Workplace Networking: Key Dimensions

  • Formal organization. Do you connect with people from different parts of the organization? It’s natural to spend a lot of time interacting with colleagues in your department; after all, they are the people you probably see the most. But as you move up in the hierarchy, relationships that cross departmental boundaries become increasingly important for learning and decision-making. Building such bridging relationships takes time, however, and you may find that your time constraints increase just as your need for a wider variety of relationships increases. What this means is that relationship building cannot be left to chance–developing connections with people across the organization must become a goal that is then built into your schedule.
  • Hierarchical level. Have you built relationships with people from all hierarchical levels? It’s easy and comfortable to get information from those at the same level as you, and such relationships are crucial; these people may be doing work that is similar to yours and can help you brainstorm and provide the specific help and information you need.

    But connections with people from different levels are also crucial. Those above you in the hierarchy can help with making decisions, acquiring resources, developing political awareness and explaining organizational activities that are beyond your purview. Those from lower levels are often the best sources of technical information and expertise. The key here is maintaining a balance so you won’t miss out on what people from all levels can offer.

  • Physical proximity. Are your relationships limited to the people who share your space? The likelihood of collaborating with someone decreases substantially with distance. Just a few feet, let alone floors in a building or even buildings themselves, can take people to the outer edges of many networks. Such network fragmentation is a problem for everyone in the organization, because it means that collaboration is occurring mostly within narrow groups.
  • Time known. Do you let people cycle into–and out of–your network? If you have known too many people in your network for too long, you are likely to be hearing things you already know. You also may be–knowingly or unknowingly–turning to these people to confirm your own opinions, not to hear fresh perspectives. As your job changes, it’s good for new people to cycle into your network so that you will be exposed to new ideas.

    But of course if you have no long-term relationships in your network, you won’t have trusted sounding boards or confidants with whom you can discuss personal or sensitive political issues.

  • Structured interaction. Do you interact only with people who make it onto your calendar? Look at most managers’ calendars and you’ll see back-to-back meetings from morning until night, day after day. From a learning and decision-making perspective, this may be a warning sign, especially if those meetings are mostly with a static cast of characters who will be able to offer perspectives from only certain parts of the organization. The critical question is whether the people who are built into your schedule are the ones who can give you the information and insights you need. A well-balanced network allows many voices to be heard and leaves room for serendipitous encounters.
  • Primary medium of contact. Do you communicate with people in many different ways? The media used to interact with people can affect what managers learn and the decisions they make. Again, balance is important. Networks that form almost exclusively around unstructured face-to-face encounters might be convenient but might not include people with the most relevant expertise.

    Similarly, e-mail or instant messaging can be very effective in transferring certain kinds of information but might not be the best medium through which to discuss thorny problems or issues that require wide-ranging exploration. This dimension was most helpful for individuals who found that they rely almost exclusively on one medium, such as telephone or e-mail. Some made decisions to try a different approach when their favored medium is not yielding results.

  • Age. Are you collaborating mostly with people close to your age? You may find that you are most comfortable communicating with those who are your age. Such a bias in a network can substantially reduce the ideas you will hear and the perspectives you will learn to appreciate. Simply recognizing a tendency to network with people in a narrow age range is often enough to encourage individuals to reach out to people who are older or younger and who can offer fresh or wise perspectives.
  • Gender. Is there a gender bias in your network? If you’re turning mostly to colleagues who are of the same gender for information, you may be limiting the kind of ideas you’ll come across. Might reaching out more to one sex or the other affect your learning and decision-making?
  • Ethnicity. Is there an ethnicity bias in your network? Some of us are more comfortable reaching out to those of the same ethnicity. This tendency can certainly limit the perspectives we encounter and the information we receive. Think carefully about whether such a bias exists in your network and whether you could learn more at work by interacting with people from various ethnic backgrounds.

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