Professional networking feels wrong — inauthentic and immoral — to many of us. Studies have learned people feel dirty when they engage in professional networking activities, especially if they’re on the low end of a power dynamic. Folks who are already successful, and have less need of making advantageous connections, don’t seem to mind it so much. Ironic, no? Those who need to network the most are the ones who feel the worst about the process.
Even as a self-professed extrovert who likes connecting people with others who may have common interests, I don’t love networking as a formalized activity. I grew up with staunch rules around how much self-promotion was acceptable (the answer as a woman was pretty much ‘none’), and how expressing pride in one’s accomplishments was regarded as not confident, but rude.
This Tall Poppy Syndrome did nothing for my ability to navigate the professional world. As I contended with overcoming my own perfectionism in my work, I also came to understand the unique leverage of networking. I stopped hating networking when I could approach it as a learning opportunity. I could be openly curious about other people, and share with the folks I met what I can do. I also no longer needed to be an expert on many different areas, since I could “outsource” information in other people’s heads. I didn’t need to know everything, if I knew enough people who collectively know everything.
Experts offer a similar tactic to improving how you feel about networking. Focusing less on what you need from the experience and more on what you can bring to your interactions with others helps you feel less gross about the whole encounter.
Networking became a lower-risk way of practicing self-promotion for me, which is still feels awkward, even 20+ years into my professional career. I was taught my work would speak for itself, and I shouldn’t chase accolades. However, the reality is that only once in my professional career has a manager offered me an opportunity to do something new because he knew my skills well (Thank you, Bart!). The only person who is going to advance my career is me.
As a result, I continue to practice getting to know people and their abilities so I can tap them on the shoulder for help later, and hopefully repay that when they need my skills. I have met interesting people in professional environments like conferences or training classes, and also in less formal situations like on a plane or while I’m traveling.
Like most activities, it gets easier the more I practice. I don’t know if I’ve made it to that level of success where I no longer feel odd about networking, but I keep moving closer to it each time I can approach the experience as an opportunity rather than an obligation.