Researchers at the University of Toronto, Harvard and Northwestern ran experiments in labs and surveyed lawyers at a large U.S. firm. People were asked to either recount past networking experiences or imagine themselves in certain scenarios. They were also given tasks, like word completions, or told to choose adjectives or products from a list to describe their experience.
They found that people associated calculated, professional networking with the need for cleaning supplies, or with adjectives like "dirty." But people didn't feel that way about spontaneous, social networking.
One explanation: professional networking is often perceived being inherently selfish, rather than something that benefits others, said study author Tiziana Casciaro, an associate professor at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.
Think of actively pursuing new friends or spontaneously meeting new people; then think of actively pursuing potential new clients. "That is harder to conceive as altruistically-driven," Casciaro said.
In recent years, there has been "strong evidence" that thoughts of moral impurity actually translate into physical reactions, Casciaro said. For instance, people who commit unethical acts have an urge to cleanse themselves.
The negative attitudes people express toward networking actually prompted researchers to study the psychology behind it.
"When you teach about networks -- what they can help you do -- this stuff comes up. Oh, this nasty business of having to go out there and build relationships and checking people out. It feels awkward and uncomfortable," Casciaro said. "Not everyone feels that way, but obviously many do."
Researchers also found that people with more power -- such as the more senior lawyers they surveyed -- don't tend to feel as dirty about networking. That could be because they either don't care as much about the people on the other end of the exchange, or because they feel like they have something to offer, which makes the interaction seem less selfish, Casciaro said.
Powerful people are more comfortable with networking, which helps bolster their position of power. But people who actually need to network to climb the career ladder are the ones who feel dirty about the process.
Casciaro said that rethinking why you network can alleviate those uncomfortable feelings of dirtiness.
Networking for a new client? Well, it can feel altruistic if you believe in your company's mission, or connect it to how the extra business will help your coworkers. It also helps to look at networking as a learning opportunity and a chance to offer something to the other person, Casciaro added.
"Then this whole moral impurity issue becomes much less important because it's a constructive exercise," she said.
The team is working on another study that delves deeper into how people's attitudes toward networking can influence whether or not they experience that feeling of dirtiness. "The people who do it because they feel like they have to -- they don't like it but do it anyway -- are the ones who feel dirtier," Casciaro said. "The people who do it because of the excitement and possibility -- they do it because there's something potentially positive coming out of it -- they don't feel as dirty."
And that could be good news.
"The attitude you have toward something is much more under your control," she added.