I’m often asked at workshops: How big should my network be? And in the past, I tended to reply somewhat sarcastically: How long is a piece of string? In other words, if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.
But on reflection, the question isn’t quite so silly, especially if it is rephrased like this: “How big a network can I actually maintain?” The right answer is: about 150.
If this sounds simplistic, you might be interested to hear about research by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has discovered that our social world is actually much more limited than we might expect. Despite the fact that for the past couple of hundred years most of us have been living in ever-larger cites, average network size remains around 150. (But please be aware: the number is by no means exact, and can be over 200.)
To check his findings, Dunbar looked at all sorts of data sources. Most tribal societies today live in groups of around 150. Average village size England in the year 1087 (as recorded by William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book) was 150. In many armies the smallest standalone unit (the Company in the British Army) is around 150 people. And if you look at the parish records for English counties in the 18th century, in each one the average village size is 150 (except, inexplicably, for Kent!).
Who are these people? Actually, each network of 150 people can be broken down into smaller groups. Firstly, most of us have a small circle of about 5 people with whom we are intimate. Then we have about 15 good friends, about 50 friends, and in the region of 150 acquaintances. Interestingly and again inexplicably, each level seems to increase by about a factor of 3.
Each category includes the previous ones, rather like the concentric ripples created by a pebble thrown into a lake (where you, of course, are the pebble at the centre). The first three groups (intimates, good friends and friends) are fairly self-explanatory – but the outer circle of acquaintances are especially interesting, from a networking perspective.
Dunbar describes these acquaintances in two ways. On the one hand, they are people with whom you have some sort of relationship; they aren’t just names and faces. To use Dunbar’s own phrase, they are people with whom you could easily have a drink if you ran into them in the transit lounge of Dubai airport in the small hours.
Another way of describing them is to do with face time. These are people with whom you do things. People from whom you could ask a favour and have a reasonable expectation of a positive reply.
Why so few?
Why is our social world so restricted? Dunbar thinks there are two reasons. One is simply a time constraint. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, and so the time we can spend, face to face with friends and acquaintances, is by definition limited. However much we may want to invest in our relationships, reality gets in the way.
The second constraint is cognitive, to do with brain size. When studying primates, Dunbar found a clear correlation between brain size and group size; it follows that we are simply not capable of keeping track of more than about 150 relatively close contacts.
Dunbar, along with many other academics, argues that face to face contact is crucial to relationship building. Technology – from the telephone to email and social media – is great at helping us keep relationships going, especially in our spread-out world where we may have been born in one place, went to college somewhere else, and end up working in a third place. They help to prevent relationships decaying if you’re too far apart to go to the pub together – but, in the end, if we don’t manage to get to the pub occasionally, the relationship is likely to wither away.
So if you know anybody who claims to have 1000 Facebook friends, you know they must be kidding themselves. While people clearly vary in their ability to manage relationships, such extremes are (almost certainly) just not true. Being invited to a party, as I once was, with 2,000 of my host’s closest friends was fine – so long as I realised that ‘close’ wasn’t meant to be taken literally. Those hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t even acquaintances; they’re more like entries in a database.
Facebook themselves have confirmed Dunbar’s general finding. It seems that the average friend count is 190, and 50% of people have about 100 Facebook friends.
We’ve always said that simply connecting names and business cards isn’t the same as building a professional (or personal) network. A database isn’t a network. And we also stress the importance of your weak ties, which are roughly equivalent to Dunbar’s acquaintances. Pay attention to your active network, nurture it and make sure you invest sufficiently by keeping in touch (both face to face and electronically).
Realise, too, that all Dunbar is proposing is an average. So if your network is very small, you may need to invest more time and effort. And if your network is large, be thankful that you are probably a natural connector, able to maintain a wide-ranging network relatively easily.
Take a look at your own network, and let us know if Dunbar’s number holds true for you.
I don’t often blow my own trumpet (after all, who wants to read endless blogs about the amazing workshops and masterclasses I run? Better to come to one, and see for yourself.)
But at a session I ran last week for Focus (www.focus-info.org), an organisation that works with expats living in the UK, I suggested that people might feel a little more comfortable about networking if they thought about what they were doing as ‘connecting’ rather than ‘networking’. The latter can have self-seeking connotations related to working the room; the former just implies having interesting conversations with a diverse range of people.
Lynne, who came to my workshop, was so appreciative of this idea, that I’ll quote her blog at length:
“Until today, I thought of networking as a fairly unpleasant task of making awkward small talk with strangers and collecting business cards. I learned from Judith that simply changing the word ‘networking’ to ‘connecting’ reframes it into a much more appealing activity. Looking at it from the viewpoint of a connector, we can go to events, meet lots of people who have their own unique perspectives and raisons d’être, learn about what interests them and what their current challenges are. Then, when we meet another person who has a similar interest, or maybe even a solution to an issue, we can connect those people and possibly help both of them. Networking just became fun! It’s no longer about me and it’s all about getting to know other people. Along the way, if we openly share our interests with people, then someone somewhere might be introduced to us.”
It seems to me fairly self-explanatory that one of the ways to turn something unappealing into something more attractive is to change both our definition of it and, of course, what we actually do. So, to mis-quote @JohnFKennedy: Don’t ask what your network can do for you, ask what you can do for your network!
You can read Lynne’s full blog here: https://lynnehaddow.com/2018/05/22/connecting-with-people/
Thinking about names again (it seems to be a theme at the moment), last week Laurie Taylor interviewed @NasarMeer (Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship at #EdinburghUni) on #ThinkingAllowed on #Radio 4 about what he calls ‘micro-aggression’. How should one respond to that seemingly innocuous (but actually somewhat offensive) question: ‘Where are you really from?’ And what do you do when you, a black (British) person are congratulated on your English, or when someone seems to have trouble pronouncing your unfamiliar but fairly straightforward name?
This was highlighted quite starkly at a conference I recently attended. An acquaintance of mine, not born in this country, was interviewing an author. After several preliminary meetings, interviewer and interviewee had put together a more or less mutually acceptable set of questions. And then, during the live interview in front of an audience, the author asked his interviewer, just as they were about to begin: “Oh, sorry, just put me straight please. How should I pronounce your name?” Thus instantly making it quite clear that while he was British born and bred, his interviewer was most definitely a foreigner, an outsider. This despite several preliminary meetings at which he could easily have clarified the issue.
On the other hand, as I said in my previous post about ‘unusual names’ and my previous workshop participant Harshine Wikramanayake, having an unusual name can make you memorable. And that’s no bad thing in our overcrowded lives. It’s by no means simple. You can hear the Radio 4 programme at http://bbc.in/2pnaLQs
I’ve just read an academic paper entitled ‘Who gets the top jobs? The role of family background and networks in recent graduates’ access to high status professions’ – written by academics from the Universities of London and Cambridge, under the auspices of the Institute of Education
The researchers investigate aspects of the thorny question of social mobility, in the hope that understanding it better will generate more effective public policies.
Looking at graduates, they find (I think surprisingly, but you may not agree) that the single most influential factor affecting whether or not they secure jobs in ‘high status occupations’ is whether they were privately educated or went to a state school. Interestingly, this is even more important than their personal educational achievements, which university they went to, their parents’ occupations, or where they lived.
The researchers then wondered whether the graduates social networks might be responsible for this – and in a slightly perverse way, I’m glad to report that they didn’t find this to be the case. I say glad because although you could call me an evangelist for the power of professional (and other) networks, I am naturally uncomfortable with even a hint of nepotism or unfair advantage derived from the use of ‘ready-made’ (family and/or professional) networks. I firmly believe that all of us, even newcomers to this (or any other) country, or first-time graduates or career changers can, with a little skill and a lot of imagination and diligence, build an active and supportive network in a new area. And so gain an advantage derived from their own skills and expertise. And luckily, professional networking is a skill which can be taught effectively.
If you are interested, you can read the full article here: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?cluster=3060124704150884181&hl=en&as_sdt=1,5&as_vis=1
I’ve recently taken up yoga, and have been to an excellent beginner’s course. While changing in the dressing room, I idly read the notices advertising future sessions. To my surprise, last week I recognised one of the teachers’ names – a woman who came to a workshop I ran over a decade ago! So what, you may ask? What’s this got to do with a blog on professional networking? Let me explain.
When we discuss how (rather than why) to network, one of the topics we cover is the fine art of remembering people’s names. Some international students feel uncomfortable with the fact that people sometimes have difficulty pronouncing, let alone remembering, their name.
I try to persuade them otherwise. Firstly, I remind them that an ‘unusual’ name (that is, unusual for the UK, though often fairly commonplace elsewhere in the world) is, at the very least, memorable. Years ago, when I was asked to revitalise the Dorling Kindersley brand, I remember a long drawn out struggle with the ‘simplifiers’, who wanted to shorten the brand to ‘DK’. Easy to pronounce….but totally unmemorable. In contrast, although many people got the Dorling Kindersley name wrong (the funniest I remember was Darling Kindergarten!), few forgot it completely. And in bookstores, every assistant immediately knew who custgomers were referring to. I won the argument at the time, but I see (sadly) that they have now reverted to DK. I wonder…..
The same goes for people. Being memorable (for the right reasons, of course) can be a huge advantage. Back to the yoga studio – the name of the student was Harshini Wikramanayake – a long name, but most certainly memorable (and actually not at all difficult to pronounce if you break the syllables down).
So – there’s the connection between networking and yoga.
PS. If you want more information about Harshini’s teaching, go www.saneepa.com/
The language we use matters. Not just in terms of getting things grammatically correct (though that is important too) but in terms of the image we create in the listener’s or reader’s mind. Selin Kesebir of London Business School has done some really interesting research about the way that even the order in which we habitually use gendered words (e.g. businessman and businesswoman vs. businesswoman and businessman) strongly affects how we think about situations. To read more, go to http://bit.ly/2E8M0kv
When I run workshops in telephone skills (yes, not everyone knows how to use the phone effectively!), I often give the women in my class advice I was given at the start of my career: Don’t ever say ‘It’s Judith calling’. Always say: It’s Judith Perle calling’. Judith is a secretary; Judith Perle is someone to be reckoned with. Creating the right impression can sometimes be as simple as using your full name, not just your first name.
A gem I picked up recently – almost short enough to be a tweet!
When making a presentation, bear three things in mind:
1. Simplify complicated ideas
2. Emphasize the benefits
3. Try to influence your audience to take action
Attitude is all-important. If you approach things with a positive frame of mind, there’s nearly always a useful ‘takeaway’ to be found.
An example: Yesterday I went to a ‘free’ seminar on presentation skills which was, as I suspected, mainly a selling exercise. Since I run workshops and masterclasses for a living, I’m always curious to see what others offer. And there was one gem – a short exercise to demonstrate the power of body language.
Try it and see. First, find a partner. Stand facing each other, and clasp your hands behind your back. Now think of a subject that you are really enthusiastic about – and tell your partner about it, but without using any gestures, and keeping your voice as monotonous as you can. Try to convey your passion purely through the words you use.
Not easy, is it? A succinct example of how important body language is in communication. While I don’t believe the often quoted mantra that 97% of your impact is the result of body language (what you have to say matters at least as much as how you say it) – I do believe that body language is much under-rated by almost all of us.
Do you agree?
When it comes to innovation, most of us under-estimate the power of serendipity and the importance of meeting new people.
In workshops, I always stress the many and varied benefits that building a network brings. So I often talk about the importance of serendipity, and of meeting new people – and it is heartening to find that the news is spreading. At a recent workshop which I ran for the Wellcome Trust, I mentioned the (strangely named, I think) Random Coffee Trials that are becoming increasingly popular in organisations as diverse as the Scottish government, the Red Cross – even the UK Treasury.
The idea is simple. People sign up to the programme, and are then randomly partnered with another participant, with whom they arrange to meet informally over a cup of coffee. There is no set agenda – some people talk shop, others have more personal conversations. But the end result is that silos are broken down, ideas exchanged, help and advice given, and relationships forged. Organisations such as Ashridge Executive Education claim that over 90% of those taking part have met someone they would not otherwise have met in the course of their work at Ashridge.
One of the participants in my workshop pointed me in the direction of an interesting piece in Network, the magazine of the Medical Research Council. By creating a pleasant environment where staff are encouraged to relax and chat over a drink (rather than drinking inferior coffee from a dispenser in splendid isolation), many at the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge claim that this has made an important contribution to the 13 Nobel prizes won by scientists working at the institution.
A nice example was provided by Professor Alessi who described how informal discussions led him and a colleague to realise they were, quite literally, working on two sides of the same coin – and that each of them had the answers to the other’s questions. The outcome is a potential new cancer drug.
If you’d like more information, or advice on how to organise RCTs in your organisation, do get in touch.
Just back from a stimulating weekend in Finland, presenting at the Hanken School of Economics Summer Summit (www.hanken.fi/en). I am always especially pleased to work in Finland. I have personal connections with the country (my mum was Finnish) and have been spending my summer holidays there since I was a small child. But it was more recently, when my ideas on approaches to professional networking were developing, that my Finnish connection came to the fore professionally.
Much (most) of Finland is wild forest. Roaming in that forest is an enormously peaceful occupation…..and it was while gathering bilberries (or it may have been mushrooms) that I realised that there is something liberating and very productive about having no goal or aim. Gathering frees one from the pressure which any ‘hunting’ activity inevitably brings with it… and that, in turn, led me to realise that most people equate networking with hunting. They need something (a job, an introduction, a piece of information) and they go looking for it. The emphasis is entirely on me and my needs.
In contrast, the gatherer (in networking terms) goes out into the world to meet people, and is relaxed enough to wait and see where the conversation leads. The emphasis is on both ‘me’ and ‘you’. Sometimes the encounter is boring, sometimes it is interesting (but still ends up in a dead end) and just occasionally it is interesting and it leads somewhere. By taking the ‘gathering approach’, the pressure button is turned off – and networking is seen as a pleasant activity in itself, which is not necessarily self-seeking or manipulative.
Try it and see for yourself. I have many stores about the benefits of chance conversations, but I’m always happy to hear new ones.
And finally, please don’t think that I’m against ‘hunting’ Without doubt, it has its uses. It just isn’t the be-all and end-all of professional networking.
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Judith and Tony’s goal in the book is to get away from the manipulative ‘working a room’ concept of networking. Instead, they use the results of research into human interactions coupled with real case studies to justify the hints, tips and suggestions they propose.