For many of us, the idea of professional networking conjures unctuous thoughts of pressing the flesh with potential employers, laughing at unfunny jokes, and pretending to enjoy ourselves.
No wonder a recent study found that professional networking makes people feel unclean, so much so that they subconsciously crave cleansing products. The study, titled The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty, appeared in the December 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.
“Even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don't do it”
"Even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don't do it," says Francesca Gino, a professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets unit at Harvard Business School, who coauthored the study with Tiziana Casciaro (Rotman School, University of Toronto) and Maryam Kouchaki (Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.) "From an academic perspective, we thought we could advance the theory of networks by looking at the psychological consequences of networking."
Previous psychology research has shown that people think about morality in terms of cleanliness. A 2006 study found that people felt physically dirtier after recalling past transgressions than after recalling good deeds. The study's authors called it the "Macbeth effect," referring to the Shakespearean scene in which a guilt-racked Lady Macbeth tries to wash imaginary bloodstains off her hands.
Based on their personal schmoozing experiences, Casciaro, Gino, and Kouchaki hypothesized that professional networking increases feelings of inauthenticity and immorality—and therefore feelings of dirtiness—much more so than networking to make friends. (Gino, for instance, recalled colleagues using copious amounts of complimentary hand sanitizer after work-related dinners.)
The team also posited that networking felt ickier when a meeting was planned ahead of time, rather than a spontaneous occurrence. "Oftentimes there is a deliberate attempt to create a link with another person, which is a very proactive behavior," Gino says. "But other times you and another person just happen to be at the same event, and you end up talking to each other and networking. We thought the difference was important because one has more intent than the other—and that intent might contribute to feelings of being selfish."
Putting The Hypotheses To The Test
The researchers conducted a series of experimental and field studies to test the extent to which networking makes people feel dirty.
In the first experiment, 306 participants were asked to recall an event from the past and write about it for five minutes. They were divided into four conditions. In the first condition, participants recalled a time where they intentionally set out to nurture a relationship for professional gain. In the second, they recalled a time when a spontaneous meeting had benefited them professionally. The third and fourth conditions were similar to the first two, but participants were focused on personal gain instead.
Afterward, all the participants were asked to complete a series of word fragments, including SH_ _ER, W_ _ H, and S_ _P. The researchers found that those who had recalled intentional networking were nearly twice as likely to come up with "cleansing" words—"shower," "wash," and "soap"—than those who had recalled spontaneous meetings. (Participants in the spontaneous condition were more likely to create non-cleansing words like "shaker," "with," and "ship.") Moreover, participants in the intentional professional networking scenario tended toward cleansing words more than those in the intentional personal networking scenario.
In the second experiment, held in a university research laboratory, 85 students read one of two short stories. Both were written in the second person. In one, the protagonist ("you") went to a holiday party with hopes of having fun and making friends; in the other, the protagonist attended a company party solely to make business connections. Afterward, the researchers asked participants to read through a list of consumer products and rate each one on a desirability scale of one to seven. The list included several specific cleansing items (such as Dove shower soap, Crest toothpaste, Windex) as well as neutral items (like Post-it Notes, Nantucket Nectars juice, Sony CD cases).
On average, participants who read the professional networking story gave much higher ratings to the cleansing products than those who imagined the friendly party. The neutral products received similar ratings across the board.
The Effect On Job Performance
Having proven their initial hypotheses in the lab, the researchers set up camp at a large North American law firm, where lawyers often garnered business via networking engagements. A law firm is an ideal setting for a field study, Gino explains, because it is designed around quantifiable measures of success: billable hours and a strict hierarchy ranging from junior associates to senior partners.
"We wanted to move away from just the psychological consequences of how people feel when they network, and look at the professional consequences on their performance when they don't," Gino says.
Each of the firm's 406 lawyers received an invitation to complete an online survey that included questions about the frequency of their networking activity, and how it made them feel. For example, "When I engage in professional networking, I usually feel…" was followed by a choice of several adjectives, including "dirty," "happy," "ashamed," "excited," "inauthentic," "anxious," "uncomfortable," and "satisfied."
Of the 165 lawyers responding, 62 were junior partners and 21 senior partners. The researchers measured the responses against each respondent's annual job performance, in terms of billable hours at the firm. As expected, those lawyers who associated networking with negative feelings tended to engage in networking activities with relatively low frequency. Yet networking had a positive association with job performance: The lawyers who networked the most frequently tended to clock the most billable hours, according to the research.
The data also showed that having a high-power job seemed to dissipate feelings of dirtiness. Compared with junior associates, senior partners reported far less feelings of dirtiness associated with networking. That said, the researchers considered the possibility that these particular lawyers had risen to partner level because they hadn't been turned off by networking.
To further suss out the psychological effect of power, the team conducted a carefully constructed role-playing task, in which 149 college students were assigned to the role of either a low-power employee or a high-powered manager. Each participant filled out a leadership questionnaire from the mindset of the prescribed character.
Next, participants were told to reach out to someone in their online networks. Some were told to send notes via LinkedIn with the intention of nurturing a professional relationship, while others were told to nurture a friendship via Facebook. Consequently, participants fell into one of four conditions: professional/low-power, professional/high-power, personal/low-power, or personal/high-power.
After the online networking activity, everyone completed the aforementioned product preference task. They also indicated the extent to which they experienced a variety of emotions on a scale of one to five. The results showed that the low-power participants felt dirtier, and had a higher preference for cleansing products, after professional networking vs. personal networking. But the high-power participants showed a relatively low need to get clean, regardless of whether they had used Facebook or LinkedIn.
Implications And Next Steps
The overall findings pose a paradox: Networking makes low-power employees feel unclean, which understandably makes them not want to network. But if they don't network, they may not become high-power employees—who no longer feel dirty when they network. So short of showering in Listerine, what's a low-power player to do?
“We are looking at the motives people have in their head as they approach networking”
The research team has not yet proven why power makes flesh-pressing more palatable. But Gino notes that powerful people know they can contribute reciprocal value to most professional interactions. Thus, before attending a networking event, it may behoove low-power people to consider something other than a desire to move up the corporate ladder.
"If you focus on what you can offer to the relationship, it might be an important mindset to have, and remove some of those feelings of inauthenticity," Gino says.
In previous research, Gino has studied the effect of framing an idea in terms of promotion ("Do this") vs. prevention ("Don't do that"). Now she, Casciaro, and Kouchaki are studying how to frame networking events in a positive light.
"We are looking at the motives people have in their head as they approach networking," Gino says. "Academic literature talks about promotion versus prevention, two motivational systems that serve different basic needs. In prevention mode, you're thinking about your oughts, duties, and obligations. In promotion mode, you're thinking about growth, advancement, and accomplishments.
"In work in progress," she continues, "we find that using a promotion approach helps people avoid the feelings of dirtiness that can come with professional networking. We are interested in exploring others ways in which such feelings can be reduced or eliminated, given the benefits networking has on people's development, performance, and career."