Dealing with Networking Deficiencies: Under-Connected and Over-Related

We live in a world that celebrates independence, individualism and self-reliance — but at what cost? What gets lost when we’d rather ‘go it alone’ than reach out for help? In a follow-up to his seminal article on the perils of being Over-Connected and Under-Related, leadership development expert Steve Boehlke explores the flip side of this dilemma, providing critical insight into how we can improve our ways of connecting and become more intentional in how we interact with others.

Many of us strive to manage responsibly our time and energy in a world of tech-driven connections and media saturation; constant competition for our attention is exhausting. At the same time, some simply fail to understand how to relate in this boundaryless world. We are continually being challenged by new, faster ways of connecting. While some of us may be over-connected, others are being left behind.

The inclination or desire to be self-reliant is more prevalent than we tend to acknowledge.

The urgency to distribute vaccines in the midst of the current global pandemic underscores the isolation as well as lack of resources which many people experience. Inadequate access to technology or insufficient skill (or motivation) to navigate the latest mobile app may be what accentuates distance and impedes connection. However, tech deficits are not the sole cause for lack of connection. There is a more pernicious and persistent factor at play when it comes to being under-connected, especially for those who aspire to lead.

The inclination or desire to be self-reliant is more prevalent than we tend to acknowledge. The determination to “go it alone” or “do it on my own” plays off of a kind of rugged individualism that has been especially prominent in the mythic tales and heroic adventures of the Western world. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s classic essay, “On Self-Reliance,” reinforces this attitude. “Whoso would be a man [sic] must be a nonconformist,” wrote Emerson. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” There is a substantial difference, however, between learning to trust oneself, being oneself (as Emerson admonishes us) and choosing to function with independent agency, going it alone. Emerson is easily misunderstood.

We cannot become more human alone.

By way of contrast, “Ubuntu”, the Zulu word which roughly translates, “I am because we are”, conveys an alternative mindset inherent in much of African culture. The communal aspect of humanity is recognized and honoured as sacred whether through tribal customs or collaborative community efforts. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa notes: “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” We cannot become more human alone.

Technical limitations or intimidation may hinder connection. But a mindset which values independence and is shamed by reaching out is also a barrier for many. Years of coaching leaders to improve performance has verified the significant value of one simple but nevertheless often missing behavior: asking for help. Being under-connected may be more inherently embedded in our ways of working than we realize.

Consider these indicators:

I am under-connected when…

  • Business colleagues complain they don’t have access to me
  • I fail to see the systemic variables in the most persistent problems
  • I aim to figure it out myself most of the time
  • I don’t know who to call to fix the plumbing
  • TikTok still reminds me of a clock
  • I don’t know where Namibia is
  • Administrative assistance is a nuisance
  • Distance is defined by miles
  • I don’t remember my password(s) again
  • I fail to express thanks for unexpected acts of kindness and support

There is a corollary liability to being under-connected. If you are too detached from a network of connections (feeling alone or being too self-reliant), you may be investing too much in too few relationships (becoming overbearing or too dependent). Perhaps you are familiar with the experience of someone, maybe even a family member, leaning on you too much? Or a friendship that is lopsided, with one of you expecting and wanting far more from the relationship than the other. A tendency to rely emotionally as well as practically on too few people could be described as over-related, despite the best of intentions. It’s often difficult to deal with these dynamics for fear of hurting one person or another.

Often, less intimate, more distant connections actually embody a wisdom or expertise not available in friendships and close acquaintances.

Seeking to establish more robust network connections can alleviate unrealistic expectations and stress on closer, more personal relationships. In a landmark study called The Strength of Weak Ties, Mark Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University found that “the best leads for job opportunities are more likely to come from your more distant acquaintances (weak ties) rather than your close friends (strong ties)”.

Weak ties, even an interaction with strangers, are frequently more resourceful and more creative than dredging for innovation or inspiration with people closest to us. “While our casual acquaintances are unlikely to play a key role in helping us make major behavioral changes, our weak ties are likely to give us our next great idea or business opportunity and to get our community on board with a new initiative,” writes Marissa King in her recently published book, Social Chemistry, Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection.

Managing our attention as well as clarifying our intentions is crucial for meaningful relationships balanced with essential connections. You may not be aware that you are over- related and that you would benefit from more “weak ties”.

Consider these indicators:

I am over-related when…

  • Everyone thinks they’re my friend
  • I can’t say “no”
  • Every call requires my personal touch
  • My door is always open
  • I trust too readily and too easily
  • Nothing important gets done without my approval
  • I always need to be the life of the party
  • Everything is important; I can’t prioritize
  • I forget that my world is not the whole world
  • Solitude is unfamiliar to me

Connections tend to be transactional, with an exchange of value, usually for some explicit purpose — I know who to call to get the job done. Connections may also be incidental, unexpected. Your path crosses another’s with a momentary acknowledgment of interest and possibility. Relationships, by contrast, are grounded in a mutual trust with personal commitment and shared values. They are not predicated on a specific outcome, though there is both the expectation and experience of availability and reliability — I don’t need a reason to call you; I can just reach out.

How we manage our web of social contacts requires both attention and intention. Whether described as connection or relationship, a self-awareness about your expectation and your investment is essential. Leaders know how to leverage their contacts with appropriate grace and gratitude. And they know how to give of themselves in the process.

Givers have larger networks. And more friends.

If you are prompted to re-balance your connections and relationships, consider not what you need and how you will get it, but what you can give. Givers have larger networks. And more friends. While there is always the risk of burn-out or feeling taken advantage of, Adam Grant, social psychologist, author, and award-winning Wharton professor, documents persuasively in his best-selling book, Give and Take, why “givers” are more successful at work and in the world- at-large. His very thesis promotes a kind of abundance mentality. What goes around comes around. For example, Grant asserts, you can’t predict who may be helpful to you in the future. But beyond such pragmatic considerations, the ROI on a mindset of giving or service offers in return a fulfillment and satisfaction that activates untapped potential and deepens trust in ways that simply cannot be pre-calculated.

Whether over-connected and under-related, or feeling isolated and relying on too few, consider how you give of yourself. For example, how much effort and attention do you actually give to remembering someone’s name, a seemingly simple gesture but one with substantially more impact than you may realize?

How often do you follow up with a personal written note or acknowledgment of the value of time spent with someone, whether a new acquaintance or a life-long friend? In his book, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi makes a compelling case for why “follow up is the key to success in any field.” He includes many practical suggestions, including the importance of timeliness and referencing a specific detail from your meeting.

Choosing thoughtfully and deliberately about when and with whom to be vulnerable is yet another way to give of yourself, most often laying the groundwork for deeper trust and mutual sharing. Always leading from a position of strength and control does not encourage giving by others and can contribute to a de-humanizing of the most personal interactions.

Whether at work on your computer, mixing it up in the kitchen at home, or texting while walking down the street, consider the implications of your social behavior. Strive to balance a quantitative viewpoint (how many connections do I have?) with an intentionally balanced qualitative viewpoint (how vital are my relationships?). By doing so, we afford ourselves the possibility of connecting to one another’s hearts, which is the wellspring of courage, creativity, and real companionship — whether at home, at work, or on the trail.

Founder and President of SFB Associates, a global leadership consulting practice, Steve Boehlke has 40 years of experience working with leaders around the world. As a leading voice in The Room, Steve’s gift for enabling people to develop leadership capabilities through a greater awareness of themselves and their world is unparalleled.

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