will not go unnoticed.
Tony Anticole, founder and principal of Varna Group LLC, helps companies increase engagement and innovation through management approaches that directly tap into people’s intrinsic motivators.