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January 27, 2015
Does Building a Network Make You Feel Dirty?
Although most of us believe that networking is a necessity for both our personal lives and our careers, it sometimes has negative connotations. It “conjures up images of back-slapping, forced smiles, awkward conversations or brown-nosing.” Because of that, many people shy away from the process — often to their loss.

In a spot-on and desperately needed study, Casciaro, Gino and Kouchaki examine the psychological consequences of building a network.

As I worked my way through their research, I was reminded of related research by Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer. Pfeffer found exactly what my own coaching has revealed: Though people have lots of job-related talent and interpersonal skills, they sometimes wind up in a position with little power and opportunity. Why? They are unwilling or unable to play the power game. As the study above shows, they view it as a dirty, moral issue that they don’t want to deal with.

It’s not all dirty.
In an illuminating analysis, the study distinguished between what I’ll call “clean” and "dirty" networking. Clean networking is that which comes about as a result of the pursuit of friendship or emotional support and emerges spontaneously. You’re sitting in the coffee shop and next to you is a person that you find conversationally and emotionally engaging. Toward the end of the conversation, either you or she suggests meeting for coffee again. You both agree and over time begin to build a warm, supportive friendship. It was just spontaneous.

On other occasions, you build a network with a neighbor in a cubicle or on a team because the “chemistry” just feels right. You share similar values and work on similar projects and it’s a fruitful and productive work relationship. Or, as sometimes happens, your boss suggests a beneficial relationship between you and another person, even sets it up, and you find it to be a useful, helpful, growing relationship. In sum, many social ties emerge spontaneously. The people involved work in the same organization or hang out in the same social circle.

Dirty networking
Instrumental networking is not like personal networking in pursuit of friendship or emotional support. It’s also unlike those social ties that emerge spontaneously. Instrumental networking emphasizes your personal and active role in shaping your career and opportunities. Situations where a person intentionally and purposefully sets out to create relationships — and gain personal benefits — are viewed by many as “dirty.” “Just do good work,” they’ll say, “and you’ll get your rewards."

Yet systematic research rejects the “hard work rewards” approach. Instead, it’s rather clear that instrumental networking in pursuit of personal and professional goals can increase a person’s exposure and personal learning. And that is liable to enhance their understanding of organizational practices, promote skill development, and also provide greater role clarity. Furthermore, and this is highly significant, research has documented that instrumental networking is absolutely essential to individuals’ career success. Instrumental networking has profound potential consequences for the individual. To be specific, it makes for better opportunities, faster promotions, and increased salaries. But that approach for many is plainly “dirty” or morally unclean.

Most would see nothing morally unclean or “dirty” in any of those networking situations, but network analysts would argue that many of those participants are in an echo chamber. Those who refuse to be proactive will miss out on the most important career contributions — contributions that are sometimes solely the results of networking.

Power changes morality
The most intriguing finding from the research is that whether a person engages in instrumental networking is heavily dependent on the position in the organization. Powerful people just “don’t feel as morally impure as the powerless.” We’re not certain whether a person brings those attitudes to morality or whether the organization, by its attention and rewarding of some, creates those attitudes. But what is obvious is that these moral distinctions between clean and dirty foster inequality. And much of that inequality is both class and finance-oriented.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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