When Networking, Being Yourself Really Does Work

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Imagine you’re hanging out at a job fair, and you’ve identified a few key recruiters you’d like to approach. Or maybe you are attending your company’s annual retreat and are interested in talking to senior colleagues who are potential mentors who could provide support throughout your career. Or suppose you’re in front of your computer, scanning LinkedIn profiles of executives with whom you’d like to connect. Across all these situations, one thing is likely to be the same: You probably feel anxious and uncertain about how best to add these people to your network.

It’s common to feel uncertain about how to nurture new business relationships. We know we need to make a good first impression. Making a positive impression during an early encounter affects important long-term outcomes, such as whether we get the job or ink the deal. Consequently, we tend to try out various impression-management strategies, ranging from self-promotion to ingratiation.

One common strategy for getting off on the right foot when networking is to try to learn the other person’s expectations and interests and then tailor the conversation to them. Ovul Sezer and Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, Laura Huang of the Wharton School, and I conducted research to test whether this approach works. We found it doesn’t.

We surveyed 458 working adults from a wide range of industries. Sixty-six percent of them said they would use this strategy — which we call “catering” for short — in high-stakes situations like first meetings, and 71% reported believing that it would be the most effective approach in the given situation. But we found that across different contexts, catering to another person’s interests and expectations, as opposed to behaving authentically, harms performance. Why? Because when a person tries to anticipate and fulfill others’ preferences, it increases his or her anxiety and feelings of inauthenticity.

In a field study, for instance, we examined entrepreneurs’ pitches of their ideas to potential investors. We found that catering harmed investors’ evaluations, while being authentic improved them. As a result, entrepreneurs who used an authentic approach were more likely to receive funding for their ideas than those who catered their pitches to the investors’ expectations and interests.

In another study, we brought a group of college students to our lab and assigned them to the role of either job candidate or possible employer. We then gave them information about the hypothetical hiring company and told them they would soon engage in a simulated job interview to examine people’s behavior in such situations. Participants in the role of employer received instructions on how to structure the upcoming interview with the candidate. Participants in the role of candidates were told to either be authentic during the job interview or to cater to the interviewers’ expectations and interests.

We then measured the candidates’ performance (by whether their interviewer decided to offer them the job). We also measure how the candidates felt during the interview. Consistent with the results of our field study, we found that candidates in the catering condition experienced higher levels of anxiety than those in the authenticity condition. As a result, those in the catering condition performed worse in the interview and were less likely to be hired.

Note that in this and many other networking situations, people lack complete information about the expectations and interests of those with whom they are trying to connect. In fact, when people try to take the perspective of others, their accuracy is surprisingly poor. Take gift giving. This is a context where, despite the fact that people have likely been in both roles (giver and recipient) many times in the past, their predictions of what gifts others will appreciate tend to be inaccurate, my research has found.

When people engage in catering to others, they try to predict what they wants to hear and act accordingly. But making such predictions is difficult and commonly leads to errors. Therefore, when individuals use a catering strategy while networking, they can fail in at least two ways. First, they may inaccurately predict what the person wants to see and hear. Second, even if their predictions are accurate, they may act in an unconvincing manner because they feel inauthentic, deceitful, or anxious.

The conclusion: Because feeling at ease can go a long way toward leaving a good impression when networking, simply being ourselves is a good solution to dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of approaching others.

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