November 03, 2014 Asked and Answered

How to network without feeling slimy (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Lawyers are often told how important professional networking is. But many find it so uncomfortable they feel physically dirty. Why is professional networking so distressing to so many? And how can you overcome it and be successful?

In this month’s Asked and Answered podcast, we speak to Tiziana Casciaro, one of the authors of a recent study, “The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly. She shares with moderator Stephanie Francis Ward some tips for getting past this mental block, and how to feel better about reaching out to potential clients and colleagues.

Do you have networking tales to tell? Share your experiences, good and bad in the answers to this Question of the Week: “Do you enjoy networking? Or does it make you feel slimy?

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Ward: Love the idea of meeting new business contacts, but feel uncomfortable taking the steps to do it? You’re not alone. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. And on today’s Asked and Answered, I’m talking and speaking with Tiziana Casciaro, a University of Toronto professor. She and two other professors conducted a series of studies on professional networking. As they explain in the recently published article in Administrative Science Quarterly, their studies found that networking makes many people feel dirty. Professor, why do you think networking is such an uncomfortable experience for so many professionals?

Tiziana Casciaro: It’s not actually types of networking; it’s certain specific kinds make people feel particularly bad. And by bad, we mean not just that they don’t like it, it means that they feel morally contaminated, almost impure, to the point that they feel dirty physically and wish to cleanse themselves, meaning taking a shower. It’s at that level of visceral reaction that we are discovering. But certain kinds of networking do that much more than others, so that the type of networking that people feel worse about is professional networking, so networking that you do to enhance your career and your professional life, and that is also intentional. Not just this continuous serendipitous networking that you might encounter as you go along your day, without any premeditation, so to speak, but the networking that you do by way of planning and calculating. That combination of professional and intentional is what makes people feel the worst.

Stephanie Ward: That’s interesting. So I want to make sure I understand this correctly. Say you meet someone who might be able to help you in a professional setting at the gym that probably wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable, per se. If you were planning to go to a cocktail reception for say a bar event, that might make you uncomfortable? Is that what your research – or more uncomfortable, is that what the research found?

Tiziana Casciaro: That is exactly right. The spontaneously occurring networking opportunities make you feel less bad, than the ones that you try to pursue with a premeditated plan in a sense. That’s also true that, you know, the professional content, the networking that you do to enhance your career makes you feel worse than networking that is more social. Trying to make new friends doesn’t make you feel nearly as bad as trying to build professional contacts. There’s a reason for it.

Stephanie Ward: So do you think – does your research show, say that you are going to a bar event specifically for work and you tell yourself on the way there: okay, I’m going to this. I’m going to see if I can meet some interesting people, chat some people up, and just see what happens. Are you probably going to be more comfortable and ergo do better than if you say: I’m going to this networking event. I must network?

Tiziana Casciaro: Yes. We found, not necessarily in this particular article you mentioned, but in other related research that one big predictor of how dirty people feel in the process of networking has to do with how they approach it, exactly the way you described it. So people that network for the pursuit of the possibilities, with a kind of learning orientation, with a joy of the potential, feel much better about it than people that network because they feel that they have to, that it’s part of the job, it’s almost an obligation that they have to live up to. That kind of duty driven networking feels much worse to people.

Stephanie Ward: So just to draw on like an old 1970s cliché: stop and smell the roses, when you go to these events, as opposed to just go there on a laser driven path is what it sounds like to me.

Tiziana Casciaro: Exactly. It’s the open mindedness of going to this event. And just be willing to explore, willing to learn, be curious without any specific intent is a lot easier, much more palatable than the premeditated type that’s gonna zero in on a specific person because they’re powerful, because they have resources.

Stephanie Ward: I was curious too, in terms of people’s reluctance to go these networking events to help their careers, does that tie in with many people’s reluctance to ask of things? So if you have something to give, you might enjoy yourself more and appear more comfortable and be better at making connections at networking events?

Tiziana Casciaro: Absolutely. That has a lot to do with it. In general, people feel that any action that they undertake, because they’re motivated by concern for others, is a lot more morally acceptable than actions that you take out of your selfish concerns, that’s a fundamental reason why networking can feel sometimes so uncomfortable. It’s because many people approach it with a selfish attitude. And it’s very difficult for them to construe professional networking as altruistically driven. But if the way you described, somebody goes to an event or talks to somebody with the idea that resources can come back and forth.

It’s a two-way street. You also may have something to offer. You approach the relationship with this kind of giving mentality, or mutual support mentality, automatically your sense of immorality as you engage in it will subside. You feel much more clean from a moral standpoint when you also have something to give.

Stephanie Ward: Professor, do you have thoughts on for someone who feels like they don’t have something to give, or very much to give, and I personally don’t believe that’s true, I think, everyone has something to give, but say you feel that way, how can – do you have thoughts – I’m thinking about: all right, what do I have to give for this event? When can I share what’s interesting? Do you have tips on how to get yourself in that place?

Tiziana Casciaro: Yes, absolutely. Well, first of all, I should premise that networking doesn’t only occur at networking events. Networking in many ways is a way of life. It’s what you do when you encounter human beings in your life in general, so it’s a general process in which you build and nurture social relationships. So people that are very uncomfortable with their networking event per se, it’s gonna be this party, the gathering that is intended to have that kind of process, can also kind of extricate themselves from those and conceive of networking as building one-on-one relationships that are more perhaps meaningful to them because they’re a little bit deeper.

So that’s one thing to think about. But even in the general networking event, you’re right, people tend to feel a bit narrow in thinking of what they can offer in a relationship. We tend to – especially in a professional context, we tend to think that: if I can’t enhance the person’s career, give them, you know, financial resources, give them opportunities for work, I have nothing to give. That’s completely inaccurate. People are interested and eager to be helped in many other ways. So you can think about resources in terms of information.

It could be that for example, a very junior person, just because they belonged to a different generation than the senior person, just because they hang out in different circles than the senior person, may know something about current trends, social groups, types of people, types of opportunities that somebody else that may be more senior, more powerful, may just not know about. So you may have that kind of input. People are also always eager to receive recognition and gratitude.

One thing that young, more inexperienced mentees rarely do is to understand that the person, who helps and supports them also wants to feel good about himself or herself. And allowing them to be recognized and receiving some thankfulness is also a resource. And then, you know, the less powerful person, the less senior person, can simply have a different innovative way to think about how to perform the work because they come out of a different training and different background, and they just approach the work differently.

So anything that feeds into goals that a senior person has, whether it’s personal goals, self esteem goals, advancement goals, how to perform the work, everything applies as something you can offer. So you have to be open minded and broad in the way you think about what I can do to help.

Stephanie Ward: We are going to take a short break to here from our sponsor. When we come back, we’ll hear about lawyers approach networking differently than other professions.

Advertiser: This ABA Journal Podcast is brought to you by WestlawNext. Folder sharing on WestlawNext enables you to tap into previous research across organizational boundaries like never before. Saving you time from reinventing the wheel. Learn more at westlawnext.com.

Stephanie Ward: Welcome back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. And we’re continuing our conversation with Tiziana Casciaro, a professor who recently worked on a study about why people feel dirty networking and how to avoid it. Professor, do you find differences among lawyers and their networking than other professions?

Tiziana Casciaro: We investigated lawyers and couldn’t really compare them with other professions because all the other data we had were from samples of people that work in a whole variety of different environments that we didn’t have specific data about. So we can’t draw sharp comparisons, but what we can say is that the lawyers we studied displayed the same level of discomfort that we saw in the experimental laboratory studies that we ran in addition to this study of the small firm. So there were similarities in terms of how people think about approaching social relationships in the more altruistic, more selfish manner.

What we found specifically about lawyers, is that the way in which a person networking has to do with how frequently they engage in networking, which in turn has consequences for their performance. So specifically, we found that lawyers who feel dirtier in networking – and by dirty, we mean exactly like that. We asked these lawyers how they felt when they engage in professional networking, and we gave them all kinds of options, so that we were asking about positive emotions, including excitement, happiness, and negative emotions like boredom, or anxiety, or stress.

And in addition to those, we also asked them about how they felt in terms of being ashamed, or dirty, or uncomfortable. What we found is that this specific sense of shame and dirtiness, decreases how often with lawyers engaged in networking for professional purposes, which in turn is negatively related to their billable hours, which is a standard measure of performance in this environment. So it’s quite revealing to show that it was negative association.

Stephanie Ward: That is interesting. Now, your study also found that professional who had higher positions, tended to be more comfortable with networking, correct?

Tiziana Casciaro: That’s absolutely correct. We found that more senior lawyers, and in here we had the classic, you know, hierarchy going from the junior associate all the way to partner and equity partner, and we found that the more senior lawyers felt much more comfortable with networking. They didn’t experience this dirtiness as much as a junior ones. There are two reasons why that may be happening. One is that much research shows that powerful people tend to objectify less powerful people, and therefore may have less trouble treating that instrumentally. The other more positive interpretation of this finding is that more powerful people have more to give.

They have more resources by definition, so when they approach a relationship, they know that even if they get some advantage from the relationship, they also can reciprocate, and that can make them feel less uncomfortable with the process.

Stephanie Ward: Do you think that there is this perception from people with less power, they think that someone who, you know, is a very important person in their field, it might be offensive to approach them and ask them for something, or try to chat with them? But I wonder if in reality someone who has a certain level of success in his or her career expects people to come up and introduce themselves and want to meet, I mean, maybe they even enjoy it to a certain extent?

Tiziana Casciaro: Well, people enjoy attention; people enjoy flattery, so there is a component of satisfaction in seeing that people seek you out and want to talk to you. So I think that’s true, we shouldn’t underestimate that. It’s also true that approaching more powerful people, just with the objective of extracting a benefit from them, is not particularly productive in the long run because people see through this more exploitative attitude. So even when you go up and chat with folks that have more seniority and have something to give to you, even in this case, you have to approach with the idea that you’re also trying to be helpful back.

And this goes back to our conversation about what kind of resources, what kind of input is valuable to the senior people, is something you have to really keep in mind, as opposed to going as a leach that just attaches itself on these folks, and they kind of suck blood out of them. Well, you know, you cannot build any relationship with that logic, if you want it to be lasting and mutually productive.

Stephanie Ward: I know a couple of years ago I was reading something about events in Los Angeles. And the person said they felt like when he was in a networking event and was talking to someone, the person they were talking to always felt – he felt like that person he was talking to was always looking over his shoulder to see if there someone more important in the room that they should be talking to.

Tiziana Casciaro: Yes.

Stephanie Ward: And I think that s a big no, personally.

Tiziana Casciaro: That’s a big no. That’s a big no. I mean, there should be some level of authenticity in these relationships. And if you approach any networking opportunity with this exploitative perspective, when you go and you suck the brain out of people, or whatever it is you can suck out of them, it’s really not the way to go. It may work in the short term, you may get in fact some advantages, which may reinforce this idea that you can go out and do this kind of, you know, leach job on people. But it’s really dangerous, and it’s also dangerous for you because it turns out that you feel morally tainted when you do that.

It’s kind of interesting when your body is telling you something. It’s telling you that what you’re engaging in is nasty and yucky. It’s a physical reaction that really stems from your moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. And being purely exploitative of others is something that most people, though not all, tend to be uncomfortable with.

Stephanie Ward: All right. Well, professor, that’s everything I have for you. This has been a very interesting conversation. Did you want to add anything else?

Tiziana Casciaro: I think you did a very good job covering the basics, so I think we’re probably good.

Stephanie Ward: Well, thank you. It was great chatting with you, and I think we can walk away with the idea that chatting and enjoying it could be a big key for professional networking success.

Tiziana Casciaro: No question about it. This conversation didn’t feel dirty at all.

Stephanie Ward: Okay. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Tiziana Casciaro: Thank you Stephanie.

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[End of Transcript]

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Tiziana Casciaro is an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Her work focuses on the social-psychological mechanisms responsible for the formation and growth of social networks within and between organizations. She’s also a co-author of a recent Administrative Science Quarterly article, “The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty.”