You often hear that to be successful you must be a networker, and that your connections will do more for you than your resume. There is certainly truth in that—in any business, your professional networks are going to be a huge source of both business and advisory relationships. But success also requires another set of connections, specifically ones that help you improve your abilities and your performance.
Why? Research shows us that talent, brains and good referrals are not all there is to success. It is also the quality of relationships that you surround yourself with—and how they are affecting your brain. Neuroscience and research on goals, performance and health say the same thing: you and your body perform very differently depending on whom you are connecting yourself to.
Here are the key questions you must ask when building your network:
1. Does the relationship fuel you?
Your brain runs on chemicals that are materially affected by whether a relationship fuels you or drains you. Positive, encouraging and understanding relationships will increase your energy and ability for thinking and performing better compared to toxic relationships that are based on fear, criticism or guilt/shame dynamics. The more negative a relationship—be that with partners, bosses or board members—the more the brain will have activations of fear and rejection responses, and the more performance will go down.
One study, for example, showed that a subliminal message on a screen of the name of a positive relationship increased thinking and problem-solving abilities, and posting the name of a negative relationship did the opposite. Going on a sales call or negotiating a difficult time in your business? Better be connected to people who are going to be supportive. This does not in any way mean just happy talk. There is no problem with talking about problems or failure, which can be helpful if it’s done in an encouraging way rather than a toxic one.
2. Do you have control of what you’re responsible for?
Your brain is going to perform its best when you have control over your results. The combination of control and responsibility is the most powerful dynamic. If your relationships with partners, bosses, boards and the like are going to help you succeed, make sure that those people are going to stay out of your hair and let you do your job—no backseat driving. At the same time, be clear about what they are going to hold you responsible for: what specific outcomes and behaviors? If those are clear, and they are encouraging you to take control and be in charge of what is yours, you will succeed more than if you are micromanaged or not held accountable.
3. Will you get good feedback?
The highest performance is built in a sea of feedback, and the more immediate the better. As Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s “flow” research and others have found, feedback helps the brain focus and get lost in the experience. Think of it this way: an airplane pilot who can see the altimeter and know the altitude immediately is going to fly better than if she is guessing. A surgeon who gets the feedback of blood from a nicked vessel is instantly on an improvement path. We need to know how our actions are affecting our performance in order to change them. Do your connections give you great and usable feedback? That is key.
4. Will you be challenged?
We need these connections with the right kind of other to give us the right kind of push. Great performance comes from being constantly challenged. Research shows that we learn in the appropriate state of arousal, and that requires the right kind of challenge, past where we are. At the same time, it cannot be too far past where we are. That overwhelms the brain and pushes us in the wrong direction. The best bosses, partners and boards constantly challenge us in a way that makes us grow but don’t overwhelm us or make us get discouraged.
As you think about your own success—whether in business, losing weight or getting to a healthier marriage—think about your network. But not just in terms of the referrals it can make for your business, or the knowledge it can impart to your path. Make sure that you are also thinking about how your closest connections affect your sense of well-being, clarity, control and challenge. If the connections are affecting you positively and not negatively, your brain is more likely to take you to the success you have been working toward.
Adapted from The Power Of The Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have On You, From the Boardroom To The Bedroom and Beyond—and What To Do About It, copyright © 2016 by Dr. Henry Cloud. First hardcover edition published May 3, 2016, by HarperBusiness. All rights reserved.