The phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters” has become a cliché, because it is true. Having talent or a great idea won’t guarantee success unless other people find out about it. The more people you know, the more resources you have available to help you advance in your career. Indeed, because of its importance, many recent books like Captivate have explored techniques for networking more effectively.
Yet, there are clear differences among people in the size of their professional network. Some of these differences reflect prominence. People who are more visible or successful have more people reach out to them than people who are less visible or successful. But, there are also individual differences in how much effort people put into developing their professional network.
A paper in the June, 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Medha Raj, Nathanael Fast, and Oliver Fisher explored factors that predict these differences.
An obvious factor that might affect networking is extraversion. Extraversion is a personality characteristic that reflects your motivation to connect with others and to be noticed in social situations. It would make sense that more extraverted people would be more likely to want to expand their professional networks than more introverted people.
Another obvious characteristic is just the perceived importance of networking. The more that someone recognizes that networking matters, the more they ought to expand their network.
The authors of this paper were particularly interested in identity. At any given moment, each of us has some sense of who we are. That set of beliefs influences actions, because we often try to behave in ways that are consistent with our identity.
In one simple study, participants were undergraduate business students (who presumably believe that professional networking is important). They were asked questions about whether they felt that engaging in networking activities (either in-person or on-line) was consistent with their identity. They also did a measure of extraversion. They also rated how often they engaged in professional networking activities. The more that people felt that networking was part of their identity, the more they engaged in these activities. In addition, more extraverted people were more likely to engage in networking activities.
Of course, this study is purely correlational. So, it is possible that people who engage in more networking come to think of it as being a part of their identity.
Another study in this series manipulated people’s beliefs about their identity. Many studies demonstrate that you can influence the way people think about themselves by getting them to emphasize particular characteristics. In this study, some participants wrote about ways that professional networking fits with who they are. Other participants wrote about ways that professional networking does not fit with who they are. After that, participants both rated their interest in networking and also had the chance to read up to 31 tips about how to network more effectively. The number of tips read was used as a measure of interest in networking.
In this study, people who were induced to think that networking was part of their identity were more likely to show interest in networking than those who were induced to think that networking was not part of their identity. In this study, extraversion was not a strong predictor of individual differences in networking.
A final study manipulated people’s beliefs about how important networking is to them. Some people wrote about the benefits of networking to themselves. Others wrote about the benefits other people would get from being part of their network. A control condition thought about the process of networking. The people who wrote about the benefits of networking were the ones who ultimately thought networking was most important. The researchers also measured extraversion and identity.
In this study, extraversion was related to people’s intention to network. Focusing on the importance of networking did not affect people’s intention to network by itself. Instead, participants whose identity was consistent with networking increased their intention to network when induced to think it was important. Manipulating the importance of networking had no impact on people if networking was not consistent with their identity.
What does all of this mean?
Because having a large professional network is important for success, many books and education programs try to teach people how to network and why it is important. This work suggests that it is also important for people to begin to think of themselves as the kinds of people who are networkers. That is, people have to find aspects of their self-concept that they believe are consistent with building a good network. Only then are they likely to start working actively to build their network.
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Medha, R., Fast, N.J., & Fisher, O. (2017). Identity and professional networking. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 43(6), 772-784.