Oftentimes we focus on building strong relationships with people, strong ties. After all, the better we know someone and the stronger the relationship is, the more valuable it is for us right? It's a bit counter-intuitive but in the workplace it is not the strong ties that can be the most beneficial, in fact, weak ties (acquaintances or people that you might not know that well) can be far more valuable!
In 1973 the sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper titled "The Strength of Weak Ties" in which he talks about and explains the value of weak ties. Granovetter analogizes weak ties to being bridges which allow us to disseminate and get access to information that we might not otherwise have access to. In fact, Granovetter states, "all bridges are weak ties." This was a theme I discussed in detail in my previous book, The Collaborative Organization.
Take a look at the image below to see what I mean.
The problem with strong ties is that they require a lot of effort to maintain. If you're familiar with Dunbar's number it basically suggests that we can't usually maintain more than 150 stable social relationships. Weak ties on the other hand do not require a lot of effort to maintain and we can have far more of them. Think about many of your Linkedin connections, Twitter followers and Facebook friends; chances are that most of these people are weak ties and you are able to maintain thousands of them. We leverage weak ties all the time, for example when we send Linkedin messages to our contacts looking for new job opportunities or when requesting introductions to other people. Or how about when we use Twitter to share content and get our weak ties to help tweet that content out to their network? We do the same thing in person as well where we happen to know someone that can get access to something we need, perhaps a concert ticket, a meeting with someone or a discount on a product or service.
When two people have strong ties they typically know many of the same people and have access to the same information, which means there is strong overlap between the two. Strong ties at work are typically co-workers that sit next to us or perhaps work in the same department. This means that if you need access to someone or something outside of your department, that your strong ties generally don't have access to things that you can't get access to yourself.
However, when you have a weak tie with someone this acts as a bridge to an area where you most likely don't have access to the same people and information that your weak tie does. In this scenario there is not a lot of overlap. A good example might be if you're in the marketing department but need some assistance with something related to finance or legal. Having these weak ties allows you to get access to these people and information in other departments. It is possible to maintain a few strong ties in other departments but usually not many.
Think about what this means in many organizations today. Prior to the emergence of today's new social and collaborative tools there wasn't really a way for employees to create these bridges or weak ties within their organizations. This inherently means that we used to work in silos. Now we have access to platforms which offer capabilities such as activity feeds, status updates, rich searchable employee profiles and internal blogs. All of these things make it easier for employees to create these bridges to people and information which means more ideas, more productivity, access to subject matter experts, access to information and ease of getting things done. Instead of focusing on a few strong ties, we can now build hundreds or thousands of weak ones.
Weak ties are one of the keys to the future of work in organizations today and new tools enable employees to build these ties.
Take a look at the video below for more context around weak ties and make sure to subscribe to the channel for more videos on the future of work.
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Jacob is the author of: The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders and Create a Competitive Organization (available for pre-order, due Sept 2 with Wiley)
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