All great things take time. That being said, time is probably the greatest investment you can make in a new connection. You’ll also probably find yourself investing your energy and possibly some of your resources (i.e. connections, programmes, organisational tips, experience). Psychologists have committed a great deal of study to understand how relationships are formed and the purpose behind their inherent importance in communities.
The psychology of relationships can be extended to the interactions we make professionally. Psychology argues that there are many theories on how lasting relationships are formed and maintained. Key theories of relationship formation include exchange and communal theories.
The exchange theory, established by Rusbult and van Lange (1996), argues that rewards (whatever they may be) are important when determining the way a connection will develop. When you don’t know someone very well things are exchanged on a tit-for-tat basis i.e. "you send me links for job opportunities and I’ll send you links for the programming course you’ve been thinking about doing". We ask you to take this theory with a pinch of salt and to not be too methodical with your approach. When you connect with the right people, these stages tend to happen naturally.
While it can seem unnatural to think of relationships/connections in such a transactional way, psychologists would argue that this exchange stage is a crucial foundation for a transition into the communal stage of the relationship.
Upon realising how invested the other person in the professional connection, it becomes part of the norm to want to see that the other person succeed i.e. that programming course you sent them the link for, you’ll want to know that they’ve finished it and they’re on their way to becoming a fluent coder. It’s nice to know that the time and encouragement that you’ve ‘invested’ in them is giving life to them growing in their fields and extending their expertise. In the same way, you’d hope that the other person will be just as interested in seeing how your applications are going for the jobs you’ve been applying for. This is the basis of the communal relationship theory as argued by Clarke and Mills (1979): rewards occur in a less reciprocal way and rewards are given in the interest of the well-being of the other party.
These theories suggest that long-term connections are more likely to be formed when the needs of all parties are met - the reward of having your needs met acts as a motivation to continue strengthening the connection.
identify needs → invest → reward of needs met → motivation → new needs → re-invest → rewards of needs met → motivation… → … growing relationship
Whilst you are in the early stages of forming these new connections, ask yourself what you want from them. This could be that you want a mentor, you want to be a mentee, you need a sounding board, or you’re simply happy to go with the flow and get to know another person and be a part of their journey in science.
If you are interested in reading more about the psychology of the maintenance of relationships, have a read of the social exchange theory (Homan, 1971; Thibaut and Kelley, 1959) and the equity theory (Walster, 1978).
We hope that you are enjoying making new connections and having a great conversation. Use what you can from this post to continue to build on these connections. We’re nearly at the end of the series; join us next week on how to INTEGRATE your new connections so they’re no longer ‘new’ but a part of your professional life.
Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. (1979). Interpersonal attraction in exchange and communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(1), 12–24.
Rusbult, C. E., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (1996). Interdependence processes. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (p. 564–596). The Guilford Press.
Thibaut, J. W., & Kelley, H. H. (1959). The social psychology of groups. John Wiley.
Walster, Elaine, G. William Walster, and Ellen Berscheid. "Equity: Theory and research." (1978).
By Tomi Akingbade, Founder