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Opinion: Why weak ties make networks stronger

  • When we talk to acquaintances, we are forced to explicitly state what we want and why
  • The altered technology and media ecology from 1970s to today has created wider awareness about jobs

Reach out to people who can vouch for your capabilities
Reach out to people who can vouch for your capabilities

Towards the end of business school, I had an accident and missed all final-round recruitment interviews. As I was recovering, an adjunct professor working at a large technology company replied to an email I had sent him six months back. It was a simple thank you note with a short analysis of the problem he discussed. He liked my thought process and asked me if I were free for a call to dive deeper.

We got on a call and later, he asked me to apply for an open position on his team. I got the job. Today, I can trace the origin of every job I have had to a serendipitous context created by my strong and weak ties.

In 1973, a Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter published a paper The Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter categorized interpersonal ties as strong, weak or absent. In simple words, strong ties are friends and weak ties are acquaintances.

Weak ties are important for two reasons. First, we are more likely to articulate what we need to an acquaintance. This might be counter-intuitive but when we speak with friends, we tend to skip contextual details and largely rely on implicit communication. However, when we communicate with acquaintances, we are forced to explicitly state what we want and why.

The second reason why weak ties matter is that they exponentially increase one’s network. Based on in-depth interviews of 100 white collar workers who had switched jobs in the last five years, Granovetter discovered that weak ties helped most of them find their next job.

Before jumping to conclusions, it is important to keep in mind that the study was conducted in 1973. That was the time when social and professional networking happened almost entirely offline. Back then, weak ties were disproportionately important as access to information was a challenge. Today, however, technology has changed the game.

University of Chicago’s Journal of Labor Economics published a paper in 2017 analysing employment data from Facebook. Using anonymized, aggregated US data based on employment dates published by six million people on their Facebook profiles, researchers came to two conclusions: most people still find their jobs through their numerous weak ties and an individual strong tie is more likely to help than an individual weak tie.

I see this in action every day on Network Capital, the community I founded. Hundreds of millennials float their resumes and seek guidance for jobs and internships from a global community of peer mentors they don’t know. This broadens their opportunity pool to include more than just their social networks, thereby creating contexts for meaningful opportunities .

I have noticed that the most successful job seekers complement their posting on meta networks by reaching out to specific people, especially old classmates, ex-colleagues, former bosses and clients. These people were strong ties who could talk knowledgeably and convincingly about the applicant’s capability.

The altered technology and media ecology from 1970s to today has created wider awareness about jobs. More people apply for the same set of opportunities, further complicating the challenge of standing out from the pack. That is where a recommendation from a strong tie, someone who can vouch for you, is handy.

There are many ways to engineer one’s social network to create a mix of strong and weak ties. An effective way is to do add value to your network regularly. For your strong ties, you could consider sharing details of your work life beyond colourful social media snippets, seek and provide feedback or recommend them for appropriate opportunities. For your weak ties, you could make introductions, organize community events or drop an unexpected mail. These are some ways that work for me. You must discover your own ways of adding value.

Millennial Matters is a column that recalibrates the skills needed to survive and find meaning in the workplace of tomorrow.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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