One of our core business school courses, Organizational Behavior, was taught by Professor Denis Trapido, who introduced the concept of social network theory to us. Uzzi and Dunlap’s Harvard Business Review article “How to Build Your Network” features an exercise on mapping your network manually to find information brokers: people who connect disparate groups of people and thus are able to facilitate the flow of information, like job opportunities, industry insights, and warm introductions.
Uzzi and Dunlap write that there are two traps to avoid in meeting people. In their studies, they’ve shown that “if you’ve introduced yourself to your key contacts more than 65% of the time, then you’re probably building your network using the self-similarity principle and your network may be too inbred.”
The self-similarity principle means that people are too similar to yourself: “you tend to choose people who resemble you.” They find that it’s easier for people to trust one another, and that working with people from similar backgrounds becomes efficient. The flipside is that your friends wouldn’t tend to challenge your ideas, restricts the flow of new ideas, and ultimately becomes an “echo chamber.”
Another trap is the proximity principle, “which holds that workers prefer to populate their networks with the people they spend the most time with, such as colleagues in their department.” Physicians in the medical field, I’ve noticed, fall into this trap way too often and end up foregoing relationships with even other physicians in their own specialties.
In fact, physicians can be outright hostile towards those who aren’t similar to themselves. A recent New York Times article by Danielle Ofri, MD, highlights the culture of disrespect in which physicians harbor “dismissive attitudes…toward other members of the medical team, toward [medical] students, toward administrators, toward patients.” Charles Duhigg covers this in his book The Power of Habit, in which nurses and surgeons at Rhode Island Hospital actively fought against each other. For instance, over work hours. And, the location of a patient’s subdural hematoma — or, leaking blood within the skull. The neurosurgeon — despite the nurses’ pleas and warnings — chewed out the nurses, insisted on opening the wrong side of the patient’s head, and the patient ultimately died.
So it pays to at least keep an open mind when it comes to meeting people.
There are 2 ways to fix a networking slump:
1. Use the Shared Activities Principle.
Uzzi and Dunlap write that “potent networks are…forged through…relatively high-stakes activites that connect you with diverse others.” These include:
- sports teams
- community service ventures
- interdepartmental initiatives
- voluntary associations
- cross-functional teams
- charitable foundations
But these activities must “ evoke passion in participants,  necessitate interdependence, and  have something at stake.” Uzzi & Dunlap further explain that, instead of running independently, it’s better to join a running club. Or, better yet, train for a marathon or some competition where something is at stake.
I’ve been trying to work on this myself, with a project with tech leaders in Sacramento as well as other departments at UC Davis, along with keeping in touch with residents at other institutions and being as helpful as I can for their careers.
2. Find brokers, but not at the top.
Find people who are well-connected information brokers — again, people who connect disparate groups of people. But find those who are not necessarily at the top, since “positions of formal authority [are] the places where everyone else looks.”
Keith Ferrazzi in his book Never Eat Alone say that people such as the gatekeeper — administrative assistants, people who work for a leader, or anyone who is in close contact with the one you want to reach — are important people:
(I myself admit I haven’t done this much or actively tried to. I tend to treat everyone nicely, including administrative assistants, and do have a tendency to make friends with those in my peer group and especially with similar personalities.)
Tell me what other ways you’ve found yourself with a slump in your networking efforts. I’d love to hear your thoughts.