Professional networking has become a career lifeline, letting people find and explore resources and opportunities they otherwise never would find. Platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook only magnify the possibilities, making connection as easy as a click. But because of one basic psychological phenomenon and performance tendency of the brain, you're probably not getting as much personal growth from your professional network as you dream of.
Confirmation bias, brain efficiency and echo chambers
Researchers have proven that people exhibit confirmation bias--that is, they look for information, trends or other signals that confirm what they already think or believe. From the psychological standpoint, confirmation bias happens because being presented with something different can feel threatening, challenging our egos and sense of safety.
But confirmation bias also has a biological link in the brain. The brain hates to use energy if it doesn't have to. It's always going to try to be as efficient as possible as a means of self-preservation and survival. Subsequently, it often turns to "shortcuts", processing what's complex into tidbits and relying on feelings that don't take as much power to deal with. This process can make it hard to let go of false beliefs or lies we've heard over and over and absorbed as truths. It also can keep us from accepting that we're not as mentally diverse or objective as we feel we are.
Because of these functions, we tend to create what experts refer to as echo chambers, or circles or platforms where our own sentiments get mirrored back to us. When echo chambers are extremely strong, we separate into distinct groups socially and become unwilling to hear others out. With this in mind, most social media that facilitates modern professional networking uses algorithms that essentially feed you data from "your" confirmation-bias-grown group. All the people LinkedIn alerts you that you might know, for example, pop up just because they're connected to people you already know and get along with. Companies like Youtube and Netflix use the same technologies to make media recommendations, so the odds of being exposed to new, different ideas or styles are low even in your entertainment.
What reaching out offers
To some degree, staying within a particular circle or echo chamber within professional networking makes a lot of sense. After all, professionals within your career or industry can give you practical tips and help you build directly applicable skills. They're able to be empathetic, understand your jargon and grasp your mission. Their comradery can help you relax and get rid of stress.
But if you reach outside your echo chamber, you're going to find people who have completely different concepts, abilities and resources. Interacting them essentially gives you more building blocks to play with and can lead to incredible, more prolific innovation. For example, by partnering with scientists from NASA, corporations have developed outside-the-box solutions to everything from firefighter gear to medical thermometers, even though their mission statements and industries are nothing alike. You'll learn not to jump to conclusions and consider more angles, and as a result, become a more patient and compassionate leader.
How to get out of the social straightjacket
- Attend conferences, trade shows or seminars on topics you're not familiar with or that are outside your expertise area. Cities often post these types of events on their community calendars, but ask convention centers what is upcoming, too.
- Find a mentorship program that can partner you with someone outside of your field.
- Read articles and other publications from other industries and contact the authors. Find something to interview them about or ask them to teach you about what they know.
- Travel and make it a point to talk to others in local businesses. Everyone from restaurant chefs to your Uber driver is fair game.
- Host or find a meetup designed to bring business groups together.
- Talk to leaders of professional development organizations. They can connect you with influencers and teachers within different industries.
If you feel awkward through any of these options, just remember, your contact is working with you for the first time, too. They probably feel just as nervous and out of their element. But creating the relationship isn't going to benefit only you. They can learn from and grow because of you, too. Don't deny them that. Open communication will be your knock on the door, and trust me, the people who will open it are truly wonderful.