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Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Friends of Friends Closer

Oct 3 2022 • 4 min read

Imagine that you are looking to change jobs. And you think that there might be people in your social network who can help you to get into a new industry. Who do you think is going to be most useful at helping you out?

Do you think it might be someone who is close to you, who’s been a close friend for a long time, and who you think really understands you well? Or perhaps someone who’s a bit more distant: a friend-of-a-friend, who might be able to offer a different perspective?

The answer seems to be obvious. It stands to reason that those closest to us are likely to be more supportive and helpful in helping us to move onwards and upwards in life. But ever since Mark Granovetter wrote his landmark paper in the 1970s on the importance of recognising the strength of what he called ‘weak ties’, sociologists have recognised that different types of contacts in our social networks play different roles. And that, surprisingly, it is the weak ties that prove critical.

‘Strong ties’ are our close colleagues, family members and friends. ‘Weak ties’ are those more distant acquaintances we might have with friends of friends, or individuals we interact with less frequently. Granovetter’s insight was that strong ties tend to know about the same opportunities as we do. But weaker ties have access to different information and networks. Which means that they can serve as a bridge to new opportunities.

Up until now, almost all the evidence on ‘weak ties’ has been correlational. In other words, patterns in data seemed to reveal a relationship between weak ties in people’s social networks and outcomes such as finding a new job. But a recent study published in Science has shown the causality underpinning the weak ties hypothesis.

Kathrik Rajkumar and colleagues achieved this by analysing the data of some 20 million LinkedIn users who had been randomly assigned to different variations of the ‘People You May Know’ algorithm. Users received suggested connections to people with weaker or stronger ties, depending on which variant they happened to get. The researchers then looked at what effect weaker or stronger ties had upon job changes.

They found that ties with a single mutual connection (i.e. a very weak tie) was more likely to result in someone changing jobs than when someone had as many as 25 mutual connections (i.e. a strong tie). But, crucially, that moderately weak ties were more powerful than either very weak or very strong ties.

There are countless ways to make use of the power of (moderately) weak ties. But one of the simplest and most enjoyable is to convene a Reciprocity Ring, a concept devised by Wayne and Cheryl Baker and described by Adam Grant in his excellent book Give and Take. A Reciprocity Ring requires you to bring together a group of people in a circle.

Those who wish to are encouraged to step into the ‘ring’ and make a request of everyone else in the circle (it could be anything from ‘who can help me build a rocket?, to ‘does anyone know a good babysitter?’). The individuals in the group then think about the people in their social networks who might be able to help – in other words, the friends of the friends of the person making the request.

So remember. It’s always worth reaching out beyond your immediate circle to make connections with individuals who may know something or someone that you do not. And this is one of the reasons why a long-held maxim at CogCo is to always have interesting conversations with people who are doing interesting things. If you are such a person, drop us a line!

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