Professional Networking Makes People Feel Dirty

Francesca Gino and colleagues find that people avoid professional networking—even though it's good for their careers—because it makes them feel physically dirty.
by Carmen Nobel

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.

Career networking can make people feel somewhat noxious about themselves.©

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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Allen
    • Retired
    My life experience has taught me that the people who network well tend to have a stronger salesperson side than people who don't network well. That said, some jobs reward the networker/seller personallity and thus the people who have that skill set tend to self-select into those career fields.
    • Elizabeth
    • Anthropologist, Bates C.
    Curious about the cross-cultural applicability of this research project. West Africans, for instance, would not have a negative cultural association with networking itself, as all that is good in life depends upon maximal social and family connection, but the concept of "corruption" is nevertheless very salient. I would be very curious about comparative follow ups.
    • Bob Littell
    • Chief NetWeaver, NetWeaving International
    Many of the same people who HATE 'networking' because it tends to be too superficial, fake, demeaning, etc., etc., . .have found "NetWeaving" to be fulfilling, energizing, inspiring, genuine, etc., etc.
    NetWeaving is the 'business' version of 'pay it forward' and it's all about reversing traditional 'what's in it for me' networking and helping people learn to listen with the intention of helping someone else. It's not for everyone, but if you genuinely believe in the law of 'reciprocity' and that 'what goes around comes around', this will allow even the most introverted to love doing it.
    • Mike Blumenstock
    • President, Next Level Associates
    Some keys to "clean-feeling" networking: 1) Manage your expectations--I plan to meet X interesting and potentially helpful people. 2) Demonstrate curiosity about those you meet. 3) Adopt the "pay it forward" mindset. 4) "What do you do and how might I help you?" is a great conversation starter. You'll be amazed by what you learn, even if it is not in your space. 5) You'll likely get a similar question back that gives you permission to share your elevator pitch including your needs. If 1-5 are successful, set a plan for follow up.
    • Doug
    • Commanding Officer, USMC
    Fantastic. I admit, I read this article at the exact moment I was skipping a local networking event. I don't know if I feel justified in skipping, but at least I have some information...

    And I do agree some with Mr. Littell; I used to attend this event all the time on behalf of others. Now, when my own interests are the primary factor in my attendance, I rarely attend.
    • Anonymous
    It has been shown that people who rise high in organisations tend to be more psychopathic/sociopathic and hence, by definition, have less empathy and are more focused on themselves - their values are all self-centred. This being the case, your findings make perfect sense - you wouldn't expect such people to feel anything negative about themselves.
    • Mike Flanagan
    • Corp Equip Purchasing Mgr
    Not sure why the feeling of "dirtiness" is generated by attending a social networking function. Is it due that we very seldom socialize in person any more, and we are more concerned about getting dirty by rubbing shoulders.

    Look below, yes at the bottom and you can see eight different methods of contacting each other.

    I would much rather take a walk over to another cube, or pick up the phone and call to make contacts. Personal contact to me in networking is prime, you understand and can see the person's emotions and how they are responding.

    Socializing and networking (on the net) seem to be where everyone is trying to outdo the other by seeing how many "likes" or recommendations they have or can get. People recommend others when they don't know what the person really knows.

    Just would like to meet and greet in person. Wanting to just meet someone to say "hi" to in the halls or on the street. Be social and not buried in electronics.
    • MBA Student, Aoyama Gakuin University
    The results of the researches have a consistent conclusion,thus, most people feel dirty after a prearranged networking encounter. I personally find it too artificial to build relationships from a prearranged networking event. Its like i want to draw something out of the relationship. This makes it sort of unnatural and there is a feeling of some uneasyness. Its not a natural network.However,it seems prearranged networking is a necessary evil because in the end it has some benefits. The feeling of dirtyness can naturally disappear leaving one in a strong beneficial network.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, none
    I think the author has temporarily forgotten the diversity of human beings, all 6 billion of us are slightly different. So how can anyone belief that there can be a consistent and predictable reaction to any 'technique' of personal relations?
    • J Knight
    • Principal, TNC
    The key is to remove yourself and your personal agenda from the forefront of the network engagement....see the people, find the value in the person, not what company they represent or the potential value of knowing them....then you will not be fatigued by the activity of conversing with them, rather you will be energized, realizing each person in the room has a common element with you....and they each have worth.
    • Bill Flynn
    • CEO, Paeon Partners
    Our coaching practice is primarily focusing on two things: power and fear. A person with more power is usually less fearful in a connection with persons of lower power.

    These are probably the two most important issues facing our clients and prospects today. Networking can be a very powerful tool to someone seeking support to make a change in their lives, yet many if not most, are loathe to engage in it.

    Our position is that the focus and intent need to come from a more distant perspective than most tend to approach it. We maintain that if a person considers their present life and the relationships in it that have business components there is one overarching element few seem to realize.

    Whether aI am thinking of clients or co-workers, there is a good chance that I like most of them and they like me. Further, the ones that are more difficult are most often the ones I like the least. This seems to be true for our clients as well. This is a perfect way to re-think networking.

    If I show up at a networking event with the attitude that I want to find someone I can make a connection with, be they higher or lower on the power scale, I will have a way to enjoy the event. I will also not have the feeling that I'm being "slimed" to use a Ghostbusters reference.

    Further, instead of having a conversation about making a sale or getting a promotion or a new position I am merely looking to find someone I connect with on a human level. Then we can plan to meet later for coffee or a meal or a facilities tour or whatever makes sense to the two of us.

    This is a highly focused, yet indirect way to getting where I am trying to go, without taking on a judgment that I am manipulating the other person.
    • Bill Doerr, CLU, ChFC
    • CCO (Chief Connection Officer), SellMore Marketing, LLC
    As one who coaches business people in the art and science of business development, I agree that, next to cold calling, business networking ranks a pretty close second.

    As the article indicates, it's a double-edged sword. If you don't do it, your career or business can be compromised. But, if you do it, often less effectively than you like, you will feel discomfort that you may characterize as feeling 'dirty' or 'impure'.

    My approach to enjoying business networking is to remember my mother's advice: "Life is a party. You're the host. It's your duty to make sure everyone leaves with more value than they bring to the party". Her advice worked well for her 42 year career in real estate and it's still serving me quite well in mine, as well.
    • Dul
    Just thinking about networking gives me stomach cramps. Glad I came across this article. All this time I thought this was a handicap I had to deal with. Looks like it's a common ailment - at least in the test group.
    • Nick
    Might negative employment experiences also affect a 'dirty' feeling?

    Look at sites that review workplaces, like, where former employees roll their sleeves up and put their dukes up to not only tell off employers, but also critique the way the company is managed. There seems to be plenty of bitterness associated with negative work experiences.
    • Chris
    Regarding the study of lawyers -- I would be cautious about extrapolating the experience of lawyers to businesses as a whole. Lawyers often dislike networking. They just aren't sales personalities and feel they are doing something wrong by engaging in networking or any kind of marketing, really. Those lawyers who are born networkers often end up leaving the practice of law.

    I am a lawyer and worked for two well-known NY law firms. I left the first firm, joined the second shortly thereafter -- and received business cards that looked identical, down to the font, to my previous cards. Way for the firms to differentiate themselves!
    • Charalambos Vlachoutsicos
    • Adjunct Professor em and Senior Fellow, Athens University of Economics and Business
    My long managerial experience indicates that more often than not, professional networking is useful and beneficial unless, of course, it becomes self-serving and conspirational. Once again, HOW managers do what they do is at least as important as WHAT they do.
    Best regards
    • JTG
    • Consultant
    First of all, I fully agree with the dilemma described by the authors.

    Just to share a very personal experience, I am a typical introverted engineer brought up in a Chinese Confucian-style family. The shyness, nerd mentality and the culture of the group takes precedence are the biggest burdens that one can perhaps carry into networking or 'self-promotion' events. It is always dreadful and tiresome to be part of these social events, even old school mate gatherings can be painful.

    Today, I am keeping myself gainfully occupied as a consultant, where similar to the lawyers described above, I need billable hours. I am doing fine as a problem solver for clients and use my bigger left brain to overcome all of the handicaps described. I still suck at small talks and social events. I can easily disappear into crowds but if someone talks about a topic that I am interested in or I can relate to then I am 'alive'.

    I guess with regards to the authors question on how to overcome the dilemma, perhaps there is a need to play to your 'strength'. I have to agree that it is not the best way to cope but it does get you over the hump. One can be a bit happier and dread such events less if one gets to play to one strength. The wrong thing, in my mind, is to go to such events with a friend or someone you know. With a personality similar to what I described, one will just end up networking with the 'floating aid' that you brought along.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Social networking works to professional advantage if it restricts to business related matters. Once personal and superficial issues crop up for discussion/chatting, the focus is lost.
    The tool is good ih used carefully. Further that, it should not lead to avoidable wastage of time.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    So long as the professional networking is only for professional purposes keeping the time taken to the bare minimum possible, this becomes a useful tool as many issues can be resolved without any avoidable wastage of time. It is better than sending email because repeat emails may result; not so while networking.
    Personal matters of all sorts must never find a place in professional networking.
    • Balaji Pasumarthy
    • ED- BNI Bangalore, BNI
    Good research. This is the reason why it is so important to approach any networking with an attitude to first GIVE. When most in the room are their to GIVE everyone eventually will receive. That is the reason why in BNI the philosophy is "GIVERS GAIN". (BNI(r) is the world's largest business networking, referrals and word of mouth marketing organization.)
    • Niri S Patel
    • National Director, BNI India
    The key here for me is "motive". If you set about networking to gain without contribution or adding value, then you will likely have feelings related to guilt. When you come from a mindset of contribution and service, networking can be an immensely fulfilling experience, and if you believe in the concept that what goes around comes around, eventually it is beneficial. It would be interesting to see a study on how the INTENT of the networker shapes their experience. Great article- just hope it doesn't put people off networking . Like most things, if you do them right, they are rewarding in a win-win way.
    • G Nagaraj
    • Chief Executive Officer, SME OneSource Strategies P Ltd.,
    It is not completely true that Professional Networks will make people feel dirty. But, it depends on the networker and the networking group. Organizations like BNI, professionally conducts networking meetings and an excellent platform for single business owners from few businesses, not all. But the networker spoils the whole game of making other feel dirty. It all depends on "what-is-in-it-for-me?"... Many have varied views about BNI kind of organizations. It is better to protect self interest and image.
    • bowlweevils
    • semi-reclined, organic molecules with trace mineral elements
    Many of these comments, in content and source, appear to be professional networking. Or meta-professional networking: "hey, my business is helping people feel comfortable networking. let me agree with the general thesis of the article, but let me put my own well-practiced spin on it to differentiate myself from everyone else whose basic advice is to look at networking as a chance to give rather than an attempt to get".

    Despite what Chris said about the use of lawyers as examples, the best data probably comes from them. Lawyers might not be representative of most business people, but they are definitely more representative than college students.

    Furthermore, the emphasis was on law partners, not lawyers. Here we get into the territory of Anonymous: those who rise high in organizations also score highly on scales of sociopathy. As an attorney with a PhD in psychology, in my experience, yes, law partners are not pleasant people to be around, and the more important they are, the less pleasant they are.

    Chris, you were given nearly identical business cards at both firms because you are nearly identical to them, and are expected to be as uniformly utilitarian as those business cards. If the business cards arrived with a mistake, they would be returned. If an associate attorney arrives as a mistake, they will be returned.

    Bill Flynn, if you find that you and your co-workers share a mutual liking, you definitely do not work at a law firm. Law partners seem to have a requirement that they be unlikeable as part of the job description. This is because they are supposed to supply perfect products at precise times, and to spend 2500-3000 hours a year doing so, using lower ranked attorneys as their toolbox. It's hard to be likeable when your job sucks up your entire life and you have a callous attitude toward anyone who is not at your level.

    You also have been through the system long enough to become CEO. This means that you are abnormal. Specifically, you like this.

    Bill Doerr, if lawyers may be considered unrepresentative of business people in general due to lack of enthusiasm for sales, real estate agents, successful real estate agents, are unrepresentative for the opposite reason. They love this stuff. They love talking someone into a sale, convincing someone that something they are selling is great, and competing against others to do it first.

    Many people would die of exhaustion if they felt they had to be the host of the party all the time. Many people never want to host a party. Many people don't even want to go.

    This entire comments section, to me, gets things backwards. We have consultants and successful business persons echoing each other about how to turn a "what can you do for me" into a "what can I do for you". But we're really focused on people who are often in a world of being told what to do, and are being asked to get people to tell them to do more things. And the ideal is a win-win where both parties have something to offer, but realistically, almost always, one needs more than the other, or can put off that impression.

    So we have a negative power dynamic. The people in power, even imaginary power, feel just fine about asking for things. The people with less power, even imaginary weakness, feel dirty. And here, we are still in a downward focused perspective: how can we, the people who know better, tell the people without power how they can feel less dirty about having less power and needing to interact with those who have more power.

    But maybe we should consider how people with power can act in a way that makes interaction with them less personally and morally dissatisfying, or even dreadful.

    Maybe the person with power thinks they are projecting a "what can I do for you?" stance when there really is an underlying aggression indicative of an expectation that you will find something for them to do for you. Indirect expression of aggression is something prized in many societies among leaders - compared to direct aggression. We all know that "it's cold in here" can mean "get up and close that window for me", or even "why haven't you already closed that window. You knew I was coming and should have been better prepared."

    And the opposite is true. It is often easy to see that someone in a low power position who is eager to help really needs to help or lose status. They are trying to make it seem as they have something to offer, but they really need that offer to be accepted. They may also know that there are many others who have similar things to offer. Now we are down the path of obsequiousness. "Yes, master, how can I be of service?" or just knowing that the window should be closed before a certain someone comes in the room, and finding a way to signal to that someone that they, personally, were the one who knew that first.

    To put things in economic terms, the higher up you are in an organization, or the more important client you are, the closer you get to being a monopoly or monopsony. It's easy to think of yourself as being magnanimous while the other end of the negotiation has no choice but to accept any deal. And if you don't have differentiable skills at a certain point in your career, you depend on personal characteristics and willingness to be there first and to stay there latest.

    You could almost imagine an organization where the management thinks that they are all great at their jobs and are super toward their employees when what they are are the people who are willing to spend the most time in the building in each others' company at the expense of other relationships and life activities. Almost.
    • Kathy Dodd
    • HR Consultant, Kathy Dodd Consulting
    I have never heard such rubbish in all my life. Networking is essential for career growth, connecting with all kinds of people from all industries and promoting yourself whether it be for your business or your next career step. There is nothing dirty about networking, its business socialising. People need to rethink this perception of dirty networking and get over it. Its the best thing I ever did for my career and has taken me to some of the best HR jobs I have ever had.
    • Kent Vincent
    • Managing Principal, I S & R Services (consulting)
    I sense an air of dry amusement with firmly arched eyebrows on the part of the conductors of this study or rather parcel of studies on attitudes toward networking. I also get the distinct impression that the experimenters are exerting their own personal biases in the way they frame the survey questions and, in effect, put their mental thumbs on the scales of the results they produce so as to verify the way they themselves frame socializing in business settings.
    Yes, I know there will be claims of simply testing a hypothesis, but conducting studies based on pools of clear and objective preliminary empirical evidence is different from simply posing one metaphorical construct: " Ya know, I/we don't think people like to network, 'cause it's, well, scuzzy". Dirty or scuzzy as opposed to boring, unproductive, a risky of bet of invested time, or that there simply isn't enough overlap of interests and specialties among the attendees to be mutually fruitful for a particular subset of attendees who may opt out or cut a visit to an event short.
    Supposing as a technical professional like me who likes to run and also knows something about 'fight or flight' responses, I designed a set of questions with my own set of biases that asked for filling in the blanks: "Networking events make me want to run _____" Choices 1)".. away as far as I can get 2)".. in like a horse into a barn fire 3) "...after people to snare them before they escape my clutches or 4)".. and complete my errands and assignments so I can clear my schedule and run over to relish the event.
    ..and so on. You'd then be reading a report with statistical validation about how networking conjures up feelings of wanting to run, not walk toward or away networking events with psychographic breakdowns of the respondents.
    If you extend the logic of how the experimenters suspect many business people feel about unsavory business activities, then they would surmise that a straight-laced businessman or woman (yes, a few exist) who might get dragged to a sketchy nightclub or bawdy entertainment venue as part of a business outing might crave a sterilization bath afterward. I'm guessing he or she would be more likely to just be rather dismissive of the activity or feel he'd "checked the box" and should get some credit for being a good sport and ask to move on to things of more importance and good taste. Even he wouldn't shrink from drawing on the social business currency he'd built up the night before much as the attendees at a more staid networking event would.