Are You Building Your Network Through Friendships or Transactional Relationships?

We all have some notion of what it means to form a friendship, on or off the job. But what, you might ask, is a “transactional relationship?” That, my friends, is a relationship you cultivate for the sole purpose of hoping to gain some tangible advantage for yourself. When starting a new job, transactional relationships are unavoidable; but it’s been my experience that your long-term success in networking comes from forming actual friendships. The long version of my thoughts can be found below, the short version can be found in the last sentence.

What transactional relationships look like in the business world

I first learned the term “transactional relationship” when a manager accused me of the practice. “You need to do more than talk to your customers about your tasks. You need to engage with them personally,” she said, or words to that effect. I was pleasant enough, I was told, but I wasn’t working at building relationships with my customers.

Curiously enough, I was working to build relationships with my customers–one eventually invited me to his home for a Super Bowl party–I just wasn’t spending as much time in his office as my manager was. (Lesson learned: there is more than one way to go about making friendships.)

However, I got her point.

I felt the full brunt of “transactional relationships” at a networking function when I lived in Washington, DC. Figuring I had common ground with a group of people with the same political affiliation, I tried to engage a few up-and-coming young staffers in conversation. One of them, upon learning what I did for a living, turned and walked away from me while I was speaking because I had nothing to offer him. 

The experience left a profound impression on me because I’d never been dismissed in quite that way before.

We all do it

That kid walking away from me (he was 25 or so, I was 35) infuriated me. Part of the problem was a mistake on my part. I was attending what I mistakenly believed was a purely social event to make friends and acquaintances, not an activity built solely look for people who could help me advance my career. He was. And as a result, when he learned what I did for a living, he walked away from me because he didn’t want to waste his time with someone who couldn’t benefit him.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t done the same; I’ve just been more polite about disengaging from a conversation.

In a work context, it helps to be on good terms with your managers, peers, and subordinates because that helps the work you do proceed more smoothly. Does that mean I consider everyone I work with a close friend whom I want to socialize with outside of the job? Am I blind to the fact that others might view workplace relationships as purely transactional? No. Those sorts of associations occur over time. My lady friend pointed me to an article recently that said it takes 80 to 100 hours to move from being a casual friend to an actual friendship, and over 200 hours of repeated positive interactions to move someone into the category of “good friend.”

Friendships and your network

Do we always put in the concentrated effort needed to develop those good friends? More to the point, do we always need to?

I would argue that it never does harm to at least maintain a pleasant demeanor with the people around you (and no, I’m not perfect on that score, either). Why? Because there will come a day when you will need help–from a family member, friend, coworker, or stranger–and it’s been my observation that human beings are more likely and willing to help someone who has been kind, polite, or helpful to them in the past. That might seem self-interested if you look at things from a purely transactional view, but it is, at least, self-interest taking the long view.

Being friendly, charming, or at least polite with everyone does require a certain amount of sincerity and effort. Your differentiator might be your willingness to act that way with people who are subordinate to you or with people who can do nothing for you personally or professionally. Yes, there will be people who will accuse you behind your back of being a brown-noser, suck-up, or some other uncharitable label. There will also be those who will take advantage of your goodwill. Would you prefer that people call you a rude jerk behind your back? Your call.

I’ve talked about networking several times on this blog, and it’s my contention that your network is as important as–or even more important than–your resume. And the more friends you have in your network, the more people you know who will be willing to help you when you’re looking for a job, for work, for a referral, or for information.

When things are at their worst, that’s when you discover the value of friendships over  transactional relationships. The ones who view you as a purely transactional acquaintance will be less inclined to help you because not only do you have nothing to offer them, but you are asking for something from them without necessarily offering the opportunity for repayment. Friends are not worried about the immediate quid pro quo because you have built a relationship of caring and trust with them and because they are concerned about your personal welfare.

The short version

In short, be kind to everyone around you because you’re more likely to make more friends and in turn find more people willing to help you when you need it.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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3 Responses to Are You Building Your Network Through Friendships or Transactional Relationships?

  1. Q: Are You Building Your Network Through Friendships or Transactional Relationships?
    A: No.
    (Just kidding. A serious response would be me agreeing with you again.)

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    Can’t stop thinking about the guy who walked away from you…..Although it’s true that you had nothing to offer him, he apparently didn’t stop to think that you had plenty of opportunity to harm him. You could’ve (you probably didn’t, but you could’ve) bad-mouthed him by name to everyone you encountered in your professional circle. It’s much, much better, as you say, to at least be polite.

  3. What you are talking about is a narcissist. Anyway, I maintain “professional” relationships at work, and hope to befriend some of them along the way. Transactional relationships are tough because you only see each other when someone wants something. “Good to see you” is something rarely said after a while. It’s when your soft skills really come in to play – especially persuasion. I think it helps to “sell” why you need something; that is, how it benefits them. Takes up a lot of emotional energy, but there are some workplaces that value knowledge so much that no one will share. It’s a question to ask during an interview, too! “Tell me how information is shared in your organization.” You’ll get some interesting responses, but it’s a tell about the culture. Once, I worked in a company where only 3 or 4 people knew everything and they were reluctant to impossible to extract information from so that I could complete my tasks. I resorted to writing a theory, publishing it, then alerting the non-responsive stakeholder that I’ve held them accountable for accuracy. I put the ball in their court to tell me if I was wrong. Only about 10% of the time I heard back, so with a 90% success rate, I consider it a victory. I only recommend this method in such adverse conditions and when you’ve educated yourself enough on the subject matter, but sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. May not make you popular with the stakeholders, but your audience will love you.

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