What’s Wrong with Networking? An Ethicist’s Perspective

Image credit: “Why Networking is Important,” Marlon Blake

By day I work as an engineer at a consulting firm. Since we are consultants, we work for clients on temporary projects. So, an important part of our business is meeting new clients and bringing in new projects. One way to do this is to attend conferences or other “client-rich” events and network with people.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at one of these events, trying to make some new contacts. As an introvert who would rather be hiding in the library with a good book, there is much for me to hate about these events. Meeting new people I’m supposed to impress is generally terrifying; few things sap my energy more quickly.

But, of course, this kind of struggle with business networking doesn’t indicate anything wrong with it. The fact that it freaks me out and drains my battery is just a quirk of my personality. I know plenty of extroverts who get charged up by meeting new people and talking shop. What I think is often wrong with business networking is the way it pressures us into viewing people as merely useful.

Avoid the “Loner”?

On one level the advice is just ironic. Suppose you arrive at a networking event by yourself and don’t know anyone since you’ve gone there to meet new clients. Before you have someone to talk to, you are essentially one of the “loners” that my senior colleague recommended against talking to. Now suppose everyone in the room is following my colleague’s advice (shouldn’t they?): no one will talk to you! To get someone to talk to you, you would essentially need to find some “sucker” who doesn’t yet know he or she shouldn’t be talking to you. Crazy.

Loving the “Loner”

The Hebrew Bible expresses a similar thought when it issues the following command to the people of Israel about resident “aliens” or foreigners: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34).

The basic idea, here, is that we ought to be attuned to the needs of the social outsider, since being a social outsider is difficult and painful, and since we ourselves have been outsiders in the past. In short, we ought to do what we can to turn outsiders into insiders.

The Ethics of Networking

I don’t think we are ethically required to talk only to loners and outsiders at networking events, or that we have to make a point of talking to every one of them. But, contrary to my colleague’s advice, I do think a policy of strict avoidance of the loner is ethically off limits.

To be clear, it is ethically fine to use people: we do this all the time and likely couldn’t survive without doing so. I use the bus driver when I ride her bus to work. I use the cashier when I buy groceries from him. I use my teacher when I go to class and learn from her. No problem.

The problem comes in (as Immanuel Kant put it in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals [4:429]) when we merely use people, i.e., when we use them and fail to treat them with the dignity, respect, and kindness that they are owed as fellow human beings. And this principle applies even — or perhaps especially — when we are networking for business purposes, since those moments can tempt us so strongly in the wrong direction.

Networking with Dallas Willard

He proceeded to ask me a series of thoughtful questions about my academic and spiritual journey. He had never met me before, and I clearly wasn’t anyone of official importance, yet he listened to me as if I were the only other person in the room. Despite his renown in that community, he gave me no sense that he’d rather be talking with someone more important than me. I didn’t feel like I needed to impress him in order to hold his attention. In that moment, he was present with me in a way I will never forget.

Since that experience, Dr. Willard’s mode of asking questions and listening carefully has been my gold-standard when networking. To be sure, I rarely achieve it (if ever), but it is what I strive for. And I can’t help but think that engaging others in this way would also be good for business; after my interaction with Dr. Willard, I was certainly more interested in reading his books. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with someone who really listened to you and treated you as though you mattered? I certainly would.

If you like what you read, please clap for it below so others can enjoy it too. For more of my work, visit ameadwriter.com or @ameadwriter on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks!

Writer, theologian, philosopher. Let’s reason together.

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