Dear Negotiation Coach: Taking the Shame Out of Networking

By — on / Negotiation Training


I manage a team of consultants who engage in negotiations. We often discuss the importance of networking to create new negotiating opportunities, but I rarely see them following through. Any advice on how to help them overcome their reluctance to network?


The reticence you’ve encountered when trying to sell your team members on the benefits of networking doesn’t surprise me. Students in my MBA classes as well as members of organizations I’ve met over the years in a wide range of industries often have complained to me about the burden of having to network. Networking leaves them feeling uncomfortable and even manipulative. But why should people feel ashamed about engaging in such a potentially rewarding practice?

My colleagues Tiziana Casciaro (the University of Toronto), Maryam Kouchaki (Northwestern University), and I recently examined this question in a series of studies. We presented participants with different networking opportunities and then asked them to describe how they felt when they engaged in them. We distinguished among different kinds of networking: not only personal versus professional but also spontaneous networking that arises from repeat contact and good feeling (such as conversations with colleagues you run into at the office) versus instrumental networking, which we pursue with the specific intention of benefiting ourselves (such as introducing yourself to others at a professional conference).

Our results showed that engaging in networking can make people feel inauthentic and even “dirty.” Among the various types of networking we studied, instrumental networking led people to experience strong feelings of inauthenticity and dirtiness. It also discouraged them the most from engaging in networking. Stated more simply, we tend to view an attempt to form instrumental ties as an attempt to use others, an enterprise that leads to moral queasiness.

I recommend explaining to your team members that the negative feelings they associate with networking are common. Feeling dirty, inauthentic, or ashamed after instrumental networking does not mean they are “doing it wrong” or not taking potential negotiating opportunities seriously; rather, their reticence may simply indicate that behaving in a calculated, self-interested manner does not come naturally to them.

The results of another of our experiments leads to a second prescription. We asked 165 lawyers from five offices of a North American law firm how frequently they networked and how they felt while they did it. The lawyers who did more professional networking reported more billable hours, which would seem to indicate higher performance. We also found that more-powerful lawyers were less likely than their colleagues to report that networking made them feel dirty. Because more-senior employees have greater opportunities to help others by networking, their networking tends to be less self-interested, which may explain why they are more comfortable with it.

These findings suggest that you may be able to help your team members overcome their tendency to feel sullied by networking by encouraging them to reframe the goals they associate with networking. Specifically, urge them to focus on what they can do to help the other individual, even if their own power is relatively limited. By striving to form personal, mutually beneficial connections rather than parasitic ones, your team members should feel more comfortable about networking. Their efforts may not create new negotiating opportunities right off the bat, but there is much they can gain from feeling proud and authentic, rather than dirty and fake, about networking.

Francesca Gino
Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)

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