Authentic Networking

Forging connections is crucial to a successful career. Why, then, does it feel so superficial? Professor Sheena Iyengar offers tips for working a room like a pro.

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In the era that spawned the term “truthiness,” it can be tough to discern what, and who, is authentic.

It’s a dilemma that seeps into nearly every corner of society. Why was Donald Trump perceived as more authentic than Hillary Clinton by many voters? If you’re speed-dating, how candid should you be with prospective partners? And, closer to home for many businesspeople, why do networking events feel so forced?

Sheena Iyengar, the S.T. Lee Professor of Business and a Chazen Senior Scholar, is digging through questions like these in several current research projects.

“How many times have we all heard the advice to ‘Just be yourself’?” she says. “We all want to let our personality shine through.” But personalities constantly shift, she says. We relentlessly reinvent ourselves with every choice we make from morning to night. That can entail everything from changing our hair color to editing our resume to deciding who to sit next to in a meeting.

Many of Iyengar’s preliminary findings are pertinent to networking, the bane of many a professional person’s existence. Her research points to three key ways networking can be a more positive and effective experience.

Remind yourself who you are. In her newest project, Iyengar asked peers and speech coaches to judge corporate executives who gave leadership speeches. One group of speakers was asked to contemplate their core values prior to the address, while the other received no instructions. Guess which executives were judged most effective?

These results may infer that self-examination can help individuals better articulate what matters to them. That, in turn, can make networking exchanges more satisfying. Understanding your own authenticity factors and how others perceive you can be useful, said Iyengar. “You may be better equipped to find your own value added.”

Don’t skip the after-party. Every professional and alumni association is built around the idea that people want and need to network. But these interactions aren’t always successful. “When we are forced to network, we will collect people’s cards but don’t follow up,” says Iyengar. “We don’t talk about anything but resume exchange, and no one has any real interest in getting together.”

The reason? The connection needs to feel authentic. “I have to feel I was naturally drawn to you rather than forced to interact with you,” she notes.

One place that happens is not during a professional conference but afterward: at a dinner or during your free time, “usually late at night, when you’re drinking” Iyengar notes. The situation suddenly feels less artificial, allowing you to exchange more personal, better-remembered information, such as which sports team someone follows. Rather than feeling manipulated, “people have to feel they chose to network,” she notes.

View networking as a skill you can develop. “We all know that networking is an important component of our careers and our social lives, but we often have to put in quite a bit of effort to motivate ourselves to do it,” Iyengar notes. In a series of experiments, she studied the difference between thinking of networking as a personality trait (you’re either intrinsically good at it or not) and thinking of it as a skill (something you have to practice, or train yourself to do). It turned out that the more people believe networking is a skill, the more they’re willing to do it and the more they like doing it.

“So the next time you’re headed to a networking event, don’t demotivate yourself by saying you’re not a natural-born networker — treat it as a chance to practice!” she advises. “You’ll be happier and do better.” With enough repetition, you’ll have trained yourself in a skill that’s vital to virtually every kind of career.

For more on Professor Iyengar’s research on authenticity and other topics, view her blog.
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