Why You Don’t Need to Go to Networking Events, with David Burkus

Listen On:

Do you attend networking events but find yourself talking only to people you already know? Meet ups and mixers can be awkward, especially if you’re shy or you don’t know anyone there. Find Your Dream Job guest David Burkus says you can confidently skip any event where the only purpose is a vague sense of connecting. If you do attend, David says, focus on conversations that delve into topics outside of work. And whenever possible, look for events that have a purpose, such as a charity drive or a shared activity that benefits others.

About Our Guest:

David Burkus is an author, speaker, and associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University. His newest book, “Friend of a Friend,” offers readers a new perspective on how to grow their networks and build key connections based on the science of human behavior. 

Resources in This Episode:



Find Your Dream Job, Episode 199:

Why You Don’t Need to Go to Networking Events, with David Burkus

Airdate: July 10, 2019

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps people find fulfilling careers.

Every Wednesday on this show, I interview a career expert. We discuss the tools you need to find the work you want.

This week, I’m talking to David Burkus about why you don’t need to go to networking events.

David is the author of “Friend of a Friend.” It’s a new book about how to use the science of human behavior to grow your network and build your connections.

He joins us today from Jenks, Oklahoma.

David, welcome to the show. Let’s get right into it.

Why do you recommend people skip networking events?

David Burkus:

Yeah, well, thank you so much for having me.

We should probably start with the realization that, let’s be honest, most people don’t want to go to them, to begin with.

Mac Prichard:

They don’t, do they, David?

David Burkus:

Networking is one of the, for a lot of people, necessary evils of finding that dream job. You know you need to reach out and make new professional connections, and there have literally been studies done where people have subconscious thoughts of getting clean, which is another way of saying that they feel morally tainted when they’re doing professional networking, and especially that unstructured meetup or cocktail hour, end of a conference free time. That can be prime awkwardness because even though the goal is we’ve got to meet all these different people, the reality is, people spend most of their time talking to people they already know.

We know this from several different studies, that people don’t mix at these networking mixers. My favorite one was a study of executive MBA students. These are the 45 – 55 year old people whose company is paying $100K or more, for them to do this executive MBA program and most of the programs start with these mixers, these networking events, and the researchers at one Ivy League school decided to tag everybody with an RFID chip and track who interacted with whom at these networking events and despite everybody saying that one of the goals of the executive MBA program was to meet new people, people spent the majority of their time with the one quarter to one third of the room that they already knew.

Most of us are the same way. When we’re put in that unstructured environment, we either linger longer with people that we already know or we spend a lot of time with people that are most similar to us so we don’t get the benefit of that type of diversity and potential new ideas, new introductions, new leads on job hunting from these events because when people are put in that unstructured situation, they lean on the familiar and that can be people you know, it can be subjects that are familiar to you, and you don’t end up getting that benefit.

In reality, though, in addition to that idea that these networking events aren’t working, the other reason why people shouldn’t go is that, quite frankly, there are better ways to expand the number of people that you know and for most people, the number of people that they know is already sufficient to provide them with the leads, new information, new ideas, or new introductions that they need. The existing network that they have is often more powerful but we forget about it. We stick with our close contacts, we spend a lot of time, once we’re in a job, we spend a lot of time with people that we just meet organically through the process of doing the job and we leave these, what are called weak and dormant ties, we just leave them by the wayside and unfortunately, a lot of us don’t even pick them up but if we do, we do it when we know we need work.

Mac Prichard:


David Burkus:

We do it when we’re desperate for something and that’s the wrong time to be doing it.

Mac Prichard:

It is, and so there’s 3 huge ideas that you shared there that I want to unpack.

The first is why do people feel so awkward going to events, David?

David Burkus:

I think the reason is…the best that I can tell from these different studies, and some of this is what…the fancy term is confabulation; people who are in the study then try and rationalize their behavior and we, a lot of times, act and then think afterward, so when we reflect back…but for a lot of people, what’s interesting is that sense of moral taint, that awkwardness feeling only applies in professional networking events. In other words, personal events…when you’re at that party at your friends house, et cetera, you don’t have that same awkward feeling and so I think that a lot of what causes this awkwardness is a sense that, either A, am I just in this to try to get something out of it, in which case I’m being a bad person in this regard, I’m doing what I’m not supposed to do. What I’m supposed to do is create value and I’m just looking to extract it.

The other is just, everybody…and if you’ve been in the work world for more than about 3 or 4 years, you’ve been to one of these events…you’ve been, what I call, you’ve been “name-badged”. Name-badged is the term that I coined for when you’re talking to somebody at one of these events and their eyes kind of drift down from your eyes and look at your name tag and they see your name, maybe your existing job, what you’re looking for, et cetera, and in that moment they decide, “This person is not really useful to me.” And then their eyes drift back up but they never come back to your eyes. Now they’re over your shoulder, now this person is scanning the room looking for somebody else, and it only takes one or two of those situations, one or two incidents of being name-badged, you sort of want to throw up your hands and go, “This whole thing is useless.”

Mac Prichard:

That’s why people don’t want to go to the Holiday Inn or down to the conference room at the hotel but why do people cluster together? Is it because they’re trying to compensate for that awkwardness? Why don’t they go out and talk to new people?

David Burkus:

There’s a couple of different factors at play. Number one, is we do have an ingrown tendency toward homophile is the fancy term, or self similarity. We just, we like people who are like us. We like people who think like us because clearly, they are brilliant. We like people that have the same background as us because there’s more commonalities there and so those things are kind of the natural and there’s a natural bias towards it, you’re never going to, sort of, interact with those. Some of it is honestly, if you’re in that conversation with a new person and you’re trading out different questions and you’re trying to get to know them, time just feels a lot longer in those scenarios and when you’re hanging out with your friends and people that you already

know, time flies. So a lot of times it’s just that little homophile, that little tendency towards self same results in people having much longer conversations with people they already know and then not realizing how little time is left to get to know other people.

Mac Prichard:

I know you’ve got some ideas about ways people can network effectively but I just want to be clear, when you’re talking about events are you largely talking about mixers, conferences, or professional chapters? Is that what you’re getting at here?

David Burkus:

Yeah, so specifically what I’m referring to are the unstructured times. So, you’ll be at a conference, which any conference or trade association event or even local chapter association events, those are wonderful times to either reconnect with the people that you know in a professional setting but don’t talk to that often or make those new connections, but often built into the calendar is that unstructured time. Especially when you’re on the job hunt, there are meetups, you know, things like meetup.com or the unstructured events of that trade association, not the learning events or not the volunteerism events but the ones where there is no purpose other than connecting. Ironically, people don’t connect at that.

There is, however, a lot of research that supports the idea that what the sociologist, Brian Uzzi, coined the term “shared activities;” if there’s events where there’s a different purpose there, like learning, or like volunteering at a charity, et cetera, those are events draw out a diverse set of people but also sort of encourage those interactions in a little bit of a different way because we’re focused on something else, so that sting of awkwardness is sort of lessened.

Mac Prichard:


David Burkus:

When I think networking events I’m specifically referring to those unstructured events. By all means, do not write off the trade association for your job, for your profession, et cetera, altogether, but those unstructured events that made you feel awkward anyway, if you pay attention to the weak and dormant ties and you focus on the shared activities, you’re never going to need them.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and I want to explore that but are you recommending then, David, that people skip unstructured events altogether at conferences or at meetups? Or is there a way to go to those events and still get value and be of service to others?

David Burkus:

It obviously depends on you, your levels of introversion, extroversion. If you’re investing in other ways to expand your network, you can safely go back to your hotel room and check those emails and not feel guilty about it. However, what I actually recommend a lot of people do, especially if you’re at a conference where you paid a lot of money, you’re there, your goal is to learn but your goal is also to reconnect people. I recommend making those plans ahead of time with the weak and dormant ties, the people that you don’t see that often but you know are going to be at that event, make a plan with them to meet at that event. You know that people are going to cluster toward self-similar and toward people they already know so play to that, play to the tendency and say, “You know, Monday they’ve got the networking hour after the main session, why don’t we meet up there and we can chat and then we can go from there?”

One of the things that will happen is usually people bring people with them so even though your plan is to meet up with one person, if he or she brings another person, you end up making a new connections through your existing network which is usually a better way to meet people, just in general, of getting along and also in developing trust and what we call “Social capital” but it’s also playing that event toward strength, which is, people are going to want to use that event for that anyway. Why not make that your plan? It’s a better way to play to what’s less awkward and also what tends to work better, which is that reconnection piece.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and I want to get to the structured events but before we do that, any special advice for people who may be shy or introverted who are following your suggestion? They’ve come to that conference, there’s the happy hour, they made a plan to meet someone, but for introverts, any special tips?

David Burkus:

Yeah, the biggest one is that quality is not subjugated to quantity. A lot of times at these unstructured events, at these mixers, at these networking hours, we feel like we’re supposed to meet lots of different people and it can be the introverts or shy people who are kind of kicking themselves because, “Oh, I only talked to 2 or 3 different people.” Whereas the extroverts worked the room and handed out business cards and did all of that stuff a lot of us don’t like anyway but they feel a little bit more comfortable doing that.

Having 1 or 2 quality conversations that stray, actually, from work and get to know people from multiple different facets builds what, in network science terms, we call multiplexity. It’s a fancy term for understanding and connecting with people in multiple different contexts so if you find that you both have a shared hobby in addition to having the same background at work, or if you find that you both grew up in the same section of the same state, you build a sort of uncommon commonality. You build multiplexity and that actually makes for a stronger connection moving forward and makes it more likely that you’ll actually keep in touch with that person and so those quality conversations that you may only have with 1 or 2 people, those connections are going to be better than working the room.

That’s my biggest advice for the introverts with a tendency towards shyness people, is that having that 1 or 2 quality conversations, don’t kick yourself for that. That may actually travel further in the long run than feeling like you’re the life of the party.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so unstructured events can have value if you have a plan, perhaps you’re going to meet someone. It can be a great way to meet their connections, as well but I know you also believe that there’s a lot more that can come out of structured events and that it makes more sense to focus your networking time there.

I want to talk about that but first, we’re going to take a break. When we come back we’ll continue our conversation with David Burkus who’s going to share his advice about networking at events.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with David Burkus. He’s the author of the new book, Friend of a Friend.

David, before the break, we were talking about our topic; why you don’t need to go to networking events, and you were describing that unstructured event that we’ve all been to at conferences or meetups, where you just walk into the room cold and you don’t know anyone and you’re not sure what to do and that’s, as you’ve laid out, not going to create a lot of value for our listeners but you’re also a big fan of what you call structured events.

Tell us more about that and how they can help people who want to network.

David Burkus:

Structured events, or what we sometimes call shared activities, are events where there is a bigger purpose for being there. The term comes from the sociologist Brian Uzzi and actually, it’s coauthor, Sharon Dunlap, and what they say, a shared activity or structured event has to have a couple of qualities for it to be an effective way to meet new people. The first is, as I said, there has to be another reason for being there, there has to be an objective and that objective, (this is the second piece), has to have stakes. There has to be a sort of failure, that way you have to participate.

Achieving that objective is the third piece, requires interdependence. In other words, if everybody just does their part individually, that’s not interdependence so that’s not going to have it. If you have another reason for being there, it requires interdependence and there are stakes, you can actually fail at the reason for being there, these events actually create conversations that are a little bit different than, “Who are you? What do you do?” conversations that happen in the unstructured events. They build a bond in sort of a different context.

Before the break, we were talking a bit about multiplexity, so they work better there and you end up, a lot of times, paired off with one or two people who are very different from you so they overcome that bias towards self-similarity.

I realize I’ve just spoken a lot of vague platitudes but let me give you a couple of different examples.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah, give us some concrete examples. You’ve laid out the theory very clearly but what kind of events are we talking about? Are these lunch programs?

David Burkus:

I’ll give you…if you think about lunch programs, I’ll give you a great example of one that I good friend of mine plans personally and then I’ll give you a conference example.

On the personal side, one of my good friends is a man named Chris Shambra, in New York City and Chris plans these dinners. He calls his dinners the 7:47 club because basically dinner is served at 8 and it takes 13 minutes to prepare but that 13 minutes is the key.

What happens is, he organizes a group of people, usually 10 to 12 people, to come over to his apartment and he does not have a big sort of New York pad. We’re talking studio apartment, but he makes it work, and each person has a role in creating a dinner that he’s planned. It’s usually pasta, he’s made the sauce, somebody has to make the actual pasta, somebody else is on salad, somebody else is on dessert, and he pairs people up, especially knowing the people who don’t know each other. He pairs them up, he gives them tasks, all of the tasks are relatively easy, again the whole preparation takes 13 minutes but that act of having to work together, requires interdependence, you’re paired up, there is a different objective than just connecting, we are making something and there are stakes.

You might just end up sort of, overcooking the pasta and people won’t think it’s good but that’s still stakes, it’s very low stakes but it’s still stakes. Those 3 things that play make for a way better conversation with people at the dinner table and now eating and make for a much higher likelihood for conversations going on after the dinner. People following up, et cetera, because they’re focused on that other thing, the conversation wanders a bit more, we drop our scripts, we drop the, “Who are you? What do you do?” script a lot of the times and so Chris has now run over 200 of these dinners. It’s obviously grown his network but it’s also created a lot of value for the people that he’s in, and it costs a couple of boxes of pasta and tomatoes every week that he puts on these dinners.

I think it’s a great sort of, personal example of, yeah, it’s a dinner party but it’s a little bit different and because it leverages that shared activity, it works way better and I think it’s a great example because a lot of people can do something similar. When I met Chris, my wife and I decided we wanted to start doing this but we have 2 young kids, so the idea of an 8 o’clock dinner doesn’t work for us but we try once a month to do a Saturday brunch sort of thing. We’ll come together and somebody’s making pancakes, somebody else is frying up the bacon, and we get a bunch of different people together to leverage it.

That’s on the personal side.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and on the professional side, our listeners are obviously thinking about their job search and career and they may have identified a company or where they want to work or a field they want to transition into after working in another sector.

What are some examples of the structured networking events that can help them with goals like that?

David Burkus:

Yeah, so on the professional side, and it kind of all bleeds together, right? So if you’re starting to do these personal things, it will bleed over, but on the professional side, what you want to look for is in that trade association, that industry group, that local chapter of something, or even that company that you’re targeting, what are the public events where there’s more than just connecting? What are the public events where there’s learning going on, or even better, does that local chapter of your professional association, do they do a charity drive? Like a 5K or Habitat for Humanity day, something like that. That would actually be a better thing to invest your time in terms of an event.

Mac Prichard:

Why is that so, David? Why doesn’t it make sense to go to the local chapter happy hour? Why is the 5K run better for someone who’s pursuing professional goals?

David Burkus:

The 5K run and specifically being involved in sort of putting it on, that meets that criteria of a shared activity. There’s another reason for being there, it’s not that unstructured event that creates that awkwardness, people drop their scripts, it’s not so much the, “Who are you and what do you do?” It’s about getting the thing done and so those events end up, you end up meeting and having conversations with people that you probably wouldn’t have talked to if you were a couple of months back at the grand networking happy hour.

Mac Prichard:

It’s also a chance to show off your skills, isn’t it?

David Burkus:

You know, that’s actually a really good point and I probably should have mentioned it sooner. One of the examples we actually talk about in the book is a woman, brilliant woman, named Whitney Johnson who ended up being the head of a hedge fund by the legendary Clayton Christianson, the disruptive innovation theory guy, and the way that Clayton knew her and got to see her skills was not her 20-something years on Wall Street. It was that they both went to the same church and organized the same congregant and business breakfast thing that was a regular monthly event.

He got to see her leadership skills in that capacity and thought, “Yeah, okay, I already know she’s qualified but clearly this is the right person.”

Mac Prichard:

When you have a shared experience like that, it is creating a unique bond between either 2 people or even a small or larger group, doesn’t it?

David Burkus:

Yeah, it creates that sort of shared experience there but you also, because a lot of time, the conversation wanders there much more than it does in happy hours, it stays work focused a lot of the times, so you end up learning about more facets of people. Humans are multifaceted and the way to build a good connection to them is to understand the multiple different facets and to see different connections beyond professional similarities, et cetera.

There’s the, in the moment shared experience, but you’re also much more likely to learn things about that person and to connect with them in ways that you wouldn’t if it stayed 100% professional, “Who are you and what do you do?” conversation.

Mac Prichard:

I can imagine listeners thinking, “Well, this sounds good. Like a great way to meet new people or particularly if I’m new in town but how is this going to help me find a job or move ahead in my career?”

What kinds of results do you see professionally for people who do these kinds of things? How does it help them?

David Burkus:

Yeah, so ultimately the number one, most important thing that a network can provide you is information. Beyond just the fact that we’re social creatures, and introverts and extroverts alike still like relationships and benefit from all that, et cetera, networks provide you information and the more information and more diverse information, the better you can make a decision. That can be about that company, what you want to do in your own career, but that can also be about how you end up getting that inroad to that dream company or into that dream job.

Ultimately, networks provide you information and you want it from as many and as diverse sources as you can in order to make the best decisions and follow the best path.

Mac Prichard:

When people have these experiences, build these connections and grow their network, what are your best tips, David, about how to act on that information?

David Burkus:

Yeah, so the first thing is, depending on when you’ve met them, there’s still a level of follow-up work that has to go. It’s one thing to meet someone and then just say, “Oh, we should chat again sometime soon.” And then never do or, “Oh, we should get lunch someday.” And then never do. One of the beauties of these shared activities is that you learn about the person in multiple different dimensions of them and that provides you multiple different follow-up opportunities.

You might be able to follow up with them in a professional context and right away, ask some more questions about them or you might just have found out that you both, you love the same movie franchise and when the next one comes out, you can send them a quick sort of follow up message but over time what you’re looking to do is to follow up to build the relationship and build what we call social capital to the point where, you’re not just doing that awkward, “How can I can help you and here’s how you can help me” thing but where it just becomes a natural outcropping of the conversation.

Most people, if you build up that social capital and you build up that relationship with some follow up, most people, you don’t even need to ask them for help. Most people will get, at some point in that conversation, that you’re looking to make a transition or you’re looking to find new work and will pro-offer ways to help you if you’re building that relationship and you’re investing in it in lots of different follow-up conversations.

Mac Prichard:

Anything you recommend listeners avoid in growing those relationships? Any don’ts?

David Burkus:

Yes, so people can smell desperation a long way away and they can smell it through email, too, so I would be very careful about how quickly you are asking for help if they’re not pro-offering it. I would be trying to offer help and offer value the majority of the time and you can mention what you need and what you’re looking for but to make the direct ask, I think you wait several different…it can be months or it can be weeks. It just depends on the conversation and how in depth or how sparse it is but you wait to build up that social capital before you make that ask.

Most of the time if you build up the social capital, you won’t have to make the ask so you’ll be okay.

Mac Prichard:

Well, David, it’s been a terrific conversation. Tell us, what’s next for you?

David Burkus:

I mean, “Friend of a Friend” is still out and we’re doing a lot of work to put that book in a lot of peoples’ hand. I’m obviously a big fan of this different approach to networking that’s not just advice and here’s how I did it but here’s what’s going on in the greater network that I’m looking to be a bigger part of.

The other thing we’re doing that’s been a lot of fun since about midway through last year, we’ve started posting work-related, or I would say, tips that will help you do your best work ever. We’ve started posting them online as a video, we call it the daily Burk. It’s about a 2 – 3 minute video every single day on whichever social media platform you like, we’re probably posting the video on that and that’s been a lot of fun just because of the feedback that you get as well.

Mac Prichard:

I know people can learn more about your new book, “Friend of a Friend” and the daily Burk, your video series, by going to davidburkus.com.

David, given all the useful tips you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want our audience to remember about why they don’t need to go to networking events?

David Burkus:

Yeah, if you do the work and you look up the right events to attend, then these unstructured events are kind of worthless and the other thing is that if you’re doing the follow up to reach back out to those weak ties and those people you haven’t talked to in a while or even the new connection you’ve made at the last event that you still need to nurture and develop, that is probably all of the information and help that you need, so going and stirring a drink awkwardly in a corner at one of these other events, that’s not going to move the ball forward as much as continuing to invest in the relationships  you already have.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, terrific advice. David, thank you for being on the show today.

David Burkus:

Thank you so much for having me.

Mac Prichard:

Networking is one of my favorite subjects and I really appreciated the points that David made about how to do it well and what to avoid doing.

One big idea that ran through the conversation for me was the importance of relationships. In the end, networking is about people and it’s about relationships and making authentic connections. It’s not about collecting business cards and if you’re going to do it well, you’ve got to prepare. And you’ve got to think about what you want to get out of the experience when you go to a structured or unstructured event and that takes preparation. But if you do it well you’ll build relationships that will give you satisfaction and allow you to serve others but it takes preparation.

Job interviews take preparation too and you can count on people asking you behavioral interview questions when you walk into that interview room.

Are you ready? If you’re not, or you want to brush up on your interview skills, we’ve got a guide that can help. 100 Behavioural Interview Questions You Need to Know.

It’s free. You can get it by going to  macslist.org/questions.

Well, thank you for joining us for this week’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

Join us next Wednesday. We’ll have 2 guests, Heather Gordon and Moira Farnsworth of Boly:Welch.  They’ll explain how staffing agencies work.

It’s going to be a great episode. It’s also going to be our 200th episode. We hope to see you then.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.