Networking refers to the development, maintenance, or use of social or professional contacts for the purpose of exchanging information, resources, or services. Networking typically occurs between two individuals but can be examined as an interaction between groups, companies, or institutions.
Industrial/organizational psychologists have been primarily concerned with how networking affects individual employment status and career mobility. For instance, in the context of job search, networking refers to contacting social and professional acquaintances, or other persons to whom the job seeker has been referred, for the purposes of gaining information, leads, or advice related to obtaining a job. Research suggests that as many as 60% to 90% of individuals find jobs by networking, as opposed to traditional job search methods, such as sending out lead inquiry resumes or responding to want ads. Similarly, networking is also used by individuals for the purposes of seeking promotion, gaining visibility, or seeking out career advice or mentoring (i.e., for the purpose of upward career mobility). In fact, research suggests that individual career mobility may be equally or more influenced by informal social relationships than by formal organizational policies and infrastructure.
Both the degree to which people engage in networking and the types of people with whom they network seem to play an important role in determining career outcomes. Although there has been relatively little research on networking behavior (e.g., the intensity with which one engages in networking), a fair amount of research (in particular, from the sociology literature) has examined the structural characteristics of individuals’ current social and professional networks as predictors of career outcomes. A social or professional network can be thought of as a web or series of interconnected webs, whereby links or ties exist between focal individuals and the individuals or entities with whom they share a connection or relationship. Structural characteristics of networks include things such as the size of one’s network, the strength of ties that exist between focal individuals and other individuals or entities in their network, and the diversity that exists among and between the various individuals or entities in one’s network. In addition, the power and influence held by individuals in one’s network may play a particularly important role in whether networking will lead to upward career mobility.
Research suggests that not all individuals engage in networking to the same extent. In one of few studies examining individual differences in networking behavior, Connie Wanberg and her colleagues examined both the intensity with which individuals engage in networking and the level of comfort (versus apprehension) individuals express about engaging in such behaviors during a job search. Results of this study suggest that individuals’ reported comfort with networking is positively related to networking intensity (defined as an individual action directed toward contacting friends, acquaintances, and referrals to get job information, leads, or advice) and further, that the “Big Five” personality characteristics are all related to networking comfort and networking intensity. With the exception of neuroticism, which was negatively related, all traits were positively related to both comfort and intensity, with conscientiousness and extra-version being the strongest predictors of intensity. Finally, self-reported comfort with networking was related to networking intensity above and beyond the effects of personality.
In another recent study of networking behavior, researchers examined the extent to which several other individual differences predict networking intensity. Specifically, this study found no differences with regard to age, race, or gender when it came to the intensity with which individuals reported networking. However, proactive personality trait (the dispositional tendency toward proactive behavior across situations) was positively related to networking intensity.
Structural Network Characteristics
Size of Network
Among structural characteristics of individual networks, the size of one’s network is thought to affect access to information and leads. However, several qualifications about network size should be made. Namely, the strength of connections or ties, the diversity of contacts, and the status of contacts in one’s network may have a bigger impact than network size alone.
Strength of Ties
Despite the size of one’s network, dyadic relationship characteristics such as the strength of ties between individuals and their network contacts seem to be important predictors of information exchange. In a seminal piece on network ties, Mark Granovetter explored the degree to which weak versus strong network ties would lead to information exchange. The idea set forth by Granovetter was that because individuals who share close or strong relationship ties (e.g., friends and family members) often share access to the same information, focal individuals can benefit more from maintaining weak ties with multiple individuals (e.g., acquaintances) who do not share common information with them. This argument, called the strength of weak ties, led to a series of studies examining the structure of networks, or network analysis, as a means of determining the relationship between network characteristics and career-related outcomes. The conclusion of the resulting body of literature on network ties is that both weak and strong network ties can be beneficial to career outcomes.
Diversity among Contacts
In addition to research examining strength of ties, the diversity among contacts in one’s network has been examined as a predictor of information exchange and positive career outcomes. In particular, work by Ronald Burt suggested that the extent to which one’s network contacts know one another will determine the amount of overlapping and redundant information they offer. Thus, diversity among and between one’s contacts will provide greater opportunities to access unique and different information.
Power and Influence of Contacts
Last, but certainly not least, the power and influence held by individuals in one’s network may be one of the most important factors influencing the utility of networking for career success. In particular, the occupational status of one’s contacts (e.g., a high-ranking manager versus a low-ranking nonmanager) may determine their ability to exert influence on one’s career outcomes (e.g., hiring or suggesting that one be hired, exposing one to challenging projects that help one gain visibility in the organization), as well as the quality of information they have and are able to exchange (e.g., access to important leads, or reliable and accurate career advice).
- Burt, R. S. (1992). Structural holes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-1380.
- Granovetter, M. S. (1974). Getting a job: A study of contacts and careers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Lambert, T., Eby, L. T., & Payton, M. (in press). Predictors of networking intensity and network quality among white-collar job seekers. Journal of Career Development.
- Lin, N., Ensel, W. M., & Vaughn, J. C. (1981). Social resources and strength of ties: Structural factors in occupational status attainment. American Sociological Review, 46, 393-405.
- Wanberg, C. R., Kanfer, R., & Banas, J. T. (2000). Predictors and outcomes of networking intensity among unemployed job seekers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 491-503.