By day I work as an engineer at a consulting firm. Since we are consultants, we work for clients on temporary projects. So, an important part of our business is meeting new clients and bringing in new projects. One way to do this is to attend conferences or other “client-rich” events and network with people.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself at one of these events, trying to make some new contacts. As an introvert who would rather be hiding in the library with a good book, there is much for me to hate about these events. Meeting new people I’m supposed to impress is generally terrifying; few things sap my energy more quickly.
But, of course, this kind of struggle with business networking doesn’t indicate anything wrong with it. The fact that it freaks me out and drains my battery is just a quirk of my personality. I know plenty of extroverts who get charged up by meeting new people and talking shop. What I think is often wrong with business networking is the way it pressures us into viewing people as merely useful.
Avoid the “Loner”?
A while back a more seasoned colleague gave me some networking advice. He recommended that when I am looking for someone to talk to at a networking event, I should not talk to people who are by themselves. Rather, I should seek out people who are already talking in groups of two or three and try to break into one of those groups. Why? Because the “loners” typically aren’t well-connected and generally won’t be useful business contacts. At the time, I remember thinking this was a twisted piece of advice, though I held my tongue.
On one level the advice is just ironic. Suppose you arrive at a networking event by yourself and don’t know anyone since you’ve gone there to meet new clients. Before you have someone to talk to, you are essentially one of the “loners” that my senior colleague recommended against talking to. Now suppose everyone in the room is following my colleague’s advice (shouldn’t they?): no one will talk to you! To get someone to talk to you, you would essentially need to find some “sucker” who doesn’t yet know he or she shouldn’t be talking to you. Crazy.
Loving the “Loner”
More troublingly, the advice also seemed ethically suspect. As a Christian, my core ethical principle is to love my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:34–40), no matter who that neighbor is, no matter what the context. Indeed, Jesus taught that our love ought to extend even to our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). He said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47).
The Hebrew Bible expresses a similar thought when it issues the following command to the people of Israel about resident “aliens” or foreigners: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).
The basic idea, here, is that we ought to be attuned to the needs of the social outsider, since being a social outsider is difficult and painful, and since we ourselves have been outsiders in the past. In short, we ought to do what we can to turn outsiders into insiders.
The Ethics of Networking
So, if someone feels awkward and alone in a social situation, it means I should engage him and help him feel less so, if I can. In fact, I generally find it much easier connecting with people in that situation because I can relate to their awkwardness, and because I can feel more confident they won’t be looking over my shoulder for someone “more useful” to talk to. (This happened to me at my recent networking event; it made me feel like such a loser.)
I don’t think we are ethically required to talk only to loners and outsiders at networking events, or that we have to make a point of talking to every one of them. But, contrary to my colleague’s advice, I do think a policy of strict avoidance of the loner is ethically off limits.
To be clear, it is ethically fine to use people: we do this all the time and likely couldn’t survive without doing so. I use the bus driver when I ride her bus to work. I use the cashier when I buy groceries from him. I use my teacher when I go to class and learn from her. No problem.
The problem comes in (as Immanuel Kant put it in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [4:429]) when we merely use people, i.e., when we use them and fail to treat them with the dignity, respect, and kindness that they are owed as fellow human beings. And this principle applies even — or perhaps especially — when we are networking for business purposes, since those moments can tempt us so strongly in the wrong direction.
Networking with Dallas Willard
During my years as a graduate student at UCLA, I once attended a conference where the main speaker was the late Dallas Willard, a former professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. During a break when people were mingling and networking, I timidly approached him, introduced myself, and thanked him for his talk.
He proceeded to ask me a series of thoughtful questions about my academic and spiritual journey. He had never met me before, and I clearly wasn’t anyone of official importance, yet he listened to me as if I were the only other person in the room. Despite his renown in that community, he gave me no sense that he’d rather be talking with someone more important than me. I didn’t feel like I needed to impress him in order to hold his attention. In that moment, he was present with me in a way I will never forget.
Since that experience, Dr. Willard’s mode of asking questions and listening carefully has been my gold-standard when networking. To be sure, I rarely achieve it (if ever), but it is what I strive for. And I can’t help but think that engaging others in this way would also be good for business; after my interaction with Dr. Willard, I was certainly more interested in reading his books. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with someone who really listened to you and treated you as though you mattered? I certainly would.
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