3 practically painless ways to expand your network

Jul 21, 2017 /

Say the word “networking,” and most of us die a little inside. However, there are a few simple steps to take to broaden and deepen your ties, says business school professor Tanya Menon.

I started teaching business school 17 years ago, and I’ll often run into my students years and years later. When I run into them, I’ve noticed that a funny thing happens. I don’t just remember their faces; I’ll also recall exactly where they sat in the classroom and who they sat with. This isn’t because I have an incredible memory — it’s because my students are creatures of habit. They have their favorite seats near their favorite people, and they stay there the whole term. The danger of this behavior is they’re at risk of leaving the university with close ties to just a few people who are similar to them, squandering their chances to build a diverse network. I’d guess this is probably far from their intention. My students are open-minded people, and they’ve come to business school in part to develop great networks.

But it’s not just my students — all of us do this. Think about your best friend, the person who you spend the most time with and who is not your partner. Is your friend the same gender as you? Race? Do they look like you? Now there’s nothing wrong with social narrowing. It’s natural to seek out people who are similar to us. But it can be a problem when we need new ideas, new jobs or new resources. According to research conducted by sociologist Mark Granovetter, people appear to find their jobs more frequently through their weak ties, or acquaintances, than through their strong ties, which are their partner or close friends. That’s because when it comes to strong ties, your networks can be redundant — in general, you and your close connections know the same people. But your weak ties, which include people you just met once in passing, are your ticket to a whole new social world (TEDxOSU Talk: Strategies to widen your social universe). However, most of us don’t use our tickets very well, and we stay awfully close to home. Here are three easy strategies to try to expand your sphere of influence.

Strategy #1: Use a more imperfect social search engine.
There’s no new app you need to download or site to access. I use the phrase “social search engine” to define how we find and filter friends and acquaintances. People often tell me they’re hoping to find a new job or project by networking. However, for most of us, our networks are quite predictable and unlikely to present us with these novel opportunities. Think about your daily path through the world, and what you’ll probably discover is you start at home, you take the same route to your workplace or to school, you might even use the same elevator, staircase or entrance to get in. During the day, you probably use the same stall in the same bathroom. After work, you might go to the gym or stop by a handful of stores, and then you go home. It’s like set stops on a train schedule. You’ve worked out an efficient way of living your life, but you end up seeing the same people because they’re also following their own routines. Why not make your network slightly more inefficient? Go to a bathroom on a different floor, get your morning coffee from a different place, park in a different spot. You should encounter a new network of people.

Another way we get stuck in ruts is through filtering. We do this automatically and immediately. The minute we meet someone, we look at them and decide “You’re interesting” or “You’re not interesting” or “You’re relevant” or “You’re not relevant.” What I want to encourage you to do is to fight your filters. Think carefully about your day-to-day life, and try to identify the person whom you find the least interesting. And then connect with them — start a conversation or ask them for coffee. Force yourself to connect with who you don’t want to connect with, and you’ll widen your social world. With my students, I’ve learned not to let them sit in their favorite seats. I move them around; I force them to work with different people so there are more accidental bumps in their networks. Coauthors Arjun Chakravarti, Chris Winship and I studied this at Harvard University, where freshmen rooming groups, like at most colleges, are assigned. As a result, people from different races, ethnicities and backgrounds are thrown together. Some students might be initially uncomfortable, but the amazing thing is by the end of the year many of them choose to keep living with their roommates, showing that these random connections between diverse people can result in positive relationships.

Besides talking to people you’d typically avoid, are there any places or activities where you can get injections of diversity or unpredictable people? For example, some students of mine play pickup basketball games, which attract different people every week. The dog park is another place that brings you together with people you might not meet otherwise.

Strategy #2: Be more courageous in your outreach.
A few years ago, I went through a very eventful few months. I lost a job, I managed to get a dream job, I accepted it, I had a baby the next month, I got sick, I was unable to take the dream job. In a short span of time, I lost my identity as a faculty member and acquired a stressful new identity as a mother. I also got tons of advice from people, and the advice I disliked more than any other was “You’ve got to go out and network with everyone.” When your psychological world has broken down, I can tell you the hardest thing to do is to reach out and build your social and professional worlds. Coauthors Ned Smith, Leigh Thompson and I studied this idea. We had participants classify themselves as high or low socioeconomic status. Then, we told half of them to imagine they’d gotten their dream job. We asked the other half to imagine that they had their dream job but they’d lost it. After these prompts, we had all the participants activate, or call to mind, their social networks. After thinking about the job-loss scenario, we found the low status group tended to reach inwards, activating networks that were smaller and less diverse, and the high status group reached outwards, activating a larger social network.

However, the takeaway here is not about the benefits of being high status. Rather, the narrowing we saw with the low-status group can happen to us when we feel especially vulnerable, powerless and at risk. It happened to me after I had a baby. Imagine being suddenly and spontaneously unfriended by everyone in your network other than your mom, your dad and your dog. That’s essentially what some of us are doing to ourselves psychologically. We mentally compress our networks when we are harassed, bullied or being threatened by job loss. We close ourselves off, isolating ourselves, creating a huge blind spot where we can’t see our resources, allies and opportunities.

How can we overcome this? Go down your lists of Facebook friends and LinkedIn friends, and most likely you’ll see people who are in your network but who may not automatically come to your mind when you’re feeling threatened or down. Also, remind yourself of your own strengths and your own values. Coauthors Leigh Thompson, Hoon Seok Choi and I conducted another study about how we seek advice from other people. We found that people were more likely to avoid advice from those they were close to because they felt envious of them or threatened by them, and they were more likely to accept advice from outsiders because they were viewed as less threatening. But when we had participants affirm themselves by writing down things that made them proud about themselves (for example,“I love my family” and “I love animals”), they were more willing to learn from the people who had been more threatening to them.

Strategy #3: Use “thank you” and “you’re welcome” as chances to strengthen your relationships.
Think about the last time someone asked you for something in a professional context, you did it, and they thanked you. Besides replying with “You’re welcome” or “No problem” or “Np” or “No worries,” did you say anything else? If not, you’ve missed an opportunity. Persuasion theorist Robert Cialdini suggests saying “I know you’d do the same for me” after “You’re welcome,” which can serve as a subtle reminder that you might ask for a favor in the future.

This goes the other way, too. When someone recently did something for you, did you just reply with a “Thank you,” “thx” or “ty”? Next time, say “Let me know if I can ever help you” or “I look forward to collaborating again.” Sentences like these can reinforce our ties with other people. Yes, you’re quietly acknowledging the transaction that has taken place between you two, and this might seem cold and calculating and make some people feel uncomfortable. But these expressions can help smooth an interaction — they’re respectful of the other person’s humanity and signal your openness to continue the exchange. After someone has, for instance, given you an informational interview or had coffee with you, go beyond “thanks” — find a way that you can be useful to them, now or later. The best networkers are able to recognize the the resources they can get from others and also the resources they can give to others. It takes little time or effort to be more intentional about broadening and deepening your social ties.