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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Your Network: Professional Context vs. Personal Context by Reid Hoffman

In my previous post, I wrote about why relationships matter in your career. Yet, “relationship” can mean many things. It can be long-distance or proximate, project-only or long-term, emotionally close or purely professional. There are bosses, coworkers, colleagues, and subordinates. There are friends, neighbors, family members, and long-lost acquaintances. There are people you relate to out of love, out of friendship, out of respect, and out of necessity. There are people you work with based on a detailed contract that legally specifies roles and responsibilities; there are people you work with where nothing is written down. The universality of the word “relationship” makes sense: the essence of how human beings relate to one another transcends situational differences.

That said, there are key differences in how relationships function based on the context. There are people you know solely in a personal context. These include close personal friends and family. These are the people you call on a Saturday night, but not on a busy Monday morning at work. These are your childhood, high school or college friends who may be dear to you but are not necessarily on an even remotely similar career trajectory. These are the people with whom a shared spirituality and alignment of core values may matter. Online, you connect with these friends and family on Facebook. You share photos of last night's party and play CityVille or Texas Hold'Em. Your Facebook profile picture might be kooky, and whether you are single or in a relationship is a point of interest for all.

Then there are those you know solely in a professional context. These include colleagues, industry acquaintances, customers, allies, business advisors, and service providers like your accountant or lawyer. You email these folks from your work address, not your personal Yahoo or Gmail account. Shared business goals and professional interests bring you together. Online, LinkedIn is where you connect with these trusted colleagues and valued acquaintances whom you recommend for jobs, collaborate with on professional projects, and tap for industry advice. It’s where you share detailed information about your skill sets and work experience. Your headshot is professional. No one cares who you are or are not dating on LinkedIn. (Recent LinkedIn research reveals in more depth how mindset differences play out on different social networks.)

Generally, you know people primarily in a personal or a professional context. The simple reason is etiquette and expectations. It’s awkward if a co-worker confesses marital infidelity while standing around the proverbial water cooler. (Cue a scene from the TV show "The Office"...) And your idea of a fun weekend might not involve playing in a sandbox with your co-worker’s kids. The more important reason why personal and professional are separate relates to conflict of loyalties. For example, suppose a co-worker you consider a personal friend is screwing up on a big work project. If you don’t speak up, you will be letting down other team members and your company (and therefore hurting your professional reputation); if you do speak up, your friend may resent you. Or suppose you and a co-worker are both up for promotion. When one of you advances and the other does not, it strains the friendship. For these reasons, it can be tricky to ask a close personal friend for career help because you’re asking them to negotiate dueling loyalties: their duties as a professional and their duties as a friend.

Now, it’s good to be friends with someone you work with. It’s more fun. You may invite your coworker to your wedding. You may go winetasting with your boss and direct report over the weekend. You may link with some people on both Facebook and LinkedIn. But even in these cases, the vast majority of the time there will be limits to how much the friendship can flourish. And context will continue to govern etiquette and expectations. You say and do different things when at a bar on a Saturday night than when in the office on a Wednesday afternoon, even if you’re with the exact same friends.

In my next post, we're going to focus on the relationships that help you thrive in a professional context. In other words, this is about professional relationships, and those personal friendships that also function in a professional context.

Adapted from The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. Join the LinkedIn group on career strategy to continue the conversation.

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