Networking is an essential business activity that helps you meet new clients, retain existing clients, recruit talent or get to know others in your industry. But not all societies network the same way.
In Western cultures, we most commonly define the people we have personal relationships with as either acquaintances (people we often meet in a professional setting and with whom we have weak ties) or friends (the people we meet outside of our work environment with whom we forge strong ties). Sometimes the two overlap, but not usually, and this distinction is exactly why networking, or forging a relationship for business purposes, doesn't come naturally to many of us.
That's because, in any genuine, strong relationship, there's an expected level of give and take and an obligation to one another. But when you know from the start that you're trying to establish a relationship with someone for the purposes of doing business with them, the relationship can feel false or insincere.
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In China, the very act of networking is viewed quite differently—your professional relationships are meant to resemble the personal relationships you have with close friends and even family. As such, Chinese businesspeople are more likely to approach networking in much the same way they'd get to know a new friend—this helps make the connection feel genuine and worthy of their time and attention.
This different take on networking is called “Guanxi,” which is loosely translated to mean “personal relationships” or “connections” between two people. Instead of the loose connections often attained through networking in the United States, Guanxi involves the complex personal networks that include your business network, mentors, contacts, friends and family and is based on a set of rules that help you foster business relationships built on trust. Unlike what many Westerners are led to believe about Guanxi, these strong business relationships aren't attained through bribery, gifts or false promises but only through time, effort and a genuine interest in building a strong relationship.
But you don't have to be doing business in China to benefit from the principles of Guanxi. Here are five rules to keep in mind when attending your next networking event or interacting with your employees to help you create relationships that really work:
1. Get introduced by the right person.
It can be difficult to make the first move when trying to establish a business relationship, but if the relationship is important to you, ask someone you trust who knows the other party to help you cultivate that relationship. This contact person must trust you and be able to vouch for you to the other party.
2. Help others before helping yourself.
When you’re developing a business relationship with someone, refrain from doing so just because you think you'll benefit from that relationship at some point. Instead, ask yourself how they might benefit from their relationship with you. How will you be able to help your contact/business partner/customer? In what areas are they struggling or attempting to grow? How can you facilitate their efforts?
3. Know that strong Guanxi relationships require time and effort.
Genuine relationships are cultivated over time and established through regular contact and a level of consistency that leads to comfort and familiarization with one another.
According to a white paper on Guanxi published by global strategic leadership consulting firm Meritas Partners, “If you call for help only when you need it, it is already too late. If you call when you want to close a deal, it won’t close. You need to maintain and strengthen these relationships constantly. This doesn’t mean you make a business contact your best friend, but think of her as a friend and treat her as a friend. Write her once a month, help her when you can and invite her to meet your family—not every day but not only once a year.”
4. Focus on the relationships rather than the business.
A focus on the relationship instead of the business is exactly why business itself is rarely discussed during dinner in China. The idea is for each party to get to know one another and refrain from exploring the business deal further until the relationship has solidified. Once all parties are more comfortable with one another, they can move forward in their investment. After all, why would you want to conduct business with someone you don’t know, trust or respect?
“The very relationship itself is a melding of personal and professional ties,” the Meritas Partner paper states. “These different ties often overlap and influence each other. Actions that result in disenfranchising a contact for business success can have negative effects on your Guanxi network and can be perceived as individualistic and uncaring.”
5. Think about mutual benefits and be subtle when trying to achieve your goals.
When expressing concerns or requesting assistance, understand that an overly direct approach may be distasteful to others and ruin the relationship. This doesn't mean you shouldn’t be direct about what you want, but understand that there is a decorum that needs to be adhered to.
If there's something you need from your networked contact, a good rule of thumb is to first provide something they need before asking for anything in return. And if you want to ask a potential business partner for help but they're not asking anything of you, consider volunteering your expertise in an area you can see they need help. This exchange of favors will strengthen your relationship because you're communicating to one another that you appreciate and trust the other's expertise.
Remember, when it comes to fostering genuine trust in a business relationship, there are no shortcuts—the time and effort you put in is vital when getting to know someone. Use these tips to change the way you think about networking, and you'll foster better business relationships in the future.
For more tips on how to help build and optimize your business connections, access our exclusive video series with MSNBC: Networking: Making Connections to Build a Better Business.
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