Careers Jul 30, 2021
Dread Networking? Here’s How to Make It Feel Less Icky.
If you’re avoiding networking opportunities, you’re likely hurting your career. A simple shift in mindset could get you back in the game.
The professional benefits of networking are well-documented. But if the very thought makes you squirm with discomfort, you aren’t alone.
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In a 2014 paper, Maryam Kouchaki found that networking makes people feel morally impure, especially workers lower on the professional food chain who see engaging in networking as selfish. But despite the “ick” factor, failure to network has real consequences for workplace performance: the research showed that lawyers who felt dirty about networking had fewer billable hours than their unbothered counterparts.
The study left Kouchaki, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, with questions: “We wanted to know what determines whether people feel guilty or not, and what we can do to help people get over this discomfort.”
Kouchaki and her coauthors—Francesca Gino of Harvard University and Tiziana Casciaro of the University of Toronto—suspected they might find answers in regulatory focus theory, which posits that people approach their goals with either a promotion focus (thinking about hopes and aspirations and achieving the best possible outcome) or a prevention focus (thinking about duties and obligations and maintaining a state of safety).
While most of us have a natural tendency toward one style or the other, it’s not set in stone; we easily can be nudged to approach a particular situation with either a promotion or a prevention focus despite our typical leanings. We can view networking, for example, through a prevention lens as a professional duty or through a promotion lens as a way of achieving one’s goals.
The researchers suspected that approaching networking with a prevention focus would lead to greater feelings of moral impurity—but that a promotion focus would alleviate the awkwardness and increase people’s tendency to network. And across several studies, that’s exactly what they found: the more promotion-focused people were, the less troubled by networking they felt, and the more likely they were to actually do it.
The research suggests that, for those who loathe happy-hour meetups and employee get-togethers, a change in attitude could be the ticket to a bigger network and more productive career.
Survey Says: A Promotion Focus Makes Networking Less Uncomfortable
To begin, the researchers used an online survey to look at how people’s innate tendency toward promotion- or prevention-focused thinking shaped their feelings about networking.
The 412 survey respondents answered a set of questions designed to assess their levels of promotion and prevention focus. These included “I see myself as someone who is primarily striving to reach my ‘ideal self’” (promotion focus) and “I see myself as someone who is primarily striving to become the self I ‘ought’ to be” (prevention focus).
“Think about networking as an opportunity rather than a burden. That’s the biggest hurdle you need to overcome.”
— Maryam Kouchaki
Next, they were asked to write about a professional-networking experience. Then, participants rated how wrong, unnatural, or impure the experience of networking made them feel.
As the researchers had hypothesized, regulatory focus correlated with people’s reactions to networking. The more promotion-focused respondents were, the less impure they felt about networking; the more prevention-focused they were, the more they experienced that “ick” factor.
A Prevention Focus Makes Networking Seem Like Dirty Work
In another study, the researchers examined how encouraging a promotion or prevention focus might influence people’s responses to networking. They also looked at two different kinds of networking: spontaneous, unintentional networking and intentional, concerted glad-handing.
To control for differences across cultures, they recruited two groups of participants, one in the United States and the other in Italy. The same procedure was used for both groups.
To begin, participants completed a writing task that was designed to put them in either a promotion- or prevention-focused state of mind. The promotion-focused group wrote about a hope or aspiration, while the prevention-focused group wrote about a duty or obligation.
Then, participants read a story in which they were asked to imagine themselves as the protagonist. Half the participants were given a scenario of spontaneous networking; the rest read about a social situation in which they intentionally pursued professional contacts.
Next, participants completed a number of tasks designed to assess their feelings of impurity.
The idea was that any feelings of impurity associated with networking might lead participants to want to cleanse themselves. “If people psychologically feel impure,” Kouchaki explains, “then you should see a consequence in the behaviors they want to engage in. If you feel dirty, you should want to clean yourself.”
In one task, they saw a list of emotions (including “dirty,” “inauthentic,” and “impure”) and were asked to rate how strongly they felt each one after reading the story. In another task, participants completed a fast, fill-in-the-blank word-completion task that included words that could be filled in with terms associated with cleaning, such as “wash” and “shower” (W _ _ H, SH _ _ E R), alongside neutral words such as “book” (B_ _ K).
The researchers found patterns consistent with the surveys they had conducted. Overall, participants who approached networking with a promotion focus felt less impure than those who approached it with a prevention focus.
What’s more, this effect was almost entirely driven by intentional networking—which prompted more feelings of impurity overall, but especially among those with a prevention focus.
Taken together, these results added further evidence that people’s regulatory mindset influences how they feel about the morality of networking: a promotion focus results in fewer feelings of impurity, but a prevention focus has you reaching for the Purell.
Putting Research into Practice
For their final study, the researchers looked at how inducing a promotion- or prevention-focused mindset toward networking would influence real-world behavior.
They recruited 444 working professionals from a variety of professional-services firms in law, accounting, consulting, sales, insurance, and realty for a six-week study. Participants received weekly messages designed to prompt promotion- or prevention-focused attitudes toward networking. The promotion-focused message highlighted how networking can help people live up to their highest aspirations; the prevention-focused message framed networking as an important professional obligation.
At the end of the six weeks, participants completed a survey. In addition to asking how often participants had networked in the last month and how many new contacts they had made, the survey asked about participants’ emotions while engaging in networking. It also included demographic questions and measures of introversion and extroversion.
As in the previous studies, participants in the promotion group reported feeling less morally impure than those in the prevention group. They also reported networking more frequently and adding more new professional contacts—nearly eight on average, compared with 5.5 for participants in the prevention group. Notably, this was true even after controlling for extroversion, a quality that might make some people more natural networkers than others.
Further statistical analysis confirmed that it was the greater feelings of impurity that led people in the prevention group to network less than people in the promotion group. In other words, if you can shake off the dirty feeling, you’re more likely to shake new hands.
Washing Your Hands of Networking Discomfort
Kouchaki says the research offers a simple way to help reluctant networkers overcome their discomfort.
“Think about networking as an opportunity rather than a burden,” she advises. “That’s the biggest hurdle you need to overcome.” The more you view networking through that promotion-focused lens, the easier it will feel, and the more likely you’ll be to actually do it.
It can also help to remind yourself that networking isn’t just selfish. “Think about how you’re benefiting others,” she says. By expanding your own professional network, you may be able to help employees or colleagues find their next opportunities.
It’s something Kouchaki has to remind herself too. “Anytime I’m feeling awkward about an interaction at a conference or a meeting over Zoom, I remind myself why I’m doing this,” she says. “And the reason is, it’s a learning opportunity.”
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Gino, F., Maryam Kouchaki, and T Casciaro. 2020. “Why Connect? Moral Consequences of Networking with a Promotion or Prevention Focus.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 119(6): 1221–1238.
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