Networking becomes a dirty word

MBA students need to view their contacts as people rather than things

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The brains of business school students around the world have been infected with a dirty word: network. They are repeatedly told that their “network” is one of their most important assets. Sometimes they are led to believe that their networks are even more important than their courses.

The problem, I believe, is that the network metaphor carries the wrong connotations. The word encourages business school students to view their so-called network as a group of interconnected things, rather than a group of people. Moreover this focus, or perhaps even tunnel vision, on their network encourages MBA students to behave badly and on occasion rudely.

Individuals naturally speak in metaphors. But although often useful as thinking aids, metaphors can also become thinking traps.

MBA students are told: “It is very important that you grow your network. It will be one of your greatest assets in your career.” Depending on how this advice is interpreted, MBA students may begin to view others as plants or maybe even as a stack of poker chips. Either interpretation is a trap.

Using the metaphor of the plant, many seeds have to be sown and an MBA cohort becomes a kind of garden. Promising plants need to be watered regularly and less promising ones – the weeds – should be discarded. On the other hand, when MBA students view people as poker chips they try to gather as many of these chips as possible. The number of Facebook friends and the number of LinkedIn connections determines the value of an MBA’s network. The person with the largest stack wins.

But people in networks cannot be compared with plants or poker chips, they are people. One does not need to be an emotional genius to know that when people are treated like plants or poker chips they do not appreciate it. Yet many MBAs – so entranced by their network metaphor – appear unaware of this obvious fact.

As a business school professor I come in contact with many MBA students each year. By the chip metric I am in the World Series on LinkedIn, although I have sent fewer than 20 connect requests myself. I receive a lot of requests to connect and then a lot of subsequent requests for other things. Current and former students ask for technical help, for me to connect them with people in a company they would like to work for and so on. That is fine. What is not fine is that I receive thanks for the help I give less than half the time I provide it.

I have asked other professors and also working professionals whether they receive any thanks and most say that too often they do not. A typical scenario runs like this: an individual working in a bank receives an email from an MBA student begging for a coffee chat. They meet and the student gets the advice he or she wants. The banker pays for the coffee and then never hears from the student again.

I hear similar stories from social entrepreneurs, consultants and people working in industry. They are tired of ungrateful MBAs and many have decided to stop responding to requests for help. They do not want to be treated like a network node; they want to be respected for who they are: people.

The antidote to this virus is simple: business school administrators and professors should stop telling students to grow their networks. Instead they should tell them to develop their relationships and to treat people with the respect they deserve. When people feel respected, they like to provide help and support. When they feel manipulated like a tool, they do not.

Immanuel Kant has some great advice that could be applied to MBA students: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”

The author is associate professor of decision sciences, Insead.

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