How To Do Life

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The Case Against Networking

Networking is often about giving so you can get more. Ethically dubious.

In decades past, networking was merely a few-minute conversation at some gathering that ended with an exchange of business cards.

But that was correctly viewed as ineffective so, today, the advice is: Develop long-term relationships with a dozen targets with power to help you. That approach, which I call, The Give-So-You-Can-Get-More Ploy, was touted in this exhortation to the Thiel Fellows. Yes, some people do give for generosity's sake but too often that's not what's operative.

I have ever more been the target of the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More Ploy. Typically, the networker emails me articles and at some point starts asking me for help, help that would benefit them much more than their effort cost them.

Like many targets of this ploy, I dislike it. The help the networker gives me is usually trivial, indeed often a net negative: I end up feeling obligated to read the articles they send me, stuff I'm usually not that interested in--I have better uses of my time. If I want to learn something, thanks to Google, on-target articles are just clicks away. Alas, despite my not appreciating users of The Ploy, as a human being, I haven't been able to restrain myself from feeling obligated to them because it is possible they were just trying to be nice. So I usually end up helping them.

Worse, when I, for example, offer advice to Ploy users on how to land a job, I feel I'm helping a person who likely isn't as competent as those I'd otherwise advocate for. On average, the people who take all that time to butter me up are less competent than others. If they were that competent, emotionally together, etc.,they probably wouldn't need to put all that time into marketing themselves. It's the same way I feel when a job seeker shows me a glossy presentation packet instead of a resume. If they were that good, would they have need to spend the time and money on that gift wrapping? I wonder, "Are they gift-wrapping a bad product?"

One person bombarded me with articles for months, literally daily, interspersing ever more requests for free advice. Finally I asked him to stop. He responded by emailing me this cartoon mooning me. I guess he was frustrated that the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More ploy had stopped working.

There are many ways to implement the Give-So-You-Can-Get-More ploy. An online version is to post smart tidbits or links in a LinkedIn group or other forum. Then there are traditional approaches: business networking groups such as Business Networking International, joining the Chamber of Commerce or a service club (e.g.,Kiwanis, Rotary), where you invest your time until you feel you can cash in.

Despite what networking's proponents claim, much networking is manipulative--you're not being kind to be kind or to develop enjoyable or reciprocal relationships, you're being kind as a way of getting people to do things for you they wouldn't otherwise do. For example, instead of hiring the best person for the job, the target hires the networker because the networker did nice things for the target, even if it's just listening to the target complain. Ultimately that hurts the target: They would have been better off having searched for the best employee.

Even the networker ultimately suffers from spending all that time cultivating networking targets. That's time the networker could better spend improving skills, creating something, or yes, the old-fashioned applying for advertised jobs. That's the ethical way to land a job: An employer needs to hire someone, you make your case that you're worthy of being hired, and the employer selects the person most appropriate, not the person who most savvily networked him.

Of course, if networking is bad for the networker and for the target, it thus is bad for society. Society is worse to the extent it reallocates time from productivity to schmoozing. And alas, its impact is ever more negative today as people reallocate productivity time to networking time. Especially in these tough times, America needs to spend more time on steak, not sizzle.

It's heretical to assert but I believe that much networking is unethical and ultimately deleterious to all.

I must admit that, as a career counselor, I do teach people how to network effectively. It is often effective. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder how ethical it is of me to continue to do so.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 
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