The power of networking

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on April 11, 2021

Title: Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection Author: Marissa King Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Price: ₹799

This eminently readable book unravels the invisible threads that spin us to the top of the ladder

Not a day goes by without a connection request on LinkedIn from a total stranger.

Sometimes these are accompanied by an introductory message. The messages range from flattering to businesslike to quirky. The flattering ones you discount, repudiating it as lies. However, you evaluate the requests based on perceived usefulness, likeability, before deciding to accept or reject.

Networking has become one of the biggest skills in today’s business world. The thinking — if one goes by one’s LinkedIn experience — seems to be that the larger your network, the faster you will climb up the corporate ladder.

Organisations also actively encourage networking, prodding employees to attend events, conferences, etc. Indeed, the reason open offices have come about and futuristic companies like Google craft spaces where people from different departments collide with each other, is because of the thinking that the more people you meet, the more innovation flourishes.

But does network size really matter? Also, if you want to expand your list of contacts, what is the way to do it without coming across as pushy, selfish, an insensitive “user” of people?

Networking, when used for career advancement purposes, may have got as many negative connotations as positive, but in Marissa King’s book, it is the positives that are played up. The book is peppered with examples of superlative networkers.

The Rockfeller example

For instance, take David Rockfeller, the banker, whose Rolodex contained more than 100,000 contacts — the people on it ranging from Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso to Sigmund Freud and Bill Gates.

Rockfeller, writes King, recorded interactions with most people he had met since the 1940s. Not just names and dates of when he met them but also detailed notes on everyone from virtual strangers to his closest friends.

Too calculating an approach? But King defends it saying, Rockfeller actually realised the cognitive constraints that limit the size of human networks and found this was a way to overcome it. She says these personal connections may have helped his bank expand into Egypt, the Soviet Union and China.

The book actually begins with the fascinating story of Vernon Jordan, close advisor to former US President Bill Clinton. It starts with Jordan fresh out of DePauw University applying for a sales internship job at an insurance firm in Atlanta and being shown the door because of his colour. The only job he gets is as chauffeur to the mayor of Atlanta.

So how did he rise to become part of the inner circle of the most powerful man in the United States? Vernon Jordan’s transformation, says the author, was possible because of the way he spun together the thousands of invisible threads that make up our social fabric.

Way back in 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, which is still ranked as one of the most read books of all time. Those were simpler times.

The sum of what Carnegie wrote was to become genuinely interested in other people, get involved in their passions, never criticise. In a way, his book was about building networks.

As you read ‘Social Chemistry’, you feel nothing really has changed since then. Of course, in Carnegie’s time it was all about physical networking, giving big smiles and being good listeners. Today, in the era of social networking, and digital connections, is it applicable?.

Offline networking

King’s book acknowledges the importance of social networking but argues the importance of offline networking. It may seem a bit off during these Covid times of social distancing, but her logic is irrefutable. People like David Rockfeller are an aberration. There is a limit to human networks. She quotes anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s work on social group sizes and his findings that it is humanly possible to only maintain stable contact with between 100 and 200 people.

King also points that while we may have thousands of Facebook friends, the social network’s own study found that less than 5 per cent of users had contacted more than a hundred people through the platform.

If you try to cross that number, it takes a toll — time, resources, work suffer. Indeed, Rockfeller himself faced criticism on this count.

Once King establishes the importance of networking, she deep dives into the nature of networking. She says that there are three kinds of networking behaviour — the expansionist, brokering and convening. Expansionist refers to people who grow their networks by increasing its size, by reaching out to more and more individuals.

The convener, on the other hand, is someone who builds on strengthening his or her existing network. A broker is someone who connects people, introducing two strangers. All of us may take on all three roles interchangeably.

Psychological exploration

Unlike Carnegie’s book, which is a simple self help book with lots of practical dos and don’ts, King’s book is more layered and does not overtly offer advice. It is more a psychological exploration of how people’s social network evolves, definitions of who is a friend, can a work colleague become a friend, what are the dangers and advantages if this happens.

I personally found the chapter on Work Relationships the most fascinating. King, who is a professor of Organisation Behaviour, points to research that says that if you make friends within your office then it has a direct impact on productivity.

However, relationships at work are also very fragile and hard to manage. Too deep a friendship with work colleagues impacts work/life balance. According to King, the broker type manages the complexities of work/life.

It is also pretty interesting to read about Google’s Project Aristotle where it experimented with team dynamics rotating members trying to figure out which set of people perform best together. The ones where members felt psychologically safe did best.

The interesting take away from King’s book is that you have control over your relationships. And yes, though it may not have overt dos and don’ts, there is lots to absorb here. Besides, it is a jolly good read. You can easily finish it in one sitting.

Published on April 11, 2021

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