The Enormous Power of Weak Ties
By Julie Norwell
This year, the philanthropic arm of BBVA, one of the largest financial institutions in the world, honored Mark Granovetter with a coveted, international Frontiers of Knowledge Award. If you don’t know who Mark Granovetter is, you should. Especially if you’re a job seeker.
An American sociologist and professor at Stanford University, Granovetter authored an academic article in 1973 called “The Strength of Weak Ties” which is said to be the most influential paper in sociology ever written. It is also the most widely cited paper in the social sciences, with over 65,000 citations.
The BBVA Foundation chose to laud Granovetter because his “innovative perspective is the foundation of contemporary economic sociology.” Granovetter’s 1973 article and his follow-up publications represent “significant scientific advances that are relevant not only to sociology and economics but also to social psychology, political science, communication, marketing, and computer science.”
So, why is Granovetter important to you? In short, because he figured out that weak ties have enormous power in your career change.
Weak Ties Overlooked
Granovetter’s work hinges on research he conducted on job changers in a Boston suburb. He asked professional, technical, and managerial people who had recently found a new job through personal contacts how often they saw the contact around the time that the job information was passed along to them. Granovetter used frequency of contact as a measure of the strength of a social tie. The greater the frequency, the stronger the tie. His scale was simple:
Often = at least twice a week
Occasionally = more than once a year but less than twice a week
Rarely = once a year or less
One might naturally assume that people with whom one has strong ties are motivated to help with job information. Therefore, people with whom a job changer has strong ties would be a more significant source of help. But Granovetter found the opposite to be true. Among job changers finding a job through contacts, a whopping 84% reported seeing their contact either occasionally or rarely. Fewer than 17% reported seeing their contact often.
Since Granovetter’s original paper was published, other researchers have duplicated the research and found similar results.
Weak ties, clearly, are far more valuable in a job search than strong ties. But why?
Bridging Social Circles
To be sure, strong ties are useful. At a minimum, people with whom you have strong ties are more invested in your well-being and readily available. But, Granovetter argued, they are all likely to know everyone else with whom you have strong ties. You spend a lot of time with your strong ties, so they’re bound to cross paths often. They are also likely to think like you and know what you know. Strong ties develop, after all, from frequent contact, frequent communication, and similar interests. When it comes time for a life change, therefore, your strong ties are likely to have little more information than you have about new opportunities.
Your acquaintances, however – Granovetter called them “weak ties” – run in different social circles. They have different interests, know different people, and have access to different information. They belong to different social “clusters” with novel ideas and perspectives. Weak ties are the entry point for you to access those tightly knit groups. Granovetter labels such relationships “bridges.”
Bridges to different social circles lead to new opportunities.
Reaching out to an old business acquaintance is exactly how Kwasi Asare, a director of corporate safety in the energy industry, found a new opportunity when his position was eliminated in a corporate restructuring.
A few weeks after reconnecting, the colleague called Kwasi back. He had just learned about a position for a safety manager of a business unit at a large firm that might be a good fit. He even gave a glowing referral of Kwasi to the hiring manager.
“I hadn’t talked to that guy in 10 years, and out of the blue I struck up a conversation with him and he finds me a job,” said Kwasi.
It is astonishing how commonly jobseekers receive mobility opportunities from individuals who otherwise play such small roles in their lives. Rob Szafraniec credits a combination of this phenomenon with smart reverse engineering for his job search success.
When Rob’s company went bankrupt unexpectedly, he was cast into the unemployment market for the first time in over 20 years. Worse, the pandemic hit at the same time. Rob struggled for months to find a job. It was nerve-wracking, but he kept at it, and he kept an open mind.
Playing around with his settings on LinkedIn one day triggered a job posting in a related industry that interested him. He researched his network and discovered that someone he had worked with 20 years earlier was employed at the company. Rob reached out to his former colleague to set up a call. Before long, Rob’s weak tie was walking his resume directly to the president’s office for him. Rob was hired soon after.
Create More Weak Ties
Given the enormous power of weak ties, savvy jobseekers should strive to do two things. First, create weak ties as much as possible. The consequence to people of having few weak ties, Granovetter cautioned, is to be deprived of crucial information that is useful in career advancement. He wrote, “This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions, but may also put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend…on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time.”
In other words, when it comes to weak ties, the more, the better. So, how do you create them? Simple. Pal up with people with whom you have shared commonality. Join a professional association or a community organization, throw a barbecue for your daughter’s soccer team to get to know the parents, or volunteer at the church bazaar. Melanie Hicks identifies several other ways to take advantage of weak ties in this contribution to Forbes.
(As a side benefit, you may find, in line with the findings of this 2016 study, that your satisfaction with life increases in tandem with the number of groups you belong to!)
Proactively Nurture Weak Ties
Second, nurture those weak ties! Chance meetings or mutual friends are a great resource for reactivating weak ties, of course. Being proactive is even better. That was the key to Joel Engle’s amazing success.
After a long career in pastoring, Joel decided to shift industries completely. His plan was to get into business, but he had no idea how well his skills would transfer. So, he began calling people in his network.
Joel’s strongest ties, which were in the church community, were not much help in opening doors in the business world. But reaching out to an old friend with whom he hadn’t been in touch in 25 years led to a role that Joel now calls his dream job.
LinkedIn makes nurturing weak ties easier than ever before. Sending periodic quick notes of support or greeting keeps your relationships warm and your name top of mind to people in your network in a way that imposes little time commitment on you or your contact. But when the time comes that you want more from your contacts, they’re more likely to be helpful.
One last, important conclusion of Granovetter’s work to point out is that a network tends to grow in proportion with the number of times a person changes job. “I think of it as a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger as it accumulates more snow. If you move through different settings in the course of your career, that makes it likelier that you can move again if you and when you want to.”
Who knew that weak ties could be so strong?
Read next: Be a Solution, not a Job Seeker