Ugh, networking. It’s something we know we should do for the betterment of our careers, but for many of us, it just feels so … gross. Apparently, that feeling can be real and tangible: An upcoming (and hilarious) paper in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly showed that even imagining exchanging business cards or saying “please add me to your LinkedIn network” is enough to make some people feel actually, physically dirty.
Professional relationships formed primarily for getting ahead are mostly more one-sided and selfish than others, argue the researchers, led by University of Toronto business professor Tiziana Casciaro, and a transaction in which reciprocity is a secondary concern really does feel a little immoral. The metaphorical link between feeling morally and physically pure, or clean, is a powerful one, past research in social psychology has shown. (For example, one recent study found that hand-washing seems to result in feeling morally clean; other research shows that study participants who felt disgusted were more morally judgmental.) The researchers had a hunch that this framework could apply to networking, and help explain why it can feel so, well, icky.
Unlike personal networking in pursuit of emotional support or friendship, and unlike social ties that emerge spontaneously, instrumental networking in pursuit of professional goals can impinge on an individual’s moral purity – a psychological state that results from viewing the self as clean from a moral standpoint – and thus make an individual feel dirty. We theorize that such feelings of dirtiness decrease the frequency of instrumental networking and, as a result, work performance.
In one study, the researchers asked 306 adults to remember a time when they networked; one group was asked to recall a scenario when their goal was to form those one-sided professional contacts and the other was asked to remember attempting to form a more natural, personal connection with people in their industry. After that, the participants did a word-completion task, in which they were given word fragments like W _ _ H, S H _ _ E R, and S _ _ P — obviously, these puzzles could be filled in with words related to cleanliness, like wash, shower, or soap, but they could just as easily fit neutral words like wish, shaker, and step. The participants who’d been asked to recall the situation where they’d networked in the “selfish” way were about twice as likely to fill those puzzles in with cleansing-related words. Even the memory of networking seems to be enough to call to mind a need for cleanliness.
However: None of this means that networking doesn’t work. In fact, the researchers suggest that your performance might suffer if you don’t do it. In a separate study in the same paper, they asked 165 lawyers from five offices across North America how frequently they networked, and how they felt while they did it. The lawyers who did more professional networking also reported more billable hours, which would seem to translate to higher performance. This study also found that the more powerful the individual was at his firm, the less likely he or she was to report feeling “dirty” about networking. That can be interpreted in two ways: Once all your networking has finally gotten you to the top, maybe you feel better about it. Or, maybe people achieve powerful positions partly because they’re less grossed out by networking.
And the final study in this same paper is too good to leave out: The researchers asked students to think of someone they’d like to know better; one group was told to think of a person they’d like to know better socially, and the other was told to think of a person in a professional context. Those in the “social” group were told to send a message through Facebook; those in the “professional” group were told to send a message through LinkedIn. After the message was sent, the participants took a survey answering all kinds of questions about how they were feeling, though the researchers were only interested in the question about how clean they currently felt. Like the previous studies, the people in the professional networking group reported feeling physically dirtier than those in the personal group.
So: If networking makes you uncomfortable, but it still works, how to get around that? This paper suggests the answer is to reframe the way you think about what you’re doing. If you seek to form personal, mutually beneficial connections rather than the comparatively parasitic kinds, networking may seem more palatable to you. It’s the difference between a friendly chat with colleague at a barbecue and sucking up to a superior at a conference. In other words, it’s all about your approach. It just feels better — “cleaner” — to most of us when social ties form naturally than when they’re solely intended to advance professional goals, Casciaro and colleagues suggest. And while this paper didn’t examine what the other side of networking feels like, it’s probably a safe bet that the people you’re trying to form connections with will appreciate a more genuine approach. In short: Networking is gross.