Humans like putting things in categories. Whether it’s movies, music, or restaurants, it’s comfortable for us to parse things into different groups in our minds. It’s one of the traits that allows us to manage a world of staggering complexity.
We also like to do it with our relationships. We put people into relationship buckets: he’s my work colleague, she’s my friend, he’s just an acquaintance, etc. But it’s not always as clear cut as we would like it to be. What about a long-term client who has become a friend or a friend who you hired to work for you?
This has only been exacerbated by the advent of social networking platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn. Sure, we like to think that we can keep friends on one and business contacts on the other. But the lines get very blurry very quickly.
Doing Business with Friends
Really, social media hasn’t caused this blurring, it was always there. It’s just made it much more obvious.
Many of us have created large, integrated networks online. Think of your collection of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. It would be hard to divide these into different categories of personal, business contact, family, work friend, random person I met at a party, etc.
These integrated networks allow for a lot of cross-pollination, and that can be powerful. In his seminal paper on network dynamics, The Strength of Weak Ties, sociologist Mark Grannovetter found that most value came from the weak connections that people had. The impact of a relationship didn’t derive from its strength. Rather, it came from the context that it was in. This is especially because it gives access to a new group of people.
In other words, it didn’t matter that you were best friends with everyone, what did matter is that you had a lot of connections with ties to disparate worlds. These bridges become the conduits for new opportunities.
And many of these weak connections stem from areas that aren’t traditionally business-related. They could be friendships from your neighborhood, a civic or volunteer organization, or the religious group you belong to. There will be a lot of overlap between your professional and personal worlds, both offline and online, and if you are savvy you can find opportunities in both.
Awareness Online & Outside of the Office
So don’t shy away from having a business conversation with a friend, or feel you can’t talk about music or film with a business colleague. Just ensure that the conversation is appropriate for the context.
My brother-in-law runs a successful real-estate firm, and I’ve done work with him and his team. But that doesn’t mean that I walk into his office and start talking about the craziness of Thanksgiving dinner with the family. Our relationship stays the same, but the topics of conversation vary based on where we are and what we’re doing.
By connecting your professional and personal spheres, it’s critical to ensure that your actions and behaviors work in a variety of contexts. This is why you hear the warnings to be careful of what you post on social media sites. You never know who is going to see a photo you post, and more importantly, you don’t know how they are going to interpret it.
When a potential employer, client, or partner can access a record of your behaviors with the click of a button, ensure that your behavior won’t be held against you. It’s the 21st century extension of the old saying that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. You could be online, at the office, or a backyard BBQ. No matter the context, personal/professional networks require you to be aware of how your actions and words are perceived by a wide cross-section of people.
Be the Best You
Be aware that you have to consistently act your best. When you are straddling different worlds, you want to be the “you” that fits into any context. But creating that mindfulness, that awareness of the impact your words and actions will have, is the foundation of a wide and varied network. And that breadth is the key to leveraging your network to move the needle on your career.