When Maryam Kouchaki, a professor at Kellogg School of Management, first moved to the US from Iran to study for her PhD at the University of Utah, she felt incredibly awkward whenever she tried to network with other academics. “The distance between cultures is so difficult,” she says. Even when she simply wanted to tell someone that she admired their work, she froze up and then afterward, got the urge to wash her face and hands. “I would go to my hotel room and say to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’”
After discussing those uncomfortable feelings with two colleagues, Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School and Tiziana Casciaro at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the three decided to put a study together that tested the way people felt when they did what the professors call “instrumental networking,” where you try to make connections with the purpose of advancing your career, as opposed to personal, spontaneous networking where your goal is to pursue emotional connections and friendship.
What they found: instrumental networking literally makes people feel dirty, so much so that they think about taking a shower or brushing their teeth, the way Professor Kouchaki used to feel. They uncovered one other interesting thing about instrumental networking after running a survey of lawyers at a large North American law firm: People with greater power, in this case senior lawyers, felt less dirty about professional networking than did their junior colleagues. “There was a huge difference between people of different ranks,” says Kouchaki.
She and her colleagues expected these results but they were nevertheless excited about documenting them. Of special interest to Professor Kouchaki, who studies morality and ethics in the department of management and organizations at Kellogg, was how the study revealed networking’s effect on people’s feelings about themselves as moral beings. “When we went in, we had this idea that this professional planned networking isn’t necessarily altruistic, that it might influence people’s sense of moral purity,” she says. The paper proves that theory.
To test their ideas the professors ran four experiments. In the first one, participants started by writing down recollections of times they did either professional or personal networking. Then they filled out word fragments, including W _ _ H, S H _ _ E R, and S _ _ P. Those who had recalled professional networking wrote “wash,” shower” and “soap,” twice as frequently as those who recalled personal networking. They wrote words like “wish,” “shaker” and “step.”
In the second experiment, participants read one of two short stories. The first said they had just moved to New York City and a friend invited them to a big holiday party where they met more than a dozen people who they felt could become their friends, adding most of them to their Facebook friends list. In the second scenario their mentor invited them to a holiday party thrown by their company, where all the important corporate people were attending. They met as many colleagues and executives as they could while talking up their accomplishments, taking down colleagues’ email addresses, and planning to add them as LinkedIn connections.
Afterward the researchers gave the participants a list of products and asked them to rate how desirable they found them on a scale of one to ten. The products included Windex, Dove soap, Crest, Post-it Notes, Nantucket Nectars juice and Sony CD cases. Those who read the story about the professional networking party were far more likely to pick the toothpaste and Windex and those who read about the socializing party picked Post-its and juice.
In the third study, the researchers surveyed members of a 405-lawyer business law firm with five offices around the country, where networking is important both between colleagues in order to get assigned to choice projects, and with potential clients to bring business into the firm. The lawyers filled out forms about the frequency of their networking activities and then a questionnaire where they had to complete the sentence, “when I engage in professional networking, I usually feel. . . ,” followed by the adjectives “dirty, ashamed, inauthentic, uncomfortable,” or words like “happy, excited, anxious, satisfied.” The higher up they were in the law firm hierarchy, the less likely the lawyers were to use the dirty adjectives.
In the fourth study, the researchers told some participants that they had a lowly position in their company, while they told others that they held positions of power. Then some participants chose someone in their network and sent them a message through LinkedIn, where the researchers told them they were supposed to be building professional relationship. Others sent a message through Facebook, instructed that their intention was to nurture a personal relationship. Next the researchers asked participants how dirty they felt on a 7-point scale, with 7 being “extremely dirty.” Those who sent messages on Facebook felt a lot less dirty than the LinkedIn connectors. After sending the messages they also chose between the Windex and the Post-it products. The people who were told they were in low-power positions chose more cleaning products when they sent the LinkedIn messages while the people in power positions didn’t differ all that much in their product choice whether they were sending Facebook or LinkedIn messages.
We all know that networking is the best way to advance our careers, whether it’s getting ahead at work or finding a new job. So what are we to do? Stock up on Windex and Crest? Forbes contributor Amy Morin has written a piece about the study, where she lays out some great advice about how to network without feeling smarmy. To me the most important tip is to approach networking as an opportunity to share something of yourself with the person you approach. Kouchaki needn’t have felt awkward at those academic gatherings because her prime objective was to bestow a compliment on a colleague. She also could have volunteered some information about related research she was doing, or wanted to do, or a paper she’d read that the person could have found interesting, and volunteered to follow up with an email that included a citation.
Of course confidence helps a lot. That’s one reason, I believe, that those senior lawyers don’t feel dirty when they do professional networking. They’re sure that they can offer top-notch legal services and that they’re doing the potential client a favor by touting their work. If you can convince yourself that you have something positive to share, you won’t feel like you need to take a shower after your next networking event.
The paper will be published in an upcoming issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.
This article was written by Susan Adams from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.