EMOTIONAL HEALTH
September 16, 2014

Networking's Ick Factor

Self-promotion can leave people feeling dirty. Literally. But it doesn’t have to.

In the age of the Internet, networking has moved to a whole new level. People network socially through sites like Facebook and professionally through sites like LinkedIn.

The kind of self-promotional networking required to make connections for work and advance one's career isn’t always the most pleasant experience for many people. A study has found that it can actually leave people feeling downright “icky” about themselves, and make them reluctant to pursue professional contacts.

Researchers from the University of Toronto, Northwestern and Harvard teamed up to see what sorts of effects networking had on people. They asked people to relive past networking experiences or to engage in new ones.

The professional networkers ended up feeling much dirtier than the social networkers.

In one study, participants were asked to recall a time when they’d either networked purely for professional gain or simply to develop a meaningful relationship with someone in their industry. Then they were asked to fill in the blanks in words like W _ _ H, S H _ _ E R, and S _ _ P, each with multiple possibilities.

Interestingly, the people in the first group who recalled their efforts to promote themselves through networking were much more likely to come up with words like “wash,” “shower,”, and “soap,” than the people in the second group who simply recalled positive work relationships. Which suggests that networking simply for professional gain can actually leave a person feeling dirty.

In another part of the experiment, participants were asked to get out there and actually network through Facebook or LinkedIn. One group was told to think of someone they’d like to know better socially (through Facebook). Those in another to use LinkedIn to find and contact someone they’d like to know better for professional reasons.

When they were later polled as to how the experiences made them feel, the results were similar to the earlier ones: The professional networkers ended up feeling much dirtier than the social networkers.

Why does networking for work feel so burdensome? A third study found that people who are higher up professionally don’t have the same negative associations with work-related networking, compared to people lower on the ladder.

Researcher Tiziana Casciaro, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, believes it may be because there’s something that feels a little selfish about networking professionally when you’re new to it.

In professional settings, “people feel that they cannot justify their actions to themselves, and the lack of justification comes from the difficulty people have in framing some forms of networking as motivated by a concern for other people versus a selfish concern,” she said in a news release.

In other words: Networking seems a little dirty because it feels like we’re out only to better ourselves, rather than offering something to those around us. People higher up in the hierarchy may dislike it less because they believe they have something to offer and that networking is really about forming lasting connections in one’s field — and it benefits many more than just oneself.

The authors suggest that even job hunters seeking their first position think of networking as a two-way street, rather than simply a method to get what they want. For example, if you’re trying to gather new clients, don’t feel like you’re simply out to get their business — remember that you’re, in fact, offering a valuable service or product to them, too. And always keep your own value in mind, says Cascario: “Don't underestimate what you can give.”

The study has been published as a working paper on the Social Science Research Network and is to be published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

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