Welcome back, everybody. This is The Greg McKeown Show, and I’m your host, and today I’m going to share with you, reveal, perhaps, the hidden strength of what sociologist Mark Granovetter termed weak ties. By the end of this episode, you will be able to understand the hidden power of something you may have been overlooking, something that can help you to be more successful at work, to expand your knowledge, your ideas, your opportunities, and your network. So let’s get to it.
In the 1970s, while a doctoral student at Harvard, Mark Granovetter made a groundbreaking discovery. The discovery emerged from his curiosity about how people find jobs. He surveyed 282 men, all in the United States, about how they got their jobs, and he found, to his surprise, that it was a person’s weak ties, that is, their loose connections, their casual acquaintances, that were more helpful than the strong ones in securing employment.
In an interview in 2022, he said, “Your weak ties connect you to networks that are outside of your own circle. They give you information and ideas that you otherwise would not have received.”
This piece of research formed the basis of his doctoral dissertation, but over the past five decades, this paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties”, became seminal. It has achieved a quite astonishing 70,000 citations from scholars in the fields of business, economics, psychology, and sociology, with far-reaching implications in other disciplines as well.
50 years on, Granovetter was interviewed by Professor Grusky because it’s worth reflecting on the distinguished career that he’s had as a luminary since 1995 in the halls of Stanford. But note this – “a staggering 90% of the citations of his work emerged post the year 2000.” 90%! So for 30 years there was just this relatively small number of citations, not nothing, because there are many papers that end up with one, two, no citations at all, and so it’s completely disproportionate. It’s not that this was ignored, but this era, this last “quarter of a century, coincides with the ascension of the internet, this technological marvel that has radically reshaped the fabric of human connectivity.”
We bemoan, I bemoan, the cost to our closest relationships that have been gained from the connection at the periphery through this technology connection. Sometimes I don’t love that trade-off. Often I don’t love the trade-off, but that is not to say that the internet and all of its connectivity has not had useful, enormously useful implications as well. Just consider the monumental impact of this digital revolution. These online platforms have been conduits of superficial chatter, but they have also been vibrant ecosystems for the exchange of ideas and information. The internet birthed unprecedented forms of interaction, particularly among those we might deem loose acquaintances. These connections, often overlooked and devalued in the pre-digital age, suddenly present a rich tapestry for examining the workings of weak ties and the weak tie theory in our modern context.
Consider the endeavors of Eric Brynjolfsson, a scholar at Stanford who’s a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. Alongside him, Sinan Aral of MIT, Together embarked on a profound exploration of weak ties in the digital realm. Their arena, LinkedIn, their subjects at the time, an astonishing 20 million individuals over a span of five years. So this formidable team conducts what stands as one of the largest empirical investigations into the role of weak ties in the labor market, a study, at least at the time, that was unparalleled in its scale and rigor. Their findings, which were published in the journal of Science, not only corroborated Granovetter’s hypothesis on weak ties but illuminated its enduring relevance in our age. It was the weakest of ties that proved most instrumental in propelling one’s career forward. Yet their intellectual curiosity did not end there. Brynjolfsson and his colleagues delved deeper, probing whether the industry in which one operated moderated the influence of these ties, and, in a revealing twist, they uncovered that in the more digitally oriented sectors of our economy, it was indeed the weak ties that held sway in enhancing career mobility. Conversely, in the less digital landscapes, the strength of strong ties came to the fore and nuanced addition to the existing theory.
Perhaps I should pause here to make the obvious point that connections, whether weak ties or strong ties are absolutely essential for being able to make progress in the world. Nobody ever did anything alone. This is such nonsense to think like that – the lone genius. This is preposterous. The people who have achieved the most, the people who are most resilient. It’s all about how well they can connect and who they can connect with. It’s all about people, and even as we’re in another hype cycle with AI, it’s worth remembering that it is the people that will affect your success, personally and professionally, more than any other factor. But it’s still useful and insightful to focus on the weak ties, as we are in this episode. Weak ties, for example, are a gateway to novel information. Weak ties act as bridges to different social groups, offering access to new information and opportunities. That’s supported by research called “Structural Holes and Good Ideas”, which was published in the American Journal of Sociology.
Weak ties strengthen emotional well-being, so weak ties contribute significantly to our emotional well-being and a sense of belonging in a community. That is, it isn’t just our relationships with the people closest to us that affect our emotional well-being. It’s also as we go out into the community. It’s also as we go shopping, as we go to church, as we go to a social group, as we participate at school, as we connect with people at work. Even meaningful connections with people at the periphery or outside of our current network also adds to emotional well-being, and for more on that, you can read Sandstrom and Dunn’s work. Their research highlights that casual social interactions, even with weak ties, can enhance our mood and sense of social connectedness.
So we should not believe that contactless transactions are always going to be better for us. To order something on Amazon and have it immediately delivered to our door has efficiency. There’s something nice about that. But going to the shops or going to our neighbor to ask for something that we don’t have, for a recipe, we’re making these connections add up like gold flecks in building a strong emotional life.
Weak ties are a source of unbiased feedback. A study by Uzzi and Dunlap found that weak ties are more likely to offer objective and diverse perspectives, crucial for personal and professional growth, and you sort of can see how that would be the case. People that you hardly know can give you unbiased feedback because they have less to lose. They can just share it unvarnished. This is one of the reasons that I still use LinkedIn myself and other social media platforms to share the ideas that I’m currently writing about and thinking about. I’m so curious about what people will respond to and why, which things land, and how they land. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a trusted inner group of people who I have read my material and ideas and give feedback. They’re both a source of rich feedback. Strong ties, and weak ties both have a place, but weak ties are the area that we might overlook more easily.
Therefore, what to the strength of weak ties? Well, let’s start with the simplest To break that ice with the people that you meet along the way. To say hello, to call people by their names, to ask a single question, and follow it up with one more. To encourage people to engage in small talk because even small talk in social games has a disproportionately great impact. More on that in a later episode.
Here’s another suggestion To introduce two people, To think of two people in your network who could benefit from knowing each other, and to introduce them, it can be as simple as sending a quick email message. I think you two have a lot in common. Well, I believe you both would benefit from this connection. You don’t have to overthink it. There’s somebody in my network who is constantly introducing people to me and to others, and he’ll do just the tiniest little email introduction. This is how he makes it easy to expand his network and to be able to help other people along the way. He, more than almost anyone I’ve ever met, has been able to utilize that strategy to accelerate extraordinary career success.
You can implement the five-minute favor rule. Adam Rifkin shared that with Adam Grant, who shared it in Give and Take. Rifkin was named Fortune’s best networker and is known for his generous approach to networking. He practices and advocates for the philosophy of helping others in small ways, typically in five minutes or less, without expecting anything in return. That idea of a five-minute favor to people, as we say it, the periphery of our connections, is disproportionately powerful because of exactly what we’re talking about the strength of weak ties.
Here’s another suggestion. You can hold a speed dating event at your organization, and I don’t mean for the purpose of dating, but it’s happened twice to me now that I’ve been in an organization where everybody in the group, in both cases more than 100 people, maybe a couple of 100 people in both occasions just were lined up, one time on a beach, one time in a gym, and you just had two minutes to meet the next person and then move, move. Every two minutes, move, move, move, so that you are forced a forcing function to meet people you would not otherwise meet, to say hello, to introduce yourself to people that you’re not naturally drawn to perhaps, and both times it broke down the eye, superbly, opened up the whole experience, and in both instances, one could experience in real-time the strength of weak ties. You don’t have to do all of those things, but perhaps choose one and begin there.
By embracing the strength of weak ties, you open doors to a world of unforeseen opportunities and insights. So start small, but start today. The edge that you’re seeking in your personal and professional life may well be at the edge of your network.
Thank you, really thank you, for listening. What is one thing that has really grabbed your attention today? What is one thing that you can do immediately to put it into action? And who is it that you can share this episode with so that they can listen, they can subscribe and your conversation can continue now that this conversation has come to an end?