The Power of Social Networks in the Workplace

Written by: Fargo Inc

When I talk to managers and leaders, they are surprised to learn that the most influential people in the organization are typically not those at the top of the formal organization chart. Employees often have more influence than the boss. This is because the most influential people are often those with the most friend- or work-ties in the organization, not those with the best parking space or corner office. In my experience, supervisors and executives often have below average number of social ties (yet believe they are more central than they really are). When considering who is a leader in the organization, it is important to look at who is the most central socially—that is where you find the true influencers.

This influence some wield outside a formal role such as manager or supervisor is explained by the science of social networks, which is the study of socially connected things—such as friends, collaborators, or co-workers. It can help us understand why social relationships lead to influence but also tells us why social relationships are so valuable at work for other things, such as performance and creativity. I use social network analysis to study relationships in organizations and how those social ties provide benefits to individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. A basic understanding of social networks can help you as an employee or as a leader become more thoughtful about work ties, enhance your (and others) influence at work, and increase benefits and opportunities for yourself and the workplace.

If you were asked what the most important factor is in predicting work performance what would you say? Most people mention traits such as personality, intelligence, or skill. It’s surprising to managers and leaders to learn that your set of personal relationships at work can have just as much or even more impact on work performance than individual traits. In the workplace, each person’s set of relationship ties—such as friendships— hold a unique position in the broader net of the overall social network. Your position in this network provides advantages at work and are a source of influence in the organization. Let me explain.

Think of it this way: each tie you have is a pathway to spread and gain information and knowledge. If you have more ties, you receive and send information more quickly than those with fewer ties. When you are more central to the social network and have more access to others in the network, you have greater influence.

The research is clear that people with more ties perform better than people with fewer ties. You are also more likely to have creative or innovative ideas, get promoted, and be considered powerful. This is because you draw upon more sources of information, have more access to others’ advice, ideas, and support, and generally find more opportunities to learn and share knowledge.

Having a lot of ties in your social network doesn’t just benefit you, it can benefit your team or organization as well. When many people are connected on a team or organization, with few bottlenecks or isolated groups, information flows freely and quickly, knowledge is more readily shared, and influence is not concentrated in one or two individuals. By connecting to others, you also become a rich resource of information to them. As more people connect with each other, the entire organization experiences increased collaboration, information sharing, and knowledge growth. Social networks are a critical, but often overlooked key to understanding high performing individuals and organizations.

Here are a few basic ideas for employees and leaders to consider when thinking about social networks at work.

  1. Build your network: Having more ties is generally better. Being more central (i.e., having more friends or collaborators) provides more benefits—connect with others and encourage others connecting with you. Meet people!
  1. Build a diverse network: Try to reach out to people in different areas of the organization or who have a different perspective. These are often the source of fresh and creative ideas. We tend to connect with people similar to ourselves, this is normal, but having a diverse network pays dividends. Explore and diversify your relationships.
  1. Connect others: Building your network is not just about influence and performance, it’s about helping others as well. The mutual benefit of social networks is a critical aspect of its power—the more you connect, the more others are connected to you, and the more the organization benefits. Connected organizations and teams perform better!

Josh Marineau, Associate Professor of Management at North Dakota State has had research published in Social Networks, Group & Organization Management, and Journal of Business and Psychology. He has presented his research at academic conferences around the world, most recently at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL, and at the International Network for Social Network Analysis Annual Meeting in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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Brady Drake is the editor of Fargo INC!