Why ‘Work the Room’ and ‘Just Be Yourself’ is terrible advice for networkers

Why ‘Work the Room’ and ‘Just Be Yourself’ is terrible advice for networkers

Going along to an event and making small talk with a room full of strangers rarely tops our list of fun activities. And there’s a ton of guidance available about how we should behave: The do’s and the don’ts, the musts and must nots. 

Well-intentioned networking articles often provide advice, but rarely explain the context. Furthermore, this commentary is usually lacking in evidence-based support for the statements offered up as truth.

Two phrases come to mind: ‘Work the Room’ and ‘Just Be Yourself’.

You’ve got to ‘Work the Room’

A Google search of this comment yields over 84 million hits.

But what does ‘Work the Room’ really mean? Does it involve handing a business card to everyone present before making a swift exit (the ‘spray and pray’ technique)?

Or do we glide gracefully between conversations suggesting that ‘A’ really should meet with ‘B’ because they have so much in common?

We’ll most likely find that much depends on the context. There are certainly some events that will call for mutual introductions, or what the author James Altucher calls ‘permission networking’ . But try this when it’s not appropriate and we’ll run the risk of upsetting a lot of people, including the event organizer.

A more strategic approach is to consider why we are attending a networking event. In effect, start with the end in mind. Then ask the question, what might represent success for us on this occasion?

Given the anxieties that networking can provoke, we should plan for an outcome that is stretching, but achievable.

This could mean setting ourselves a loose target of say, three worthwhile conversations during the event, with efficient and timely follow up thereafter. There is plenty of good research which suggests that SMART goal-setting works.

Words also matter. The use of ‘must do’, ‘should do’ and ‘got to’ when planning does not always set the right tone and can raise anxiety. Yes, be up for a challenge; but there’s no need to push ourselves too far too soon. 

The argument here is for us to have our own personalized version of ‘Work the Room’. This also becomes a work in progress where we can reflect and build upon past successes.

It’s easy: ‘Just Be Yourself’

We hear a lot these days about the power of being authentic in everything we do. Be yourself, be real and people will accept you for who you are.

But who we are might require further investigation. Consider for example our roles as sisters or brothers, mothers or fathers, daughters or sons. In each of these contexts are we really the same person, or is our behavior determined by what is expected of us?

In this way, being yourself implies a degree of flexibility that is more akin to Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’, where we play ‘many parts’.

Furthermore, psychologist and Business School professor, Adam Grant suggests that too much of any virtue, including authenticity, is a bad thing.

Instead of using authenticity as a measure, Grant suggested that sincerity holds the key. In other words, rather than be content with our authentic selves, we should instead push upward towards a higher, ideal version.

Re-framing a challenge can help with this. If networking fills us with dread, we can refer to it as ‘making friends’ or ‘meeting people’. If we are nervous of speaking with new people, we can tell ourselves that we are simply leveraging our passion for communication.

This idea has much in common with the work of Carol Dweck of Stanford University on the topic of fixed and growth mindset. Professor Dweck argues that our beliefs can be self-limiting. A fixed mindset holds that talent alone is responsible for success, whereas in a growth mindset people believe their abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. Intelligence and some talent may also matter, but they are just the start point.

What does this mean for ‘Just be yourself’? Well, perhaps it might be better to examine our idealized self and consider more the question of who or what we want to be and where we want our personal project to take us.

And by starting from the outside in, we can try this persona on and act it out in a sincere way without damaging our credibility with others.

When it comes to networking practice that works, realism will always trump hubris.

What networking myths (or madness) have you heard of?


Guest article by Darryl Howes MSc, speaker and published author, is the CEO of Strategic Business Networking®. He works with individuals, companies and organizations to develop membership engagement and networking and career management skills. Join the SBN LinkedIn Group and follow the SBN YouTube Channel for more tips from Darryl. darryl@strategicbusinessnetworking.co.uk