Interpersonal relationships matter a lot in personal and professional contexts alike. Most importantly, how we weave and maintain them over time counts. Not only do they say a lot about us, but they can also be strategic assets at different points in life. This is how Marissa King, professor of organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management, explains it in her book “Social Chemistry” (published in Italian as “Chimica Sociale” by Egea).
The way we each make and leverage our personal connections, in fact, is a central element of our lives, and can largely determine our personal and professional well-being and success. A healthy network serves as both a protection and a source of inspiration and opportunity, providing benefits and satisfaction in multiple directions.
“The quality (not the quantity) of your social connection is a strong predictor of your cognitive functioning, resilience and commitment to work”, explains the author. “The structure of your contacts helps explain everything from your pay to the quality of your ideas”.
The core concept underpinning the book is that there are basically three types of networkers: expansionists, brokers and conveners. ”Imagine you were having a birthday party, would most of the guests already know each other? If you answered yes, then you are probably a convener. Your strength is that your network is characterised by a very high level of trust and reputational benefits. The disadvantage is that you might live in an echo chamber”, the professor explains.
If instead you hang out in many different circles and are good at improvising conversations on topics about which you know little, you are probably an broker. Brokers are creative and innovative, but often looked upon with suspicion, so you have to be careful to be empathetic as well”, King says.
Expansionists, finally, are “born socialisers. They know thousands of people, whereas usually people know a few hundred. This allows them to have power and influence, but surprisingly also puts them at risk of loneliness”.
The structure of your contacts helps explain everything from your pay to the quality of your ideas
Every type of networker (and every type of network) has different characteristics, so it is not that one model is better than another a priori. King devised an online assessment tool to test your network of acquaintances and see what kind of networker you are: assessyournetwork.com. A useful tool to ascertain from which ‘base’ one starts, , and at different times it may be useful to rely on different networks. Being able to mix different styles to one’s own advantage can be very useful to achieve certain personal goals or to better orient one’s life.
“Stop for a moment and try to answer the following questions: how important are your relationships for your personal well-being? For your career? Now think about how much time you intentionally devote to developing and maintaining these relationships.” Taking an approach similar to a self-analysis manual, King addresses the different facets and implications of how we relate to others, offering insights into reflection and self-work.
Actively reflecting on the composition of one’s network is crucial. If we fail to consciously think about it, “our psychological predispositions, life events and various entanglements will lead us to perceive our networks not as a choice but as the result of chance, thus leaving us powerless, at the mercy of fate”, writes King. It is useful to realise how a ‘closed’ network can provide emotional and psychological support, which is especially useful in times of difficulty, while greater openness is useful when, for example, looking for a new job.
The most appropriate network is the one that matches your personal goals, your career and your needs
That being said, brokers, expansionists and conveners prefer different types of ties (although, King notes, there is no ‘pure’ type, but most often different elements are combined). Brokers, who straddle a number of social groups, for example, have some strong links, but “the strength of their network comes from the weak links it contains”, she writes. Conveners, on the other hand, prefer to focus in depth on a few links, strengthening them a lot, even if this means having less extensive knowledge. Once again, there is no one ‘right’ model and one ‘right’ network. “The most appropriate network is the one that matches your personal goals, your career and your needs“, explains King.
At the very foundation of it all, of course, is the cardinal principle that “positive and energising connections with others are vital for resilience. They provide social-emotional support, a feeling of belonging and people with whom to share experiences and ideas. They instil a sense of playfulness and optimism in the most complicated situations, increasing the ability to learn and perform correctly. Positive relationships, both at work and in personal life, promote self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience”. As a basic rule for a good balance, King suggests the concept of six necessary partners. The rule is that at least one person within one’s own inner circle can offer: access to information; formal power; developmental feedback; personal support; sense of purpose; help with work/life balance. Without these elements, one is much more likely to end up feeling overwhelmed by work or isolated and lacking comfort.
Maintaining one’s networks requires constant work and attention, but in essence “the aim must always be to find a set of practices that are helpful, enriching and with which one feels comfortable. What is important to realise is that even small changes, such as spending 20 minutes a month reconnecting with old acquaintances, can have a transformative effect”, explains King.
From creativity to trust, the author offers much food for thought on ways to better understand yourself and how you relate to the world. Particularly at a time like the present, as we begin rebuilding and returning to social life after such a long period of inactivity caused by the coronavirus, taking care of personal contacts is crucial. “The past year has shown us how important our relationships really are”, says King. “In my research, I found that our networks shrank by 16% during the pandemic. These networks will not repair themselves, unless we invest in reinvigorating them. Take the time and make an effort: it’s worth it”.
This, of course, also applies in professional terms. “Jobs found through their own networks are found faster, better paid and more suitable. Most jobs are found through acquaintances, not through friends or family”, the professor points out. The best advice for anyone left jobless in the wake of COVID, for example, might just be: “Make a list of five people and contact them. You don’t necessarily have to ask them for a job, just asking for advice on how to look for work is a good starting point”.