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.