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That awkward feeling: professional networking can give people a sense of 'moral impurity' © FT

Networking is one of the most important aspects of any MBA programme. The contacts made at business school often last a lifetime and can be crucial in career progression. But while personal networking – friendships developed in the classroom or on the tennis court, for example – give emotional support and happiness, the same cannot always be said for the professional version.

Schmoozing over a glass of warm white wine and a handful of salted nuts with strangers, in pursuit of professional connections that may or may not provide opportunities or benefits, can actually make an individual “feel dirty”, say a trio of academics.

Tiziana Casciaro, an associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, with co-authors Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Maryam Kouchaki at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has looked at the psychological impact on individuals of professional networking.

Why can professional networking make you feel dirty?

Networking that is intentional (professional networking) is harder to justify to yourself, says Prof Casciaro. This is because it is about career self-interest rather than making friends. As a result networking for purely personal gain can make an individual feel tainted and awkward, says Prof Casciaro and individuals can experience what she describes as a feeling of “moral impurity”.

Professional relationships that are motivated by self-interest are more “arduous to justify to oneself morally than personal ties”, she says.

Why does this matter?

This sensation of moral impurity can prevent people from networking further, adds Prof Casciaro.

When faced with a professional networking event, for example, people may feel so awkward at the prospect that they refuse the invitation “because they simply cannot face it”.

Such feelings deter them from further networking, which in turn can negatively affect their job performance and so reduce career opportunities, says Prof Casciaro.

“[These feelings] really have an impact on someone’s career. Networking is better for people’s development and advancement, this is how you learn the job, acquire knowledge and opportunities. It is important,” she says.

How did the academics uncover this?

As well as conducting several laboratory experiments, the trio also surveyed a large North American law firm. The lawyers networked professionally both as a means of gaining work from their colleagues and also to secure clients.

As part of their research the academics asked the lawyers to complete the sentence: “When I engage in professional networking I usually feel . . .” followed by a series of adjectives including dirty, ashamed, inauthentic, uncomfortable, as well as happy, excited, anxious and satisfied. Negative feelings of shame were mentioned frequently, says Prof Casciaro.

The three academics also discovered that for those individuals who reported feeling sullied by professional networking, this reaction subsequently translated into poor work performance.

How can you overcome these feelings?

Professional networking is all about how you approach it, says Prof Casciaro. “If you keep an open mind and see it as an exchange of knowledge it becomes a much less selfish exercise.”

If individuals are more “other oriented” and have a genuine sense of curiosity about the person they are talking to, this will make the networking far more successful, she adds.

“It will help you feel better in the process because you are not driven by your own selfish goals.”

The research, “The contaminating effects of building instrumental ties”, will appear in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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