Aug 132008

Earl R. Smith II, PhD

In recent years an increasing part of my practice has been working with individuals who have found that their approach to establishing and deepening personal and business relationships has suffered to the point that their career potential and enjoyment of life is being limited by the lack of an extended network of reliable and productive relationships.

The proliferation of networking organizations and events seems to have supported a tendency towards what I call ‘shallow-water’ associations. Many of my clients have developed a very wide range of these acquaintances. But many of them seem to be having the same experience. Although they have this range of connections, few if any of them are producing productive results. In fact, most of these associations seem to quickly reach a plateau and then level off into unproductivity.

In response to these challenges I have developed a systematic approach realigning those tendencies and to help my clients change their approach – to begin developing the kinds of long-term business and personal relationships which will help them progress in their business career and to enjoy life more completely. My approach requires a significant and serious commitment on the client. The habits are very hard to break. It seems that the addiction to these shallow-water relationships is nearly as difficult to break as the addiction to smoking.

An unavoidable fact is that human beings are more successful as social animals than they are as rugged individualists. And, although this has always been true, the advances of the internet, virtual relationships, casual connections, easily maintained anonymity, artificially produced and promulgated avatars and the seduction of networking has created the apparent ability to forgo the time and effort required to develop these deeper relationships in favor of the less productive types. Like most addictions, this one is about avoidance rather than advancement.

I used the word addiction purposefully because I have come to realize that that is precisely what it amounts to. The seductiveness of the entire idea that networking is an effective way to build productive relationships is the principal reason that most individuals find themselves in a situation where they have few friends and a wide range of mostly distant contacts. Taken to the extreme, the super networkers often brag about having thousands of connections. The idea that ‘more is more’ seems to be the dominant theme. But a close examination of their experiences often demonstrates that the excesses which result from using networking as the primary approach to developing a range of productive relationships is, in fact, highly corrosive to the ability to establish healthy ones and severely limiting of future possibilities.

As with most addictions, the road to recovery is neither easy nor short. There seems to be a several reasons why this is the case. Mostly they seem to relate to the vision of the other person which is cultivated by intensive involvement in networking. ‘Professional networkers’ seem to go through people like a bag of potato chips – with much the same residual benefits. From the outside, their approach smacks strongly of denigration bordering on abuse.

When a client has come to the point where they realize that they have a problem and are ready to break the addiction, the real effort can begin. The process starts with a focus on the behaviors and values which they have adopted in order to be a ‘successful’ networker. Just reaching the point where the client understands the implications and impact of their own behaviors towards other people an opportunity is, in the end of itself, a difficult and perilous journey – one that takes a great deal of courage and self-knowledge.

“It’s just so damned easy to have a drink with somebody and think, as a result, that I know them and that we have established the basis for a productive relationship,” a client recently told me. In fact one of the more insidious implications of networking is the assumption that it is easy develop solid relationships – productive relationships – by simply ‘networking’.

My experience has been that most people who are addicted to networking are really not seeking those types of relationships anyway – at least not through networking. For the most part they simply seem to be looking for some people to ‘talk to’. Although networking organizations may be ostensibly about building business relationships, for instance, it doesn’t take much time at one of the events to realize that most of the interactions are primarily a social. I believe there’s a good reason for this. Networking is better for developing shallow social associations than it is for developing productive business relationships.

The frequent use of avatars at networking events complicates the process. In this case I am using a term to describe the synthetic realities which many individuals promulgate doing the events. All of us have had this kind of experience. We meet someone who describes their background and/or business in glowing terms only to find out that they have been describing a mask which they hide behind. For the most part the relationships tend to stagnate at that level. But if me make the effort, by the second or third meeting we discover the reality behind the mask and end up wondering – ‘what was the point’?

The development of long-term, productive relationships takes time, commitment and extended effort. The addiction to networking is based on a completely unrealistic assumption that there is a way around those requirements.

After working with a large number of clients on this set of issues I have come to understand that the process of recovery is a slow one with many opportunities for relapses. But I have also come to see that recovery is possible and that the result of breaking this addiction is a more productive and enjoyable life experience for the client.

As I often tell my clients early in the process, the clock is ticking and time is passing. It is your time and it’s being marked by lost opportunities, senselessly dissipated capabilities and a denigration of the people you meet and what they might come to mean to you. It’s your choice and your future. As with any addiction, much is lost unless you break the habits which have been damaging your career and life experience.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

Dr SmithI provide mentoring to those who have both the courage and determination to make a truly transformational journey. My approach is heavily influenced by core principles of Zen Buddhism. I also provide advisory services to CEO and senior teams – particularly mid-market companies. I don’t offer quick fixes or follow the latest fads. If you are willing to make the long journey – if it’s time for you to come to know the person you really are and the path you should be following – if you want to start living life you were truly meant to live – then perhaps we should talk. Send me an e-mail and we can arrange a time to chat.

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