Arguably the single most effective means of advancing one’s career – whether that takes the shape of choosing a career, switching careers, getting hired, or getting promoted – is networking (I’m using networking in a general sense here; a broader and more inclusively accurate term might be “creating and leveraging relationships to help move ahead”). After all, often career success is determined less by what one knows than by who one knows. Yet over the years I’ve discovered that a surprising number of people are anxious, reluctant, or even outright refuse, to utilize this means of advancement.

Why? Some people are painfully shy and find it virtually impossible to reach out for fear that they will somehow look silly, weak, a failure, or inept. Others (a greater number it seems to me) are reluctant to “impose” on others. To them it feels like they’re “using” relationships in a selfish manner for their own advancement.

Well, yes. The ultimate aim of networking is to help one advance. And it is true that some prime networkers out there are definitely “users,” who would lie, cheat, steal, or casually throw a colleague under the bus to get ahead. But most people are not like that. Furthermore, what is often overlooked is the fact that mutual benefits are incurred in most cases – to the networker and to the “networkee” (if I may coin a term).

The benefits to the networkers are obvious: information, introductions, personal recommendations. To the networkees? Feeling good that they’ve extended a helping hand, of course. But also the possibility of looking good or gaining credit because they chose to help advance a worthy individual who can add value.

Of course if the networkee feels the networker won’t add value, or if it feels like too much trouble, or if there’s a reluctance to expend “networking capital” on that person, it is easy to turn down the request or duck out. There is no obligation on the networkee’s part to “play ball.” For example, if I ask someone I’ve met at a cocktail party or business event to have coffee, it’s easy for the person to agree (“Sure! Give me a call next week and we’ll set it up”) and then not respond to the email.

Finally, networking is now a cultural norm. Perhaps 50 years ago what we call networking today might have seemed selfish, pushy or inappropriate. But most people today (particularly here in Washington) are perfectly fine with being asked for a networking kind of favor, in no small part because they themselves have probably asked others for the same kinds of favors, or anticipate needing to do so in the future, and feel that “what goes around comes around”.

So if you’re reluctant to reach out to someone for a career-related favor, remember that it’s invaluable, and more acceptable and less intrusive, than you think!