Why Networking Doesn’t Work

Try suggesting to someone that they go out and “do some networking,” and see what kind of response you get.

For a lot of people, myself included, networking is a bit of a dirty word. It’s most often an obligation, not something you really want to go out and do. The word evokes images of meaningless small talk, stiffly formal handshakes and business card exchanges. The act can feel competitive, inauthentic and tiresome. In other words, networking is pretty much the worst.

Dictionary.com provides us with a nice little definition of networking:

“A supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest.”

Wait a second—that doesn’t sound anything like what I was describing above. Does Dictionary.com have a completely different idea of networking than the majority of the career development field? Merriam-Webster gets us a little closer to what I would call traditional networking with their definition:

“The cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.”

And there we have it. The second you start throwing words like “productive” and “business” together, you’ve successfully ventured into the land of discomfort for most students and job seekers. But it’s not the words in the definition that are the biggest part of the problem, in my view—of larger concern to me are the words that are absent.

In almost every in-depth career exploration session I’ve done over the past year, students have told me that it’s important to them to be doing something meaningful in their careers. They want to be fulfilled at some level by their work, whether that means making a difference in the world or in someone’s life, or satisfying some other deeply held personal value. In a sense, their career represents a manifestation of their core values. They don’t just want to do, they want to be.

Where is that sentiment expressed in the “cultivation of productive business relationships”? How does an hour of small talk and a stack of business cards at a career fair fit into the cultivation of a meaningful career?

It doesn’t, unless we make some drastic changes to what we mean when we use the word “networking.” Better yet, we can ditch this traditional business lingo altogether in favour of a term far more descriptive of what we’re actually trying to do and how it fits into our own bigger picture.

That term is “relationship building.”

Where networking is about quantity, relationship building is about quality. Where networking is superficial, relationship building is inherently genuine. Where networking is something you have to go out and do, relationship building is something you’re always doing. Where networking is something people do to get ahead, relationship building is about mutual benefit and the sum being greater than its parts.

We are social creatures, even the introverts among us. Our tendency to seek, build and maintain relationships with other humans is innate. “Networking” as it’s traditionally meant in the business sphere is a perversion of this natural tendency, one that fundamentally pits us against each other in our never-ending quest for the almighty dollar. There is no such core motivation when it comes to relationship building.

Being that it’s career fair season, how can you stop networking and start relationship building? Here are three quick ideas:

Focus on quality, not quantity.

It’s not about the number of business cards you collect or the number of LinkedIn connections you have. If you don’t know anything constructive about any of those people, what value does that relationship bring to either of your lives, let alone your careers? But if you are able to have a few meaningful conversations with some people you share values with, the possibilities for you both could be great.

Focus on what you can do for others, not the other way around.

When you do this, you’ll notice that people eventually start to return the favour. This results in great things like collaboration, mutual referrals and moral satisfaction. When you’re more concerned with getting ahead and how other people might fit into your carefully constructed career path, not only are you focusing on an incredibly narrow portion of each person’s value, you’re creating a one-dimensional relationship that is likely to collapse as soon as you get what you were after.

Be genuine about your personality and values.

Forget about “being perfect,” or making the perfect first impression with your flawless appearance, impeccable manners and memorized introduction. If you want to create a genuine relationship, it has to start with you sharing an authentic piece of yourself. Embrace your personality and share your core values—if there’s a wide enough gap between your values that it prevents you from having a relationship with another person, it’s not a relationship worth having for either of you, anyway. In short, respect what you’re bringing to the table.

Have fun not networking at all the upcoming career fairs!

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