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“The most fun a human being can have is at a networking event” — said no one ever.
Let’s be honest: Networking stinks. It makes us feel uncomfortable, and in fact, while writing my latest book You’re Invited: The Art & Science of Cultivating Influence, I came across research that found our association to networking causes us to feel dirty and have the desire to wash. This leaves us with a big problem. We all know that who we are connected to has an incredible potential to define our success, whether that is finding a new client, potential employees, the right business partner, or being covered by a media outlet. So what can we do instead of traditional networking?
For more than a decade I have been running The Influencers, a private community and secret dining experience for Nobel Laureates, olympic medalists, Fortune 500 executives, celebrities, and even the occasional princess. As a human behavioral scientist, this is what research and experience has taught me:
1. Don’t Network. Make Friends!
Regardless of how shy or introverted a person is, we all enjoy making new friends. But of course, most people don’t make friends through an interview process or a random networking mixer. Instead, we connect through common friends or shared activities — and not all activities are equal.
The secret is participating in activities that require shared effort.
Researchers have found that human beings care more about what they invest effort into. It is known as the IKEA effect; the theory goes that we disproportionally care about our IKEA furniture because we had to assemble it. This translates to people too. Across the hundreds of dinners I’ve hosted, one of the key elements is that guests cook the meal together. As a result, they invest effort into one another and develop a profound bond over the course of an evening.
The important lesson: Instead of trying to connect with people over cocktails (a passive experience), find an activity you enjoy and invite others to participate. You don’t need anything as elaborate as a dinner. Even something as simple as a fitness class can bond people. The key is to find an activity that requires joint effort and that everyone enjoys, like taking a walk, painting, or volunteer work.
2. Make it Novel
If you want to get people’s attention, stop following the industry standards. High-profile people don’t want to meet for a cup of coffee or attend another casino-themed fundraiser. Human beings are wired for novelty.
There is a section of the brain called SN/VTA, and when triggered by something novel, it entices us to explore. This means the more novel your invitation to connect is, the more people will engage. For example, don’t invite people to another Zoom happy hour! Instead, turn it into a game show where people can play games, meet, and have fun. This works not only for customers, but also for employees or even family. The fact that it stands out as different is exciting.
The same is true for in-person gatherings. Don’t just host a panel or a talk. Mix it up and give people a reason to interact, have conversations, and work together! For one company, my team developed creative challenges where guests had to design buildings with limited supplies like paper clips, markers, and index cards. Guests had fun, bonded, and got to show off their creative problem solving.
The important lesson: Try something new and get noticed. If you do the same old thing, it either means you are scared or unoriginal… and who wants to do business with people like that?
3. Lead With Benevolence
People hate networking because it makes us feel like we are just using people. And that violates our sense of trust.
I spoke with the guy who would know: He’s Kent Grayson, an associate professor of marketing at Northwestern University and faculty director for The Trust Project. He told me that, when human beings evaluate who to trust, we tend to look at three things: competence (your ability to do something), honesty (truthfulness), and benevolence (we have best intentions for others). Oddly, even though we tend to talk the most about those first two factors, the thing we value most is the last one. We want to know that people have good intentions.
The important lesson: If you want to develop meaningful relationships that last decades, lead with the fact that you care about people. You can demonstrate your competence over time — but if people don’t feel that you care about them, why would they want to keep you around?
Regardless of what we want to accomplish, we can’t do it alone. The people we know define our success. But as I demonstrate in my book, the common practices most of us use are probably hurting our chances. The real opportunity isn’t in networking, but in developing deep and meaningful relationships with people who have the biggest potential to impact our lives — and those relationships have the best chances of coming from novel experiences with shared effort and a demonstration of benevolence.