Professor's new research identifies three elements of reconnecting successfully

In business school, students learn about the importance of networking, but what happens when time passes without regular contact with a valuable connection?

Professor Daniel Z. Levin, who teaches as part of the management and global business faculty at Rutgers Business School, is considered an expert on this situation. His research focuses on social networks, knowledge sharing, and dormant ties. In the piece below, Levin talks about his latest research, which identifies three things everyone should keep in mind when they’re hoping to reconnect with someone.

What did you study and why?

For more than a decade, I’ve been studying the value of work-related dormant ties, which are professional relationships where you have lost touch with someone.

Your latest research builds on previous studies you’ve done on reconnecting with contacts. Tell us how the research has evolved.

In previous studies, I have shown that reconnecting with someone – even many years later – can be not only fun but also a source of incredibly valuable work-related knowledge, information, and advice. In fact, after studying hundreds of executives, I have found that reconnections can be even more useful than people’s usual network of contacts. After all, your dormant contacts have not been hibernating all those years. They’ve been out in the world, learning new things, and so they are a potential source of novel information and insights when reconnected. Yet I have also found that a lot of people initially have anxiety about reconnecting, and this can cause them to not reconnect at all or to reconnect with dormant ties that feel familiar and comfortable but are not necessarily the most valuable. In some prior research, I found that the most valuable reconnections are with people whom you never spent a lot of time with in the past – and so are great sources of novelty – but you nonetheless feel that they are likely to engage with you if contacted, for example, you feel you can trust them to care about you and to be willing to help you.

Thus, my prior research showed that reconnecting dormant ties is a valuable thing to do professionally and is especially valuable when you select dormant ties who are more likely to have new things to tell you and also be willing to do so. What has been an open question up until now, though, is how to go about reconnecting. What is the actual process for developing a productive collaboration or receiving useful advice from the other person. In other words, what is the best way to go about it? My latest research (published in Organization Science and MIT Sloan Management Review) answers this question by identifying the important elements of reconnecting successfully.

What are the three elements?

The first is Remembering. Forgetting or being forgotten by the other person can be particularly devastating. Beyond this bare minimum, though, reminiscing with the other person about shared experiences helps brings the past relationship into the present. The second is Catching up. Updating each other on what each of you has been up to, both personally and professionally, during the period when you were out of touch lets you see what the other person is all about now. Again, this brings the dormant tie into the present, making it feel more up to date and active. The third is Perceiving the tie similarly. It helps to be on the same page about the relationship, such as how close you two feel, if you are of similar or different status, or if you are competitors. For example, treating someone as a close buddy when you barely knew each other (or vice versa) destabilizes the reconnection, leading to a lack of trust.

Each of these three elements helps to make the dormant tie feel vibrant again, so that both sides can feel comfortable in trusting each other. My co-authors and I found that when these elements were missing from a reconnection attempt, the result was sometimes friendly on the surface (“Well, it was great to see you”), but the person would later admit to us that they were holding back and were reluctant to fully engage with the other person. In some cases, missing one or more of the three reconnection elements led to dramatic ruptures, such as one innovation manager at a convention who, immediately after his former colleague tried to reconnect with him, turned to my co-author while walking away and said, “Unbelievable. Did you hear what he asked me? I will never talk to that guy again!”

Each of these three elements helps to make the dormant tie feel vibrant again, so that both sides can feel comfortable in trusting each other.

How did you conduct the research?

This new research involved two studies. The first study involved interviews with managers and executives in the North Italian textile district about their reconnection experiences, both reaching out to others and having others reach out to them. In addition, my co-author attended industry conventions to observe numerous failed and successful attempts to reconnect. I believe this is the first study to watch reconnections happen in real time – which was fascinating. I had previously only asked people about their reconnection experiences before and after. This qualitative study allowed us to build a rich understanding of how managers think about and actually implement their attempts to reconnect dormant ties in a business context. In the second study, we took this model of the reconnection process and tested it in a vignette-based study with U.S. workers, to see how willing these participants would be to help a dormant contact depending on how that person reached out to them. Interestingly, we found that this quantitative study’s results completely replicated what we saw in the first study. In particular, we found that successful reconnections – where people are willing to go above and beyond in providing useful information and helping the other person – involves the three key elements.

Did any of the findings surprise you?

The biggest surprise was that reconnections are not as easy or straightforward as I originally thought. In my earlier research, I wrote that reconnecting could be done based on “a whim and minimal effort.” However, based on this latest research, I see that managers can and do botch their reconnection efforts, thereby preventing them from reaping the full benefits of their network, sometimes disastrously. Unfortunately, simply making a cold call or showing up to ask for resources is not enough. The key, it turns out, is to refresh the level of trust between both people, using the three reconnection elements of remembering, catching up, and perceiving the tie similarly. In other words, what we now know is that, yes, reconnections can be incredibly valuable, but to ensure success, these three elements of remembering, catching up, and perceiving the tie similarly are important for refreshing the trust needed to reconnect the tie successfully. Otherwise, you are in danger of a reconnection failure, such as receiving only minimal cooperation or knowledge, or in extreme cases, a dramatic break that essentially severs the tie forever.

How are the findings important?

People have an incredible amount of potential value hidden in their dormant-tie network, just waiting to be tapped. These latest findings are important because they offer practical advice on how to tap into that network successfully, to make sure that any reconnections are done well, setting people up for success. Specifically, people should be sure to make it easy to remember and reminisce with the other person, catch up on their personal and professional lives since they last talked, and both people should treat the relationship similarly so that they can feel on the same page about it. By following these three elements when reconnecting, people put themselves in a much better position to have successful reconnections that are not just enjoyable but also professionally valuable.

Photo Illustration: Getty Images

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