19/02/2015 07:38 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 06:59 BST

Feeling Dirty? Networking Could be to Blame

If we feel that we are engaging with people on a level basis, because we can or want to help them or for purely social reasons, there are no issues. But as soon as we have a desired outcome, we start to feel uncomfortable.

Does networking make you feel dirty? A new study suggests so...

Do you feel the compelling urge to jump into a bath or shower as soon as you leave a business networking event?

Perhaps you even struggle to resist the temptation to scrub yourself down with carbolic soap and brush your teeth while you're in mid conversation?

If you do, fear not. According to a series of recent studies published in Administrative Science Quarterly, you are not alone. The studies explored attitudes to different types of networking, how those networking activities impacted on the participants' feelings of cleanliness (which the authors link to feelings of moral purity) and in turn, how those feelings then drove the level of networking activity.

The authors aimed to prove a number of hypotheses, including:

- People are more likely to feel dirty and experience a need for cleanliness when engaged in professional (or 'instrumental') networking than when engaged in spontaneous conversations or building personal relationships.

- Because those people feel dirty when engaging in professional networking, they participate in such activities less frequently.

- The amount of networking an individual engages in directly impacts their job performance. The stronger their networks, the better they perform.

- More powerful people experience fewer feelings of 'dirtiness' from networking and therefore, network more frequently.

This is a fascinating paper. It doesn't tell me anything that particularly surprises me but we can take a lot from it in terms of how we approach networking and also how it is encouraged and embraced within organisations.

One of the clearest conclusions by the authors is that people attach moral judgements to their interactions with other people. If we feel that we are engaging with people on a level basis, because we can or want to help them or for purely social reasons, there are no issues. But as soon as we have a desired outcome, we start to feel uncomfortable.

According to the paper, "Instrumental networking clearly has a selfish intent, because the person initiating the relationship is doing so to obtain certain benefits. Because this intent is clear to the initiator, but perhaps not to the other person, the initiator may feel guilty about this form of deception.

"To the extent that professional relationships are motivated by self-interest more than altruism, they are more arduous to justify to oneself morally than personal ties."

The typical networking event that makes many people feel uncomfortable does so because people are circling around to see what they can get and who can be of most use to them. This is not a natural or comfortable feeling for many of us and, in the study's terms, is morally dubious.

Many people recognise this and swing fully in the other direction, approaching people they haven't met before and asking how they can help them. I would argue that this isn't natural either and can be, in fact, uncomfortable for the person being asked. If the two parties haven't forged a relationship, that altruism feels false.

In the study, the authors state that, "benefiting others is not sufficient to establish the moral worth of an action; the action has to be motivated by altruism rather than selfishness to be morally pure."

If we can start to see networking events as social/personal networking rather than professional/instrumental networking, then the dynamic will surely change. Go to events with the goal of building your network, not to gaining a foot on the ladder or new client. Understand the power of developing a string of mutually beneficial relationships, people who you can and want to help and who can and want to help you too.

Yet wanting to help other people in your network isn't enough, as the study shows that people with 'low power' may feel that they aren't in a position to support their networks.

One of the main reasons the authors offer for people in power feeling less dirty when networking is that they have more to give. They explain, "Powerful people by definition have more to give and are less dependent on others than less-powerful people.

"As a result, the powerful are more likely to reciprocate help, favours, or support, and their networking tends to yield more balanced relationships, with the powerful potentially giving as much as or more than they take from others."

'Low power' people can overcome this challenge by first recognising this and then addressing it. You might lack expertise, experience and contacts but a useful exercise is to list what you do have to offer; whether it is time, support, the ability to champion a project or the commitment to help others as others have helped you.

The inability to benefit directly shouldn't necessarily prevent you from networking openly. In my experience a willingness to help and a hunger to give back far outweigh the ability to do so that is untapped.

This study can also help us when we interact with intermediaries and champions who refer us business. Many people find it very uncomfortable asking for help or referrals because they struggle to see what they can give back or it just doesn't feel right asking for a commission. Perhaps this is because their approach is too 'instrumental' rather than 'social'.

Build the relationship with potential supporters first. Take the time to get to know them and their needs before worrying about what you need to ask them for. Once that 'social relationship' is in place, the act of leveraging your network and asking for help should be so much more comfortable and feel less dirty.

There are strong lessons for organisations as well as individuals in this study as well. Networking needs to be encouraged across an organisation, particularly at the less senior levels where it's not as likely to be embraced.

The study's authors state that, "networking within organizational boundaries (internal networking) or beyond them (external networking) can increase members' exposure and personal learning, which may in turn enhance their understanding of organizational practices, promote skill development, and provide role clarity. Moreover, research has documented that networking behaviors are essential to individuals' career success."

For networking to be embraced at all levels, however, the focus needs to be shifted from a short-term, goals driven approach to long-term relationship building. Both inside and outside the organisation. Membership and participation in internal networks should be key, as should time outside the office in non-transactional meetings.

For companies who operate on a billable-hours basis, such as the law firm featured in the study, this may involve a major culture-shift. But this study demonstrates the importance of that shift and emphasises the value in changing the way we look at networking and the way we approach it.

'Networking' has been a dirty word for too long. Now we know why and how to change it.

Thanks to Andrea James (@Decisions_Made_) for sharing this study with me on Twitter