13 May 2014  Working Papers

The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty

Executive Summary — Network ties are essential to advancement in organizations: they provide access to opportunities, political insight, and technical knowledge. Yet networking with the goal of advancement often leaves individuals feeling somehow bad about themselves—even dirty. The authors use field and laboratory data to examine how goal-oriented or instrumental networking influences individual emotions, attitudes, and outcomes, including consequences for an individual's morality. The authors argue that networking for professional goals can impinge on an individual's moral purity—a psychological state that results from a person's view of the self as clean from a moral standpoint and through which a person feels virtuous—and thus make him or her feel dirty. There are three main insights: First, the authors show the importance of a clear conceptual distinction between instrumental networking driven by individual agency versus spontaneous networking reflecting the constraints and opportunities of the social context. Second, the research establishes the relevance of moral psychology for network theory. Third, because people in powerful positions do not experience the morally contaminating effects of instrumental networking, power emerges from this research as yielding unequal access to networking opportunities, thus reinforcing and perpetuating inequality in performance. Key concepts include:

  • Professional-instrumental networking is the purposeful creation of social ties in support of task and professional goals.
  • The content and approach of networking each influence the psychological experience of those engaging in it, including a person's feelings of moral purity.
  • The amount of power people have when they engage in instrumental networking for professional goals influences how dirty such networking can make them feel.
  • Organizations need to create opportunities for emergent forms of networking, because people who need instrumental networking the most are the least likely to do it.


Author Abstract

To create social ties to support their professional or personal goals, people actively engage in instrumental networking. Drawing from moral psychology research, we posit that this intentional behavior has unintended consequences for an individual's morality. 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 make an individual feel dirty. We theorize that such feelings of dirtiness decrease the frequency of instrumental networking and, as a result, work performance. We also examine sources of variability in networking-induced feelings of dirtiness by proposing that the amount of power people have when they engage in instrumental networking influences how dirty this networking makes them feel. Three laboratory experiments and a survey study of lawyers in a large North American law firm provide support for our predictions. We call for a new direction in network research that investigates how network-related behaviors associated with building social capital influence individuals' psychological experiences and work outcomes.

Paper Information