How to leverage your inactive network

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A couple of years ago, the journal Organization Science published an article about getting advice from your “inactive” network... AKA people who you haven’t talked to in a very long time.

The authors ran a study to test how valuable it is to get advice from people in your network when you don’t have a regular, ongoing connection. (You might not even be friends on Facebook *gasp*.)

The study had an interesting result: sometimes your inactive contact may be more valuable than your current contacts when you’re stuck with a career or business problem.

So the authors posed the question — if inactive, or “dormant,” contacts are valuable, which of your inactive contacts provide the best value, and which of your contacts are you most likely to ask for advice?

Based on the research, there are two ways to measure how valuable your contact is to help you solve your problem: 

Insight: Someone who can give you fresh insight into a problem is extremely valuable. They will help you see the problem — and the solution — in a new way.

Trust: The closer relationship you have with someone, the more comfortable you feel, leading you to have more intimate and productive discussions about the problem you face.

But because we’re human, with all of our human foibles, it’s not quite as simple as a math problem of “insight + trust = the best contact.”

Instead, the overall value will be based on 3 questions.

Question 1: How much interaction did you have with them?

Some of your inactive relationships are with people where there used to be a LOT of interaction, whether it was short-lived or lasted years.  

This is a close professional relationship that slipped away when you changed jobs. Or someone you had worked with closely on a multi-month or multi-year project, but you haven’t talked to them since the project ended. Or a really close friend from university who you haven’t seen face-to-face in years.


We are comfortable asking for advice from them. We know that they will remember us, so it’s easy to reach out. We already have a rapport, so there is no anxiety around picking up the phone or sending an email. 

We ALSO have another set of inactive contacts, the people who you only interacted with occasionally.  

This is the project manager of that initiative that you were only involved with for a few weeks. Or the person you met briefly at an industry conference a few years ago. Or the university classmate who you worked with on a project, but you didn’t really hang out much.  

And here’s the thing. 

this someone you barely knew
  • You aren't sure if the other person will remember you. 
  • You get nervous about the idea that you might be rejected.  
  • You worry that you will annoy the other person by wasting their time.

You don’t know them well, so you’re not sure how to even start the conversation. —ow can you ask about their family if you’re not even sure they have a spouse or children?  

Guess what?

This anxiety is completely normal. 


They found that it’s pretty normal, when we need career or business advice, to stick with a comfortable network of people we used to know well, because to do otherwise causes us anxiety. 

And yet...

It turns out that when we reach out for advice, this comfortable network of contacts is LESS helpful to solve your problem. They’ve had many shared experiences with you, so they’re less likely to have fresh insights to your problem.

On the other hand,when you’ve had fewer interactions with another person, it’s more likely that they will have different experiences, and this leads to fresh new insights.   

Question 2. Does your inactive contact have higher status than you?

Our inactive contacts are not always our peers; some of them will have higher status.  

This is a former boss. Or the VP who you met while working on a special project. Or a manager from another division who you know through your child’s school or sporting activity. This is the CEO of another company who you know because they are a client or vendor to your company.

If someone in your inactive network has higher status than you, they will most certainly have valuable insights.  

They’ll likely have had more experience and/or exposure in their career, so they will bring powerful business acumen to the challenge you are facing. Plus they’ll have a broad network and can give you referrals to people outside of your network.

However, it’s very likely that you’ll feel anxious about reaching out to a higher status contact. We fear and suspect that we will be rejected by these higher status individuals. (Our inner critic rears its ugly head and tells you “surely they won’t want to help someone so far beneath them.”) 

Yet, these are the very individuals who can provide us with great advice.

Question 3: Do you trust the contact?

It turns out that we inherently trust some contacts more than others.  

This is the person you could vent a work frustration and they always helped you work through it. Or the coworker who was always willing to give advice and help others with a project. Or the person who is willing to have an open conversation and provide honest feedback in a non-judgmental manner.

These contacts provide tremendous value, and we enjoy reconnecting with them. The high level of trust means that you will have a very productive interaction. You will also feel less anxiety about reaching out, because you expect that they will help you.  

Luckily, the research also shows that these contacts also provide us with better advice than other contacts. The greater the trust and openness in a relationship, the more likely that it will result in valuable support. 

The power of Trust + Insight

The authors found that the most powerful impact from an inactive contact came when there was a combination of trust and insight.

These are contacts who you can trust, so you can have an open, possibly even vulnerable, discussion. But this person is also distant enough from you that they have new insights that you may not have previously considered.

Yet, because this person is more distant, we recoil from reaching out to them.

We fear that they will reject us, so we stick to people we used to know well.

Paradoxically, our natural instincts lead us to sub-optimal decisions: we reach out to the people who are less likely to give us good advice.

Happily, the research showed that although you worry about a negative experience, our inactive contacts are usually more than happy to help.

Most of the executives surveyed were surprised at the extremely positive reactions they received.

Six steps to leveraging your inactive network.

So that’s the research.

What does this mean for you, the working professional? 

It means that you should reach out to inactive contacts with whom you did not have a close relationship in the past. 

Now, this will naturally cause anxiety, and for some of you may even be terrifying.

So I recommend taking a step-by-step approach to make it a bit easier: 

6 Steps to Leverage Your Inactive Network


Identify a Problem

Think of a business or career problem where you could use some advice. Write a brief summary to help you clarify the problem and identify the advice you need.  Write out the question that you are looking to have answered.


Make a List

2. Make a list of your former contacts who might have insight to this problem. Avoid trying to anticipate how they will react to your reconnection, just consider whether they have knowledge or experience to help with the problem.


Review the List

Put a check mark beside all the people who you feel are trustworthy and willing to help someone with this problem.

Then put another check mark beside anyone who's further ahead in their career OR your relationship did not involve a lot of interaction.


Narrow the List

Make a short list of the people with two check marks.  These are the people who will likely yield you the most valuable advice.  


Make the Call

Set aside a morning to make phone calls or send emails to these individuals.  (In the morning, both you and your contact will be fresh, so the conversation will flow more readily. Plus, it will be easier to tackle any emotional anxiety you may have for contacting these individuals.)

If you find your anxiety levels rising, take deep breaths and visualize a positive interaction. Or take a moment to strike a 'power pose' - this will give you the boost of confidence to propel you through the conversation. (And remember that many of the execs in the study felt similar nerves - it's a completely normal reaction!)


Stay in Touch

After you've received the advice or referral, make sure you remember to thank the contact. Consider keeping in touch with this person, even just lightly.  

A quick phone call or a short email every six months is enough to maintain the relationship so that you feel more comfortable the next time you want to reconnect with this person.

It's time to start building the habit of reaching out to your inactive network... And building the mental muscle to feel confident doing so.

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