Networking is BS and Other Truths About Building Relationships

Few years ago, when I used to work for a large consulting firm, Networking was the in-thing.

You could see the word everywhere. Inside work cubicles with motivational posters urging you to not simply work, but network to achieve collective goals. Even inside dining rooms which probably meant that you better have a working lunch to get your net work done with, well, eating business.

You could hear the word everywhere. It probably won the first prize for a million dollar quiz question sponsored by the Human Resources Department: Tell me one good buzz word which will be uncritically lapped up by everyone - from CEO to Managers to colleagues.

Do you want to get noticed by Principals to vroom up your career graph and do exciting stuff? Do you want to switch teams to other greener pastures outside your comfort zone? Do you want to get a favorable rating in the labyrinthine 360 degrees performance evaluation process? 

To be frank, I was wet behind the ears in the consulting business and it was quite incredulous for me to imagine that all those questions could have only one answer, repeated ad nauseum by any one you met inside the organization.

In case you’re wondering, if this sounds like a lament of an introvert, no, not at all! We haven’t met in flesh form, I suppose? I am sure you wouldn’t entertain that train of thought otherwise.

Here’s the thing. Networking was all over the place. But, relationships? Rare.Very rare. No wonder, I felt asphyxiated.

Look, if you cut all the PR crap, at the end of the day, business simply does two things. 

It converts nature into products, and relationships into services. Broadly speaking, the former happens in industries, and the latter through networking.


Scratch the word deep enough, you will realize that the word is the illusion. As I speak, I recollect one of my favorite lines from the sufi saint, Hazrat Zaheen Taj,

Pani-Pani rat'te rat'te pyaasa hi mar jaaye!
Chanting 'water', 'water' endlessly, one dies of thirst

Most of the professionals I meet in business suffer the same sad fate. Repeating "networking" endlessly, their human selves die a little in those frayed, lonely moments, when they feel disconnected from their breath, their environment and everyone else. 

You see, it is in our human nature to confuse means with the ends. Strategy with the result. If you are doing something, with an exuberant thought cloud hovering over your head, "Yes! I am networking here!", it is likely that you are screwing up. You better stop, right there.

Why do we long for relationships and yet remain averse to anything that even remotely smells like 'networking'? Because, we humans have tasted the real thing. We know it - a pulsating spark of a shared human energy throbbing in a spontaneous moment of ideas, thoughts, and feelings resonating in unison.

And if you look back and zoom in those precious moments, you will realize that what made the moment sweeter was your presence - pure fulsome presence without any inkling of an agenda. We were fully present without the urges of an impulse to get something. And that made the difference.

But there's a twist in the tale.

In a world which makes it easier to be in digitally mediated relationships with anyone through networked technologies, our expectations of relationships are changing. We hold conflicting desires to remain in loosely coupled relationships, and also remain secure in an arm’s length, or, in today's terms, a node's length. In other words, we want the rosy parts, safely pruned from the thorns.

In case you didn't notice, our modern notions of "relating" and relationships, are gradually taken over by the shape and language of "connections" inside social networks.

You can stay in touch, without being connected. Or be connected, without staying in touch. More importantly, all human connections by default come with a neat, user-friendly, exit clause – all it takes to disconnect is a single click.

So, let me outline the intricate painting of human relationships with a few broad strokes. Yes, broad strokes do imply that it would come with necessary simplifications so that we could proceed with our inquiry, building on the substrate framework of relationships.

Human relationships and the way we relate with each other broadly exist in a metaphorical spectrum spanning from solid to liquid state. (I borrow the term "liquid" from the works of the famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman)

In a solid state, relationships are marked by human bonds which remain impervious to communication mechanisms. Think of your relationship with your mother, or, your spouse. You would know exactly what I am talking about.

On the other hand, in a liquid state, the strength of relationship is constantly in a flux, depending on the strength of the connection between the nodes of the network.

Let us take the case of LinkedIn to understand this liquid state better.

Say, you are connected (and not necessarily 'related') with me in its first-degree-of-connections cluster, and, let us assume, you've been regularly interacting with me in these virtual spaces. Then, it's likely you are reading this post after a LinkedIn notification prompted you about this article I published a while ago.

Now, what made sure that you received this notification? No, you didn't receive it just because we are directly connected with each other.

You received it because the LinkedIn algorithm, based on the connection strength score it computed from its cloud service, decided that you be told of my article in your notification panel. (Whether is it right on the part of any algorithm to mediate the terms of relations is a lengthy post for yet another day.)

Solid relationships are couched in the familiar-yet-ambiguous language of "relationship" and the complicated-yet-human act of "relating". They rely more on implicit understanding and less on explicit communications.

Why do they rely less on explicit communication?

The solid nature of the bonds, solidified with implicit understanding, obviates the assumptions held about the depth of trust and intimacy in the relationship.

You never think twice before calling your kin in the middle of the night, because you know that it is a normal thing to do. And such strong bonds make it possible for us humans, to build a relationship on something which on the face of it, looks deceptively simple - a promise, or a commitment.

Liquid relationships on the other hand, are couched in the technical language of "connections", and mutually exclusive acts of connecting-disconnecting, as they rely more on explicit communications, and less on implicit understanding.

Why do they rely more on explicit communications?

The liquid form of the bonds makes it dangerous to proceed with presumptive assumptions about intimacy and trust. If you aren't socially attuned enough, it could lead to embarrassingly awkward moments, which could destroy the possibility of relationship forever.

Haven't you come across social situations in parties where somebody, who isn't yet a part of your group, makes a presumptuous insider comment which completely puts you off to ostracize that person forever? 

The tenuous nature of liquid state relationships makes it amenable to perceive connections as investments. Managing them can sometimes resemble a stylized speed dating game, bordering on the slapstick, with ritual games turning every mundane moment into a social occasion. 

Let me give you another example from my favorite social lab, LinkedIn.

I captured this screen shot from my LinkedIn page while I was writing this article.

So it turns out, at this moment, I have 15 ways to keep in touch with my professional network. My connections are celebrating their birthdays, work anniversaries, new jobs, when they aren't busy sharing their updates and articles on the work domains they are actively involved in.

So, when I play these games regularly, my actions could be easily theorized under the lens of a portfolio investment strategy where I work towards building an optimal set of connections within my limited basket of attention span, to develop contextual liquid relationships as per my needs.

If you've followed me this far, here's a piece of advice that should be obvious by now.

Before you go ahead and introduce yourself to that Influencer who could do wonders to your career, evaluate honestly where you stand in your social equation with him/her in the Solid - Liquid spectrum of relationship. The closer you stand with him in the solid state, the stronger your chances of him/her acceding to your request.

There is something deeply ironic about the act of networking that can only be seen through the light of a lived experience. You know that you are doing it well, only when you know at the bottom of your heart that you aren't consciously doingit. And there's a good reason behind this.

Those who most want to meet and network with others are those who are least wanted to be met and networked. If you've dated fellow humans, this should be obvious. Those who are the most desperate to date others are those who are least wanted to be dated.

Why is this so? Let us understand this social dynamic in depth.

We learned earlier that human relationships extend in a liquid-solid spectrum.

In every act of relating, taken to its full cycle, we embark on a gradual journey of building trust and intimacy from the liquid state to the solid state. So, what happens when someone, whom we perceive as desperate to network, approaches us?

We experience a curious reaction which can be described in two parts.

a) We are put off by the presumptive assumption of over familiarity and trust which is out of touch with reality - our reality - the level of trust we perceive as required to facilitate a networking opportunity.

b) We recollect similar situations where we've been accosted by such people in the past and impose our previous reaction upon the current situation. Did you notice how the language used to describe this situation quickly turned from approached to accosted?

So, how does one embark on an organic journey from relationships to services, which doesn't feel contrived, or manipulative?

I would like to introduce you to Networking Pyramid, that I thought would be fun to construct for this article, in the lines of the hugely powerful Collaboration Pyramid built by Oscar berg.

Networking Pyramid depicts the broad set of activities business professionals need to undertake to make networking effective without compromising on the underlying relationships.

Each of the activities has been arranged in a sequence corresponding to their degree of trust and intimacy required to function in a social environment.

(Aside: This design pattern originates from the world of architecture, and has been described as Intimacy Gradient, in the legendary book, Pattern Language, authored by Christopher Alexander)

In the bottom layers constituting the liquid relationship zone, you find activities which are more public and socially oriented.

You exert your presence, share your thought capital, route knowledge and people in relevant context, get acquainted, and contribute towards the networked commons in your social environment.

Think of the activities that are happening in your public LinkedIn feed right now. It is likely that you are doing one or more of these activities to develop contextual liquid relationships.

These liquid spaces also give you the necessary ambient awareness to keep track of potential networking opportunities. They alert you of high-leverage information of economic value flowing through your network streams. And as you immerse yourself in relevant streams aligned to your needs, you also build necessary pathways to realize them.

In the top layers constituting the solid relationship zone, you find activities which are far more personal and individually oriented.

Think of job search, or pitching for Angel funding. It is highly likely for such activities to unfold in personal and intimate spheres of sociality. And posts ( like the one below) which contravene these spheres of sociality turn spammy in no time.

There is a reason why this is called as Networking Pyramid, and not Networking Hierarchy. The activities haven't been structured to imply that those in the bottom are simple, and those at the top are complex.

The Pyramid indicates each activity as a stepping stone to orchestrate a successful networking opportunity at the apex where direct, monetary benefit awaits you.

I believe understanding the spectrum of relationships and the Networking Pyramid can be useful to grapple with our predicament in this modern digital age where relationships have become the sine-qua-non of business.

I am eager to hear your feedback on this, and would love to learn more from your experiences in relationships and networking.