The Strength of Weak Ties

Whether as kids or adults, when we walk into a new environment like a classroom or conference, we look around for those we know. We are instantly drawn to those with whom we’re familiar and become more comfortable when we’re with those we know. This can be good. We have confidence and strength when in our groups. We like being around those with whom we have plenty in common. We want to support each other and we like that we share the same concerns. A deep seated need we all have is to feel a sense of belonging. We desperately want to be part of a community. We crave our sense of family and being part of a familiar group. This is perfectly normal.

Our relationships start with our families and build out from there. From our family, to friends, co-workers, and more distant acquaintances. We tend to share more in common with those that are closest. The further out our contact is, the less we’re likely to share. Birds of a feather flock together. We have cliques or clubs based on mutual interest. We can dress the same, talk the same, and think the same. We talked about the Power of Peers in our last article.

Quentin Crisp, the inspiration behind Sting’s song “An Englishman in New York”, lived a unique life even more memorable than his name. He was a standout character that went from being a proudly gay man in England during WWII to making regular appearances on the Dave Letterman show deep into his life. Crisp keenly observed the difference between fashion and style. He considered them not related but opposites. Fashion was an act of conforming. It reduced one’s individuality and helped someone blend in by becoming acceptable to others. A driving motivation for many (witness any high school) is to eliminate their own uniqueness and fit into the group. By not being oneself, one could fit in. This may be comfortable, but comes at a cost. Crisp wrote, “Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”

We see this in business as well. Our strategies are structured around what others in our industry are doing. We’re looking outside at our competitors and less at ourselves. Industry associations are a big part of this. We’ll never get ahead of the person we’re trying to copy. The best we can hope to achieve is the same as them. Sure, following in the steps of someone breaking trail in the snow makes our lives easier. Being the first in new or fresh terrain is both difficult and risky. It makes sense to not be this person or business if you don’t have to be. However, you’ll never be a leader by following or copying someone else. You’ll never make your own imprint if you’re stepping in other’s footprints. As a Venn diagram, our strong ties reflect a high degree of overlap. We share much of the same circle. This makes us feel good, but it also closes us down. We can turn off our independent thinking and dial up our devotion to the group.

Each Provincial brokerage association enjoys their annual AGMs and conventions. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, these conventions were largely cancelled or moved to virtual events for the past two years. Our annual ability to regroup and reconnect with our peers has been removed. Our opportunity to get together and compare notes to see how we’re in lock step with each other hasn’t been available. Have we used this as an opportunity to look inwards and craft our own course? This could have been viewed as a positive opportunity. As exciting as getting together again with our peers may now be, what opportunities are there for our businesses outside of our close connections?

In the 70s a Stanford Professor, Mark Granovetter, published a paper that continues to offer useful insight today. The paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties” dealt with how much of our individual opportunity and progress in life comes not from those that we are closest to, but those from whom we’re a bit more removed. New things almost always come from outside one’s inner circle. Granovetter observed that job opportunities were an example of a benefit that came more from more distant social connections. Those closest to us are more likely to share similar experiences and views of the world. They know what you know. They are unlikely to be able to offer new insights or new opportunities as they are no more aware of them than you will be. Those just a little outside of your circle of influence will be exposed to entirely different opportunities and may be best suited to find a fit for you.

In Granovetter’s paper he uses the analogy of a bridge to represent the value of a “weak” tie. Our strong ties hold us together in our local region. A weak tie connects us from our own island to another entirely different island like a bridge. Our collective intelligence is truly multiplied when we each have different areas of expertise. If we all know the same thing our collective intelligence is being multiplied by one. That is, the sum isn’t greater than the parts, it’s no different than any one of the parts. Our view of the world isn’t changing or being improved, it is being reinforced. Whereas, using a weak tie to connect to a separate group has the ability to expand our access to understanding and opportunities. Weak ties can serve to provide different perspectives as well as introduce new opportunities. Weak ties involve work and risk to step outside our comfort and cross the bridge into new communities. Our strong ties represent low hanging fruit. They are the easy default to which we gravitate. Weak ties are those that imply a bit more effort and discomfort. It’s not our natural response to try to seek these out, yet this is where opportunities to learn lie.

In this research article from Kellogg School of Business, the researchers found that diverse groups made better decisions. When we’re around like-minded folk, we may be more comfortable and enjoy ourselves. The authors note, “Generally speaking, people would prefer to spend time with others who agree with them rather than disagree with them.” Unfortunately, this comfort comes at a cost. We’re giving up critical thought in favor of fitting in. We develop false confidence around consensus formed by likability as opposed to rigorous debate. The researchers note that diversity of input leads to deeper thought and a contest of ideas. The environments with differences were higher in personal tensions. Likability was less. So, too, was confidence in options offered. However, the battle of competing ideas led to more options being presented and a better overall solution surfacing. It is exactly this type of diversity that we seek by developing weak ties. This type of diversity doesn’t necessarily feel good yet the outcomes are good.

This Wall Street Journal article highlights a real world of how a disparate group of coaches has contributed to the surge of the San Francisco Giants to top notch performance in baseball. They were the winningest team in the sport last season and are off to a tremendous start in 2022 as well. The trend in most sports, baseball in particular, has been to draw from sport specific backgrounds. However, the Giants took a different tack a few years ago. Their coaching staff includes one with a background in creative writing, another one that was a teacher in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and one with a doctorate in physical therapy. These are not reflective of any other coaching group in baseball. In an industry driven by insiders, these outsiders how found a place together and are taking their team to the next level. Gabe Kapler, the team’s manager quoted in the article observes, “We hire a staff with the mind-set that a more diverse coaching staff gives us a better chance to win. If you want to have a wide variety of human beings for players to connect with, you can’t have them all cut from the same cloth.”

Competence as expressed by resume typically highlighted time in the game. The more one had been around, the stronger the candidate appeared. The Giants tossed this age old wisdom aside and went their own direction which seems to be adding some values. On a team stacked with veterans, a coaching staff now staffed with outsiders from widely different backgrounds and little experience are, counterintuitively, adding value and building an innovative and collaborative approach to improvement. The commonality amongst their diverse backgrounds is that these coaches all share both experience and deep understanding in teaching. The Giants have found success built by a manager intent on drawing on the strength of weak ties. The article offers example after example of those that have found their way closer to the field on a major league baseball team with little sport experience, wildly different real life experience, but a common commitment to improving and teaching.

Consider committing to reaching out to others to share experiences with the goal of mutual improvement and adopt the wisdom of Confucius: “Worry not that no one knows you, seek to be worth knowing.” Try to cultivate a strategy that mirrors Crisp’s concept of Style. Style as fashion’s opposite. Style as accentuating uniqueness. How can we seek to be different instead of the same? Can we use our weak ties to strengthen our uniqueness? Our perspectives are sure to benefit from the effort of collaborating with a diverse group of disparate folk. Good luck embracing the challenge of learning new approaches by exposing yourself to those with different backgrounds and experiences.