By David Burkus
“I’m an introvert,” someone inevitably tells me when I speak about building a professional network. “Networking is just not for me.” These people assume networking belongs solely in the domain of the extroverts.
Presumably, extroverts are more excited by going to mixers and events and meeting new people. But recent research from the world of network science suggests that introverts might actually be the better networkers.
To understand why, we first have to debunk a common misconception about introverts: They don’t hate people. They just prefer to interact with them differently than extroverts do. The series of small chit-chat conversations that are so common at networking events might, for an introvert, be draining. Instead, introverts crave deep and meaningful conversations. And this preference can actually be an advantage when it comes to networking.
Research from the domain of network science, psychology, and other social sciences implies that we prefer relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with other people. We want to know more about them than we learn from superficial questions such as “who are you and what do you do?” We want to know more than their thoughts on the weather. We want to know their back stories, their motivations, their passions, and so much more. We want multiple points of connection. In network science, relationships where there are multiple contexts for connection are referred to as multiplex ties.
Social scientists and network scientists have been studying multiplex ties for a number of decades. They have found that a multiplex relationship between individuals dramatically increases trust (presumably because it raises more opportunities to demonstrate trustworthy behavior). It also makes it more likely that new ideas and fresh information will be shared. Compared to those with more uniplex networks, individuals and organizations with high degrees of multiplexity in their total network are better able to validate ideas, they have access to greater resources, and they can think more critically and gather more diverse information. So when you find out you do a similar job, grew up in the same area, or have children in the same grade as someone else, you may end up knowing, liking, and trusting them more.
But you will only discover any of if you’re willing to have a deeper conversation—the kind that introverts want.
Small talk might seem like a way to stay professional in business settings by avoiding overly personal topics. But the truth is, when it comes to networks, business is better when it is personal. In one study of employees at an insurance firm, researchers examined the development of multiplex relationships inside of companies to determine if they were helpful or harmful to performance. The researchers surveyed employees to establish their work-related and personal ties to other employees, as well as overlap. Then, they gathered performance data from each employee’s supervisor four to six weeks after talking to employees.
The researchers found that having more multiplex relationships, while more emotionally taxing than work-only relationships, significantly increased employees’ performance (as judged by their supervisors).
Multiplex ties make for better connections and better performance. Better connections come from deeper conversations. And those deeper conversations are more welcomed by introverts. So while they might not feel like “working the room,” introverts may be better networkers over the long-term than their extroverted counterparts precisely because they don’t work the room. Instead, they stick to just a few conversations and go deeper.