Introverts hate excessive superficial social interaction. That is a fact that’s backed up by years of jokes and comic strips.
In this hyperlinked and connected world, though, to succeed requires more than just being good at your job; it requires you to know and interact with people who matter.
As an introvert, I understand the frustration. Why does my ability to get promoted depend on who I know? Why is it necessary to have a million followers on LinkedIn if I’m just trying to do my job well?
So, until we find a way that doesn’t require everyone to have a LinkedIn profile and comment ‘Wow this article is great!’ on 200 posts, here’s my 4-step guide to networking without killing yourself:
Step One: Don’t.
You shouldn't be forced to do anything you don’t want to do.
No one knows this better than the stubborn introvert right here, typing from her bed.
Whenever anyone asked me to meet people for an undoubtedly awkward situation, you better bet your ass I would have found a way to get out of it.
“Oh, it’s just…a waste of a day, you know?’’
“I could find all of that information on the Internet, I bet.”
Work lunches with new departments?
“I…erm, have to finish this piece of work. You go ahead.”
If I was forced to go, I would sit in the corner, and read a book/article/phone/brochure/banner.
And of course that meant that, while I was good at my work, I was never singled out as the most interesting intern, or the part-time staff everyone was sad was leaving.
Did this method hurt my burgeoning career goals? Of course it did, which is why…
Step Two: Go Overboard.
At some point, you would have panicked when you saw friends surging ahead with opportunities, while you were stuck slugging through yet another internship (one where you definitely did not get a referral after).
So, you would overcompensate.
It was brutal; when I changed companies, I wanted to make sure that I was noticed at the new one, so I went on a full ‘fake it till you make it’ binge, trying to speak to everyone and anyone at work to get their attention.
I said yes to spending time alone with a new colleague at an event; I spoke up at every opportunity, and volunteered for every after-work event.
I burnt out in a week.
My impression of work became one that mirrored high school politics; ‘Who do I need to hang out with to get the most useful information?’
I started dreading going to work, because I had to think of new topics to talk about (I ran through the weather, career goals, current relationships within the first 5 days). I was upset whenever I was ignored. I was tired of being someone I wasn’t.
And no matter how hard I tried, I was never as natural as the extroverts; their laughs and smiles came so effortlessly that people were just drawn to them, like flies to honey.
It was an uphill battle that I lost, quickly.
Step 3: Use Tools To Talk
Now, I’m at the point where I’ve learnt to pick my battles.
Recently, I went on a mission to increase the number of people I knew on LinkedIn.
Before this, I had thought that adding professional contacts on social media was superficial and inappropriate. All these people, trying to stay in contact even though you barely know each other?
(At that time, the reigning social network, for all intents and purposes, was Facebook, and I was definitely not going to add my supervisor on my Facebook, where she could see me liking and sharing random articles with my friends.)
Now, however, I’ve changed my tune. Would I add professional contacts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, social networks that are more personal? Nope.
However, would I add them on LinkedIn? Yes, because LinkedIn is billed as a professional platform, and always feels one step removed from my personal life.
Adding them on LinkedIn doesn’t mean that I need to talk to them, too. It’s just a method to keep track of them (and help them keep track of you).
I’ve also learnt that I can handle networking for about an hour before my energy levels dip dangerously low.
So when someone asks me to go for a networking dinner, or to go to a conference which has a networking element, I go through this checklist in my mind:
- Can I manage being there for an hour?
- Are those people relevant to my career goals?
- Do I want to go for the conference/talk itself?
And if my answer is ‘Yes’ to all three of these questions, I go for an hour, make sure I speak to at least 2 different people, exchange name cards, and then I go home.
Keeping a high level of control over my networking makes it less stressful, and I can ensure that it’s useful for me, without draining my energy.
One last thing I’ve started doing? Taking credit for my accomplishments.
When you’re young and inexperienced, networking can feel like you’re bragging about nothing, about future plans that you’re pulling out of thin air.
As you work, though, all the experience you gain can be used as a buffer to avoid personal topics. I would rather talk about the project I’m currently working on, than my personal plans this weekend.
Does it still feel like I’m talking about superficial topics with a complete stranger? Yes. Would I prefer to discuss it with someone I know better? Yes, but then that wouldn’t be called networking.
Sometimes that stranger might actually provide useful advice, and you will want to talk to them in future (through a LinkedIn message, instead of a text or face-to-face meet, of course) to learn more.
Sticking to the work topic makes your conversation focused. It also makes it easier to end the conversation, as you can always say ‘that was really helpful, thanks for the advice, I’ll add you on LinkedIn and we can talk more another day!’
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