Why Networking Feels Gross and Why You Should Do It Anyway

Professional networking can leave a bad taste in your mouth. But it doesn't have to.
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  • There are many benefits to networking.
  • But it often compromises our psychological sense of moral purity.
  • Using people for personal gain feels gross.
  • Luckily, there are ways to network with a clean conscience.

Does professional networking make you feel...dirty?

If so, you aren't alone. A team of psychologists explored the science behind this near-universal experience in a paper called: "The Contaminating Effects of Building Instrumental Ties: How Networking Can Make Us Feel Dirty."

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Ready to Start Your Journey?

They found that not only does networking feel gross, but when a behavior makes us feel yucky, we do it less often. And that's a problem, because the paper also explains that professional networking has massive, proven upsides:

  • It increases personal learning.
  • It enhances understanding of organizational practices.
  • It promotes skill development.
  • It provides role clarity.
  • It improves performance, evaluation, compensation, and promotion chances.
  • It has broad positive consequences for both individual and organizational outcomes.

The Weird Morality of Networking

“If networking is so good, why does it feel so bad?”

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According to the research, it all comes down to your sense of "moral purity" -- a psychological state resulting from your view of yourself as a moral person. As a rule, people need to perceive themselves as morally pure.

Unlike personal networking -–– which tends to be spontaneous and friendship-focused –– professional networking is an intentional strategy for using relationships to get ahead.

But no one wants to feel like a user.

Treating others like tools for personal advancement feels morally compromising. Even more so when we aren't being totally honest with people about why we want a connection.

As a result, many of us come away from professional networking attempts feeling sullied and thinking: Ugh, I don't want to do that again.

More Power, Less Shame

The study also found that the more power a person has, the less likely that person is to feel dirty when networking in this way.

The research team hypothesized that there may be a few reasons for that:

  • "People in power tend to dehumanize and objectify others anyway."
  • "Feelings of power motivate personal goals pursuit, which encourages a more instrumental treatment of others."
  • "Powerful people have more to give in return, allowing for more reciprocal and balanced networking relationships that feel less morally compromising."

As a result, "the powerful may be immune to the feeling of dirtiness that results from engaging in instrumental professional networking," the authors wrote.

This creates a kind of feedback loop: the already-powerful continue to benefit from professional networking in meaningful ways, while the less-powerful benefit far less as a result of avoiding a behavior that feels morally questionable.

“This creates a kind of feedback loop: the already-powerful continue to benefit from professional networking in meaningful ways, while the less-powerful benefit far less as a result of avoiding a behavior that feels morally questionable.”

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The researchers noted that this reinforces and perpetuates inequality in both power and performance.

Five Networking Tips for a Clear Conscience

So what are those of us in lower-power positions to do?

The answer is pretty obvious, if uncomfy: network anyway.

Here's how to go about it without feeling so gross:

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    1. Justify your actions to yourself

    The fact that professional networking feels morally suspect doesn't actually make it so. Explain to your conscience why this behavior is morally neutral, at worst –– and maybe even morally pure.

    Remind yourself: My efforts to advance my career now will put me in a better position to help others in the future.

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    2. Adopt the mindset of someone who has already reached their career goals

    Think of the people you are reaching out to as your peers. You aren't some Dickensian orphan begging for scraps, here. You're a professional!

    Ask yourself: How would I feel about networking with this person if I was already in a position of power in the role I hope to have? Probably a lot less dirty.

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    3. Re-consider your framework for networking relationships

    Instead of treating people as instruments for your personal advancement, classify your connections with them in terms of meaningful relationships.

    Tell yourself: I consider this person a mentor, a guide, an advisor, a future colleague, someone who I would like to do something good for in return down the line.

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    4. Be intentionally reciprocal

    Just because you may not be in a position to offer someone access to professional benefits doesn't mean you have nothing to give. At the very least, you have new ideas, fresh questions, and an outsider's perspective.

    Think about ways to make the relationship feel more reciprocal and less utilitarian, even if that means simply providing thoughtful feedback or sending a sincere thank-you note in the mail.

    Ask yourself: What small thing can I do to make sure this person I am networking with is getting something positive from our interaction?

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    5. Stick it to the man

    We're only half kidding. But really: Don't leave all the spoils of professional networking to the rich and powerful. Put a finger on the scale; do this for you. Trust that making instrumental connections in order to advance your career is a worthy enterprise with payoffs you deserve.

    Then get out there and do it.

Frequently Asked Questions About Networking

What is networking?

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Professional networking is intentionally building relationships with people who work in your field or related fields. The idea is that throughout your career, your professional network can help you in a number of ways, including

  • Finding clients
  • Career advancement
  • Access to job opportunities
  • Mentorship
  • Knowledge-sharing
  • Advice and support
  • Growing your professional reputation

What are examples of networking?

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Before the pandemic, a lot of networking was done in person, at conferences, social events, networking events, and university alumni clubs. Today, people do a significant amount of networking online by reaching out to new professional contacts on Linkedin and other social media sites.

How do you network if you're shy?

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Good news for the shy folks: networking online is totally legit, and it gives you all the time in the world to craft a just-right message without having to make small talk in person. Do your research ahead of time so you connect with a thoughtful and personalized introduction.

Feature Image: simonkr / E+ / Getty Images

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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