The Social Side of Performance

What separates high-performing knowledge workers from their more average peers? Superior ability is part of the answer, as is superior expertise. But in an era of exploding information, maintaining one’s expertise is a constant challenge. Formal education and training are necessary but are only a start. The use of impersonal sources — intranet databases, print publications, Web sites — can help keep one current but won’t provide an edge. What really distinguishes high performers from the rest of the pack is their ability to maintain and leverage personal networks. The most effective knowledge workers create and tap large, diversified networks that are rich in experience and span all organizational boundaries.

And contrary to the popular image of the networker, the building and use of such networks is rarely motivated by explicit political or career-driven motives. In part, that’s because high performers rarely need to focus on such matters. By simply getting their work done at a superior level, the most successful knowledge workers develop reputations and networks that bring opportunities and resources to them as needed. As a result, political posturing is of little value. A software engineer put it this way: “My network is incredibly valuable to me, but I don’t think about it politically. It is just totally intertwined with how I get my work done. I make time to meet with people and look for overlap in what we do. Maybe only a quarter of these pan out. But they are often my biggest successes, and rather than being political they start as opportunities where collaborating could generate something good for both of us.”

In addition, high performers are much more than “social butterflies,” who tend to have numerous relationships that don’t scratch below the surface. As one executive put it, “Too many people try to play games in this [networking]. For me, it isn’t calculating — I’m not trying to exploit others.” Effective knowledge workers focus on building deeper relationships that will be mutually beneficial over time. And they tend to employ three tactics to that end.

Establishing Personal Connections

High performers characterize the important people in their networks as more than just business contacts. These relationships are also personal, as two people discover similarities in backgrounds, family experiences or hobbies that allow them to connect on more than just an “instrumental” basis — that is, “I’ll do something for you if you’ll do something for me.&

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