How you can become a better networker—even if you're an introvert

Traditional Buehnendinner 2017 at Bayerische Staatsoper.
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You might be stuck in the same cubicle for the rest of your life, or you might land the job of your dreams. Networking could make the difference.

But that doesn't mean you should approach a networking opportunity with the sole intent of personal gain. Instead, argues organizational psychologist Adam Grant, you should focus on serving others.

In his book, "Give and Take," he writes, "When we meet a new person who expresses enthusiasm about connecting, we frequently wonder whether he's acting friendly because he's genuinely interested in a relationship that will benefit both of us, or because he wants something from us."

It's usually not so hard to tell.

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Unlike givers, he writes, takers approach networking with an attitude of "I'll do something for you, if you do something for me." Although "reciprocity is a powerful norm," it has its downsides, such as that people on the receiving end of an offer or a favor tend to sense that they are being manipulated.

Compared to givers, takers also limit the potential of their network. "The giver approach extends a broader reach," he writes, "and in doing so enlarges the range of potential payoffs, even though those payoffs are not the motivating engine."

For further insight, Grant consulted Adam Rifkin, the CEO of the consumer internet service PandaWhale and, as Grant notes, Fortune's 2011 best networker in Silicon Valley. Rifkin told him, "We can't always predict who can help us."

As Rifkin, who self-identifies as an introvert, explained, "My network developed little by little, in fact a little every day through small gestures and acts of kindness, over the course of many years, with a desire to make better the lives of the people I'm connected to."

Eric Barker
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Eric Barker defends the value of this approach in his recently published book, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree."

"Be a friend," he writes. "Yeah, it's that simple. Networking isn't a skill anybody can learn. It's a skill you already know." Friends are authentic. They open their minds and listen, not for their own sake, but the sake of others.

Barker, too, asked Rifkin for networking tips, and Rifkin told him, "Do not be transactional. Do not offer something because you want something in return." What you need to do instead, he said, is show genuine interest in others and find common ground. "It is better to give than to receive."

Barker admits the word "networking" itself is unsettling because when you approach a social situation with the intent of advancing your career, it is unnatural. And that's something felt on both sides. So don't overdo it.

"We like networking better when it's serendipitous," writes Barker, "when it feels like an accident, not deliberate."

It's true that, these days, who you know can be just as important as what you know. But if you want to know everybody, you have to want it for the right reasons. According to Barker, "It's all about the perspective you take going in."

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