Last summer, Organization Science published an article about getting advice from your inactive network ( "Reconnection Choices: Selecting the Most Valuable (vs. Most Preferred) Dormant Ties"). The authors ran a study predicated on the notion that when you seek career or business advice, your inactive relationships - that is, people in your network with whom you don't have a regular, ongoing connection - are still valuable. At times, they may in fact be more valuable that people who are active, current contacts. The authors note that "recent evidence... indicates that past relationships can retain considerable value, without the need for active maintenance." So the authors posed the question - if inactive, or "dormant", contacts are valuable, which of your inactive contacts provide the best value, and which of your contacts are you most likely to ask for advice.
past relationships can retain considerable value, without the need for active maintenance
The authors defined two aspects of value: novelty, which is the degree to which your contact provides you with fresh insight, and engagement, which I prefer to refer to as trust, since it is the notion that the closer relationship you have with your contact, the more comfortable you feel, leading you to have more productive discussions. The authors look at three aspects of dormant connections and develop hypotheses about value and people's preferences in reaching out to old contacts.
How much interaction did you have with that contact?
Some of our inactive relationships are with people where there used to be a great deal of interaction, whether it was short-lived or lasted years. This is a close work relationship that slipped away when you changed jobs. This is an old colleague who you knew quite well, but you haven't stayed in touch since they changed positions. This is someone you had worked with closely on a multi-month or multi-year project, but you haven't talked to since the project ended. This is your old university friend who was side-by-side with you as you worked tirelessly towards a degree.
We like these 'inactive' contacts. We are comfortable asking advice from them. We know that they will remember us, so it's easy to reach out. We already have a rapport, so there is no anxiety around picking up the phone or sending an email.
We also have another set of inactive contacts. This portion of your dormant network includes the people who you only interacted with occasionally. This is the project manager of that initiative that you were only involved with for a few weeks. This is the person you met at an industry conference a few years ago. This is the person from university who you worked with on a class project, but you didn't socialize with them. This is your former colleague who you only interacted with at team meetings, because your projects didn't overlap.
The idea of reaching out to this person for advice - someone you barely knew - causes us anxiety. In fact, the researchers interviewed 156 executives who shared these nervous feelings. You're not sure if the other person will remember you. You get nervous about the idea that you might be rejected. You worry that you will annoy the other person by 'wasting their time'. You don't know them well, so you're not sure how to even start the conversation - how can you ask about their family if you're even not sure they have a spouse or children?
So, when we need career or business advice, we stick to the comfortable network of people we used to know well, because to do otherwise causes us anxiety. However. When we are reaching out for advice, this comfortable network of contacts is less likely to yield great insight to your problem, because they will have had similar experiences to your own. Rather, when you have had fewer interactions with another person, it is more likely that they will have different experiences and pieces of knowledge to share with you.
Does your inactive contact have higher status than you?
Our inactive contacts are not always our peers; some of them will have higher status. This is a former boss. This is a VP who you met while working on a special project. This is a manager from another division who you know through your child's school or sporting activity. This is the CEO of another company who you know because they are a client or vendor to your company.
If someone in your inactive network has higher status than you, they will have valuable insights. They will likely have had more experience and/or exposure to the business, so they will bring powerful business acumen to the challenge you are facing. They will likely have a broad network and can give you referrals to people outside of your network.
The researchers supposed that people should also feel more comfortable in reaching out to higher status contacts, because these relationships have a natural ebb and flow. However, according to the research results (and, I would argue, common sense), people do in fact feel anxious about reaching out to a higher status contact. We fear and suspect that we will be rejected by these higher status individuals. They surely will not wish to help someone beneath them. Yet, these are the very individuals who can provide us with great advice.
Do you trust the contact?
We have inherent trust in some contacts more than others. This is the person you could vent a work frustration and they always helped you work through it. This is the coworker who was always willing to give advice and help others with a project. This is the individual who is willing to have an open conversation and provide honest feedback in a non-judgemental manner.
These contacts provide tremendous value, and we enjoy reconnecting with them. The high level of trust ("engagement") means that you will have a very productive interaction. You will also feel less anxiety about reaching out, because you expect that they will help you. Luckily, the research also shows that these contacts also provide us with better advice than other contacts. The greater the trust and openness in a relationship, the more likely that it will result in valuable support.
The power of Trust + Insight
The authors found that the most powerful impact from an inactive contact came when there was a combination of trust ("engagement") and insight ("novelty"). These are contacts who you can trust, so you can have an open, possibly even vulnerable, discussion. But this person is also distant enough from you that they have new insights that you may not have previously considered. Yet, because this person is more distant, we recoil from reaching out to them. We fear that they will reject us, so we stick to people we used to know well. In effect, our natural instincts lead us to sub-optimal decisions: we reach out to the people who are less likely to give us good advice. Happily, the research showed that although you worry about a negative experience, our inactive contacts are usually more than happy to help. Most of the executives surveyed were surprised at the extremely positive reactions they received.
Six steps to leveraging your inactive network.
So that's the research. What does this mean for you, the working professional? It means that you should reach out to inactive contacts with whom you did not have a close relationship in the past.
Reach out to inactive contacts with whom you did not have a close relationship in the past
This will naturally cause anxiety, and for some of you may even be terrifying, So I recommend this six step process to approach the reconnection in a less emotional manner. If you find yourself stuck on any of these steps, reach out to me, and we can work through it together.
1. Consider a business or career problem that you face. Write a brief summary to help you clarify the problem and identify the advice you need. Write out the question that you are looking to have answered.
2. Make a list of your former contacts who might have insight to this problem. Avoid trying to anticipate how they will react to your reconnection, just consider whether they have knowledge or experience to help with the problem.
3. Put a check mark beside all the people who:
4. Make a short list of the people with two check marks. These are the people who will likely yield you the most valuable advice.
5. Set aside a morning to make phone calls or send emails to these individuals. In the morning, both you and your contact will be fresh, so the conversation will flow more readily. Plus, it will be easier to tackle any emotional anxiety you may have for contacting these individuals. If you find your anxiety levels rising, take deep breaths and visualize a positive interaction. Before you make a phone call, take a moment in the bathroom or a stairwell to strike a 'power pose' - this will give you the boost of confidence to propel you through the conversation.
6. After you've received the advice or referral, make sure you remember to thank the contact. Consider keeping in touch with this person, even just lightly. A quick phone call or a short email every six months is enough to maintain the relationship so that you feel more comfortable the next time you want to reconnect with this person.
I saw a LinkedIn article the other day that pointed out that when standing up for your beliefs, you are not usually rewarded with popularity. The author talks about how she grappled with the question “How do I retain my likeablility while still speaking my mind?”
(See On Losing my Likability).
This is a question that faces many professionals, but is particularly vexing for female professionals. We want to be seen as having opinions and contributing to a discussion, but we risk being perceived as too "aggressive," "opinionated," or "emotional" (speaking your mind).
The author of the LinkedIn article discusses taking a more measured approach to sharing her opinion and trying to care less about the opinions of others. I would add that you could include 'mirroring' to your toolkit.
Mirroring is when you reflect (or 'mimic') very subtle communication behaviours back to the person with whom you are conversing. Though straightforward, it requires you to be observant about the communication style of your partner. You need to make an assessment about who you are conversing with:
Once you have a sense of the type of communicator you're speaking with, you can subtly adapt your style to match theirs. I have found that this makes the other person more comfortable in the discussion, because I am 'mirroring' their instinctive communication behaviours. A word of caution - it needs to be subtle and must come from a genuine desire to connect with the other person. If not, you will likely be perceived as a fake or a copycat. You should be drawing on different aspects of your own personality, not putting on an act or pretending to be someone you're not.
So what does this looks like in practice?
Do you use mirroring in your conversations? What is your strategy for retaining likeability while speaking your mind?
I read a recent New York Times article that discusses the effect of the narrowing gender pay gap. Couples are typically earning similar salaries (and women are more frequently earning more than their spouses), and this is having subtle effects on the partnerships. For one, wives with higher salaries statistically contribute far more to housework and child care than do their partners. For another, the article provides anecdotal evidence from a psychologist that women will "compensate" by working to advance their husbands' careers, at the expense of their own. The psychologist notes that marital conflict can be especially exacerbated if "the woman loses respect for the man and the man feels insecure about his role in the family."
"Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, said he had seen women who were more professionally successful than their husbands compensate by building up their husbands’ careers and playing down their own."
This tension was portrayed (in the extreme) in season three of House of Cards. In the finale, Claire and Frank fight over her role in their marriage. Claire ultimately leaves Frank, after saying to him:
For all these years, I thought were were on this path together. But it's not what I thought it would be. What I convinced myself it would be... We used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so. But that was a lie. We were making you stronger. And now I'm just weak and small, and I can't stand that feeling any longer."
The article unfortunately does not provide any insights or advice to couples who may face these subconscious effects on their partnership. How do you prevent the slow, insidious feelings of insecurity or resentment? What do you do if you think that you are 'compensating' by focusing on your partner's career? How do you tell your partner that you are frustrated that your career is being stalled at the expense of theirs?
My view is that professional couples need be mindful of how their careers and ambitions can impact their relationship. They need to be open with one another about their thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their ambitions. But this can be a difficult topic to broach, especially for the first time. We may not feel comfortable sharing our true feelings, so we may avoid the conversation, or it may devolve into a fight. We may also not be fully aware of these feelings about our "role" within a relationship (roles that are all too often deeply socialized and therefore subconscious). I therefore strongly advocate for professional couples to work with a counsellor or therapist who can help them navigate these tricky waters. A trained professional will have many years of schooling and experience in mediation, and they are especially versed in posing thoughtful questions to tease out subconscious views of yourself, your partner, and your 'role' within the relationship. Talk to your HR rep, because your workplace likely has some form of employee assistance to help you find and afford a counsellor. Counselling with a trained therapist can be extremely beneficial to the health and strength of your relationship, especially if there is any degree of tension being caused by divergent career paths. Even where there are no obvious signs of stress on your relationship, counselling can help you learn to better communicate with your partner.