Networking is gross. It is also, sadly, necessary. In a piece published in the May issue of Harvard Business Review, a trio of organizational psychologists write that the people who hate networking tend to hate it for the same reasons. “They tell us that networking makes them feel uncomfortable and phony — even dirty,” they write. “Although some people have a natural passion for it — namely, the extroverts who love and thrive on social interaction — many understandably see it as brown-nosing, exploitative, and inauthentic.” Put another way, it makes people feel uncomfortable because it can feel one-sided and vaguely transactional, their research has found.
In their piece, however, they suggest a number of ways to make networking a tiny bit less awful, and their advice can pretty much be summarized in one sentence: Stop making this about you.
Instead of going in with a focus on what you, personally, can get out of a networking event, the researchers — including Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino — suggest taking a wider view. They write:
In the law firm we studied, we found that attorneys who focused on the collective benefits of making connections (“support my firm” and “help my clients”) rather than on personal ones (“support or help my career”) felt more authentic and less dirty while networking, were more likely to network, and had more billable hours as a result.
Or you could — imagine this — try taking the focus off yourself entirely, instead placing it on the other people with you at the event. Research by Gino and the rest has suggested that when people focus on how they can help others — instead of how others can help them — networking suddenly seems a little less awful. “When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them,” they write, “networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless — and therefore more worthy of your time.”
I would also add the small but necessary reminder that people at networking events are just people! And beyond that, they are people in your line of work, which means you automatically have at least one thing in common with them. Chances are, they will happily complain with you about the things in your industry that you most like to complain about, and they will understand the smaller joys your work can bring, too. Anyway, if all else fails, remember this: If most people that Gino and her colleagues have studied feel weird about networking, then most people at any given networking event will be feeling just as weird as you are. We’re all in this excruciating awkwardness together.