Within any organization, the importance of having social capital cannot be understated. Having social capital is what lubricates decision making. It is what allows you to get your way in governance at any level. It forms the basis of effective relationships and teams. It can cushion the blow and help protect your reputation if you make a mistake or an oversight causes an issue. It also acts like a shield to protect you from punitive or baseless attacks from others within the organization.
One of the most effective ways to build social capital within an organization is a part of the phrase itself: Being Social. Now this is very different from being the workplace equivalent of The Most Popular Kid In School. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, constantly seeking to hang out with or trying to insert yourself into the social group of your superiors. Acting too much like a kiss-up can and often does backfire. But you also cannot be a loner who never interacts in a non-work related setting with anyone else, because then you will never gain the social capital required to help you advance your projects and goals.
The common stereotype of most Techies is that they tend to be antisocial creatures. Pale, bespectacled beings who only emerge from behind their computer screens to get more coffee and whose only nod at broader society is the smarter-than-thou quote on their t-shirts. Think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Of course stereotypes are over-generalizations and are wrong. But working in a software company around dozens of techies, I can say that they often are not the most social of creatures.
In my experience, this often leads to their concerns not being given as much credence as they should be, and their needs not given as much attention as they may warrant by those who are in the upper echelons of management. Unless they have an advocate or a translator who can put their concerns in business-speak, they often wind up relegated to the back of the list of concerns, until a project blows up because of a technical glitch that they warned you about months ago.
So how do you go about being social, in order to build social capital, if you just aren’t feeling it? Even for those of us who tend more towards the social side, there are days when it’s a struggle. There have been many a social hour or office get together or other event I had to drag myself to because the idea of being social with colleagues simply wasn’t something I wanted to do that day. On those days, it is incredibly tempting to fake some excuse to head home or not attend the function. But that’s not how you build or maintain social capital.
Tips for Being Social When You Just Aren’t Feeling It
Set a Goal to Achieve
When I am not feeling particularly social but must attend a social event, I find it helps to set a goal you want to achieve. That way, you can see the event as less of a social event and more of a task. Sometimes that’s all it takes to give you the fortitude to attend. For example, I might tell myself that my goal for the event is to chat with at least five people for five minutes a piece. Oftentimes I find that after that 25 minutes of socializing, I’m in more of a social mood and can keep going. But if I take stock after that time and I’m still not feeling it, I’ve met my goal and so I can bow out.
Take Your Temperature
This is similar to goal setting, but you use a time component. For example, if you are at an event that you know will last several hours, don’t require yourself to stay for the whole event if you aren’t feeling it. In this scenario, I give myself permission to take my temperature at regular intervals. For example, an hour into the event I will do a little self check and see how I am feeling. If I’m feeling more social than before, I will stay and take another check-in with myself in another hour. But if at the hour mark I’m still not feeling it, I’ll give myself permission to leave the event.
Make a Connection at the Event or Bring a Connection With You
If you can find one person in the room you can make a connection with, it can make attending these events much more bearable. For example, if you have a friend who will also be attending the event, you can re-frame the event as a way to hang out with your friend. Be careful with this one though; you don’t want to only hang around your friend for the entire event, or you won’t be seen as an independent entity and it won’t help you build social capital. I recommend giving your friend a heads up that you are in a bit of an anti-social mood. If they are a good friend, they will help you out by fostering discussions with others and eventually leaving once they see you are standing on your own.
Lower Your Expectations
You know those people you see at conferences who are so desperate to network that they go around collecting business cards from as many people as they can? Or the people who believe that you must have at least 500 connections on LinkedIn to be of any value? Those people are idiots. They will chat with you for less than a minute, get your business card, score a win for themselves and in ten minutes they won’t remember your name or even what you do. Shallow connections mean nothing. What you want is more meaningful connections, and this can actually be easier to achieve when you are feeling anti-social. You don’t need to play Business Card Bingo; just focus on chatting with 5-10 people and actually making a connection with them. Once you hit that number, you can safely leave the event knowing you built deeper connections that will help add to your social capital. Give yourself permission to lower your expectations of how many connections you need to make.
Have a Conversation Starter Ready
Small talk can be the hardest thing to deal with when you aren’t feeling particularly social. When this happens, I find it helps to have a conversation starter ready. All you have to do is find a topic that would be of interest to the people who are attending the event. For example, if it’s a work event, find something from the news or from your industry that is new and ask others for their feelings on it. It takes the pressure off you having to participate in the conversation, and it sends the message that you are in tune with your industry.