The Relationship Dimension of Networks
Why we need both closed and open networks. Growing Your Network of Relationships, Part Two.
Graduates of the first Circle of Impact Africa training program (December 2019). These men and women from a dozen African countries serve as coordinators for the Empowering Lives International program in their home nations.
Different Kinds of Relationships
If you want to grow your network beyond where you are today, you have to understand how relationships function. Network relationships are different than family relationships, or friends that you have known most of your life. They know you, not as a professional person, but as the kid who played ball with them or was on the debate team with them.
Network relationships also get confused with being an economic transactional connection in a sales process. Really, what kind of relationship is it that begins with a sales pitch? Network relationship building begins with the assumption of mutual benefits. With this purpose, these relationships are more transformational. They elevate our life and work to new levels by giving us access to new information, perspectives, opportunities, and resources. These relationships are like those that we have with neighbors in our community. Ron Burt calls these Neighbor Networks.*
“If social networks can be an advantage (the well connected do well), and networks are jointly owned by the people in them (not equally, but jointly), there should be an advantage to affiliation with well-connected people. Your neighbors matter. … Well connected neighbors can be a source of opportunity and resources.”
This is why I talk about expanding our networks. In this diagram that I have used before, I have designed the network to have three levels or degrees to it.
A Closed Network that is A Persistent, Residual Culture of Values
In the first level, we have direct access to the people who direct us towards people who can solve our problem or resource a particular need. This is why my local mom-and-pop (literally) hardware store is the place I go to find out information about my town.
“People cluster into groups as a result of interaction opportunities defined by the places where people meet; the neighborhoods in which they live, the organizations with which they affiliate, the projects in which they are involved. … Communication is more frequent and influential within than between groups such that people in the same group develop similar views of the history that led to today, similar views of proper opinion and behavior. Similar views of how to move into the future.”
This is the kind of culture that I see as “a persistent, residual culture of values.” Some value set undergirds these relationships that were arrived at through the interaction and cooperation of people located in a specific place. I see this principally in work settings. In many organizations, this becomes the company’s culture. This culture persists because it resides in the relationships of the people. This is what I see Burt describing.
“People tire of repeating arguments and stories explaining why they believe and behave the way they do. They make up short-hand phrases to reference whole paragraphs of text with which colleagues are familiar. Jargon flourishes. Not only jargon, but a whole system of phrasing, opinions, symbols and behaviors defining what it means to be a member of the group. … What was once explicit knowledge interpretable by anyone becomes tacit knowledge meaningful only to insiders. With continued time together, new combinations and nuances emerge to make the tacit knowledge more complex, making knowledge more difficult to move to other groups. Information in the group becomes “sticky” … Explicit knowledge converted into local, tacit knowledge makes information sticky such that holes tear open in the flow of information between groups. These holes in the social structure of communication, or more simply “structural holes,” are missing relations that inhibit information flow between people.”
Look at the diagram above again. The Green arrows represent the “structural holes” of this network. Think of those gaps as lacking information flow, so that the relationships represented by the Blue arrows and those represented by the Orange arrows have little or no communication with one another. This is why closing the Structural Holes with a Relationship creates a flow of information that opens up possibilities for everyone who is a part of the network. Relationship building in this sense is called Brokerage, as one person introduces people to one another, thereby creating new relationships. From these relationships, the mutuality of social capital is created that serves everyone in the network.
“Closure is measured by the extent to which everyone in a network is connected to everyone else, through a central person in the network, or through direct connections between people in the network.”
Relationship building to expand one’s network is a function of network closure through the brokering of relationships. This is what I mean when I ask,
“Who do you know that you think I should know, and would you introduce me?”
The person making the introduction is both closing a structural hole and brokering the extension of the network.
It is vital that we understand what closure and brokerage mean. They produce very different benefits to the people involved in a network of relationships. Ron Burt’s explanation shows why many of our networks and our relationships, whether they are networks of institutions, on social media, or a network of relationships both fail and succeed.
“Closure is about staying on your side of a structural hole. It is about benefits of protection from variation in opinion and behavior, protection provided by focusing on connections with your own kind. Structural Holes are boundary markers in the division of labor. By not having to attend to the interpretations of people beyond the boundary around my specialty, I can focus on deepening my knowledge of what I already know pretty well, becoming more efficient in doing what I already do. Without structural holes, we would be overwhelmed with the diversity of knowledge available. If structural holes were taken away, we would quickly re-create them to re-establish a sense of control over our lives. That desire to live within a world understood is a source of advantage for hardy souls among us who rise above it.”
Burt is saying that it is not advisable to know everyone to whom we have potential access in our network. Instead, we focus on expanding toward people that meet a specific need. Think of a structural hole like a fence or a river that blocks us from crossing to engage with new people. The result is a local culture of neighbors. This is what I emphasize in my Two Global Forces idea.** The principle is
“Start Small. Act Locally. Share Globally. Take the Long View.”
The purpose of expanding our networks of relationships is not to know everyone we can. Rather, we want to know the people we need to know and who need to know us. There is a purpose embedded in the network. Unlike the connections that we have on social media platforms, these relationships are quite the opposite. Instead of being lumped together with hundreds of millions of people, we seek people who can contribute to our purpose and we can contribute to theirs.
When the relationship is made, the structural hole closes and the potential for “a persistent, residual culture of relationships” begins to be realized.
Closure has meaning in this context because it means that our circle of collaborators is not venturing beyond what we have decided to work on. We are not interested in doing everything. Only that which fits into the values that we share. So, Closure, as Ron Burt describes, produces communities of safety, intimacy, and shared purpose for impact. This is essential in a world of mass social conformity online.
Expanding Your Network
I have leaned toward the importance of brokerage for most of my life. Is it because I am more of an extrovert? Possibly. Is it because I am curious and have a systems-oriented mind? Definitely.
It is also because so many of the social and work environments that I have been involved in were closed networks as Burt describes above. I see this as a pattern of behavior that has a psychological base to it. The pattern was represented has two faces.
On the one hand, by the arrogance of leaders believing that they already knew what they needed to know, and already had the market that they needed to sell to.
On the other hand, by the fear of the other, resulting in a very closed-minded, protectionist stance towards the world.
As a consultant for the past 28 years, it meant that organizations would not address the real problems that caused them to hire me. They were like the Ostriches and Peacocks that I wrote about in my post, The Ostrich, the Peacock, and the Sheepdog.
The Ostrich lowers their head in order to avoid problems. They don’t want to think, much less think creatively. They just want to do that which they have always done. They don’t want to be confused by new ideas or questions. They trust experts and authorities to always be right. They are risk-averse and are not looking for opportunities to improve. They want to be left alone to do their job. Their thinking pattern is a mix of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. They are largely unteachable because they think they already know what they need to know. It can be said that they know how to run their business, but not lead it.
The Peacock walks around with its head in the clouds. They strut around saying, “Here I am! Look at me! See how cool I am! I am your leader!” This leader presents themselves as having an expert opinion on everything. If they are handsome or attractive, they are asked to speak on a variety of subjects. If you listen to what they have to say, it is rather shallow and conformist. They trust in their own self-importance. You can’t tell them anything either. They are responsible for every success and never for any failure. They take no risks that might harm their public image. They are the experts in self-promotion.
The Sheepdog is different. They are like the first-responders who run towards a burning building. They are constantly in touch with everything happening to their group. This is not out of insecurity, but rather as a sign of care and protection of the organization. They are watching for threats. The Sheepdog has its eyes forward-focused on the organization’s circumstances. The Sheepdog looks for the predators, the wolves, who will harm the sheep. They listen, watch, and learn. The sheepdog trusts their skills, experience, and judgment in any situation.
It is the Sheepdog who closes structural holes and then marshals forward to find more to close. They do because there is risk in everything. There is risk in being too conservative. There is risk in being too aggressive. The key is in finding balance.
Here is how Ron Burt describes this interplay of Brokerage and Closure.
“Brokerage is about the benefits of exposure to variation in opinion and behavior provided by building connections across structural holes.
Network brokerage and closure both provide advantage, but by different mechanisms toward different performance goals.
I focus on network brokerage, measured in terms of opportunities to coordinate across structural holes. Where everyone you know knows everyone else, you have no access to structural holes. …
People whose contacts are all the same group know only their own group’s opinion and practice. People who connect across structural holes … are exposed to the diversity of opinion and behavior in the surrounding organization and market. Such people are presented with opportunities to coordinate people otherwise disconnected, and derive ideas or resources from exposure to contacts who differ in opinion or the way that they behave. Connecting across more holes means broader exposure. Broader exposure provides a vision advantage in selecting early between alternative ways to go, synthesizing new ways to go, framing a proposal to be attractive to needed supporters, and detecting likely supporters/opponents to implementing a proposed way to go.
Network brokerage is not a guarantee. It is a probability: Connecting across structural holes increases risk of productive accident – the risk of encountering new opinion or practice not yet familiar to colleagues, the risk of envisioning a new synthesis of existing opinion or practice, the risk of finding a new course of action through conflicting interests, the risk of discovering a new sources for needed resources. Bridging structural holes creates a vision advantage in detecting and developing productive opportunities. The advantage is manifest in standard performance metrics. Network brokers enjoy more-positive evaluations than their peers, higher compensation, and faster promotions.”
I learned this early in my career, in my mid-career, and continue to learn it here late in my career. The latest version of this lesson came in the marketing of my book, Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative to Ignite Change. Learning how to market your first book is not easy. It is a maze and a mystery.
It was not a simple matter of who I knew. The plan was to appeal to my contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn, and my weblog.
Aren’t our social media contact lists the basis for marketing products? It is not so simple.
Out of the several thousand who were my contacts, only 80 were interested in signing up for a new weblog and newsletter. On launch day, we sold only 41 copies of the book. We followed the rules of internet marketing and it did not work.
What did I learn? My contact list was closed with no structural holes that benefited the marketing of the book. People already knew or thought they knew what I had to say, or more likely, were not interested in what I had to say.
What were they interested in? I am not certain that they knew. Our content market should have sparked interest, but it didn’t.
Ironically, they were interested in what the book was about as I traveled the country doing book events. The personal encounter remains the key.
The problem is that marketing in a digital age is a chaotic, constantly shifting landscape. For this reason, a closed network of close friends and family demands an expanding network of relationships with people who are not close but are interested.
The Relationship Dimension
When I first began consulting in the mid-1990s, I was seeing patterns of behavior like I describe above. One of those concerns the relationship structure of organizations. I am making a distinction here between the relationships operating within the organization and the social structure that developed in response or in opposition to those relationships. In many cases, the organization did not have a clear set of values that could then be the basis for how relationships would function. This is where I realized that respect, followed by trust, was the key to healthy organizational relationships and the basis for a social structure that operated in parallel with the organizational structure.
I point to this because I believe it is essential that we address how we relate to one another at all levels of society. However, it starts with our individual relationships. If those close/closed networks of relationships are not healthy or missing altogether, then being able to reach out beyond that first level of relationships is critical.
Over the next few posts, I’ll dig deeper into these relationships looking back to the reference to Mark Granovetter’s strength of weak ties, and the importance of trust.
If you have questions that are raised here, ask them in the comments, and I will address them as soon as I can. Thank you.
* Neighbor Networks: Competitive Advantage Local and Personal, Ronald S. Burt, Oxford University Press, 2010.
** Two Global Forces: The global force of centralized institutions of governance and finance and the global force of decentralized networks of relationships.