You can have too many friends - at least when it comes to business networking, according to research by Martin Gargiulo, a professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD's Asia campus in Singapore.
Prof Gargiulo says that while having access to a lot of people for information and help is useful, it can also be a drain on time. And if you have less time to keep in touch with your contacts, the less useful these connections are. "The larger your networks, the more people you can tap to ask for information and favours, but also the more people that can request that information and those different kinds of help from you, too," he says.
"So if you don't reciprocate, the network may die out." Another networking mistake is having too many of the wrong friends, Prof Gargiulo says. If your network consists of too many people who are similar to each other, and yourself, it can leave you with a skewed view. In a corporate context, if your friends are all from the same or similar departments or positions, you are not as attuned to the needs and ideas throughout the company.
That sort of information can be crucial when making strategic decisions, he says. "If your network is very homogeneous, they all think alike, they all see the world the same way with respect to political views, nationalities, that will become a liability because it gives you the false image that everyone in the world sees the same as you do," Prof Gargiulo says. The issue is about more than just naivety; it can lead to serious career setbacks, he says.
Prof Gargiulo cites the classic case of Donna Dubinsky, the co-creator of the Palm Pilot, which went on to become one of the fastest-selling consumer products in the world. Before Palm, Ms Dubinsky worked at Apple in the 1980s. When she was in charge of distribution, Steve Jobs, the then and current chief executive, aimed to introduce a radical distribution system. Ms Dubinsky thought it was a crazy idea and vehemently opposed it because she felt it would harm the company's future.
The people she talked to agreed with her views, Prof Gargiulo says, but the bulk of the organisation did not. "She was seen as defending her turf," he says. "She wasn't but she acted that way because she was absolutely sure what she was doing was right, and that was largely because of her network." Disillusioned, Ms Dubinsky moved to a variety of other positions in the company before leaving Apple to start Palm, Prof Gargiulo says.
To avoid such pitfalls, he recommends that as people progress in their careers that they build a sparse network, with contacts in different parts of the organisation that do not communicate with each other. But the effort to do this often goes against many people's first instincts, he says. "We prefer to stay in our comfort zone," Prof Gargiulo say. "And to develop networks you have to get out of your comfort zone."
But developing your network also involves pulling back from some contacts who are less useful. "You don't cut people off but you weaken your relationship with people," Prof Gargiulo says. "You do that by simply interacting less with people if they keep on calling you to do things, but politely. "Most relationships are maintained because the two parties invest quite a bit in one another. One party slowing down its investments in the relationship is very carefully signalling that you're not willing to invest that much."