Don’t overlook the casual acquaintances in your network
Looking for a new job? Your weak ties may be more helpful than your close friends.
Want to start a new business or grow your customer base? You’re probably better off building new connections with acquaintances than tapping into your colleagues.
What is a weak tie? Well, it’s someone you know, but not very well. Or, you were close a long time ago but haven’t been in contact for years or decades.
These weak ties in your network have faded with time and distance. They could be:
A classmate from high school.
Your college roommate.
One of your favorite professors.
A coworker or boss from one of your early jobs.
An old neighbor.
Someone you met at a conference years ago.
People you bump into at your local coffee shop or gym.
Contrast these types of relationships with the ones where you have strong ties. You have a much stronger and fresher connection with your current coworkers and manager. You are obviously very close to your family. Your good friends talk with you often and probably travel in similar social circles.
They know you very well. Perhaps too well.
That’s the complexity of strong ties. So many more factors come into play when friends and close colleagues make introductions, recommend each other for jobs, and provide testimonials. They don’t want to risk their reputations, but they also don’t want you to get burned. It’s a tricky balance.
Yes, these tight relationships are valuable for many, many reasons. Your close friends, family, and partners will help you, perform favors, make introductions, advise you, and maybe even hire you.
However, since you overlap so much, you will rarely be exposed to entirely new information or people. To learn and grow, you have to expose yourself to thoughts and ideas outside your bubble.
To expand your network and increase its diversity and value, you have to stretch yourself to seek out entirely new networks that are far away from your friends, family, and colleagues.
Seven ways that weak ties are valuable:
Discovering new opportunities.
Sharing new information.
Exposure to new points of view.
Improved cultural understanding.
Increasing the diversity of your network.
Increasing the power of your network.
You are viewed as unique.
1. Discovering new opportunities
“Mark Granovetter surveyed people in professional, technical and managerial professions who recently changed jobs. Nearly 17% heard about the job from a strong tie…. But surprisingly, people were significantly more likely to benefit from weak ties. Almost 28% heard about the job from a weak tie. Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties served as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information.”
— Adam Grant, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (my affiliate link)
Within your stronger and closer networks, many of the people have already heard about the same opportunities. I remember this phenomenon when I was a young designer starting my first solopreneur agency.
When I talked with the designers in my Silicon Valley network, they often shared the same connections and potential gigs. They knew the same people at the same companies.
However, when I reached out to my friends in engineering, marketing, program management, etc., they were aware of completely different opportunities. They would bring me into companies to work on projects that my design peers didn’t know existed.
2. Sharing new information
When you want to learn new things continually, you’ll often discover that your weak ties in your broader network are a better source than your strong ties. How often does a friend or colleague share something with you, and you say, “Oh, yeah. I read that article this morning.”
It frequently happens to me. It’s perhaps not surprising. My close friends and colleagues all tend to read the same news sources and publications. We all work in the same general industry.
However, my weaker ties often share new information that I would never encounter in my daily life. Likewise, when I want to share information and reach a broader audience, I’m better off sharing it with acquaintances and even strangers.
Why? Because when my close friends and colleagues share my information with their networks, the overlap is significant. It reaches the same people again and never bridges across entirely new networks. People tune out when they keep seeing it and you.
Research published by Mark S. Granovetter supports this experience:
“…this means that whatever is to be diffused can reach a larger number of people, and traverse greater social distance (i.e., path length), when passed through weak ties rather than strong.”
3. Exposure to new points of view
It happens to the best of us. We live in our little worlds, seeing the same people every day, having the same conversations, and are too busy to explore beyond those boundaries.
Our familiar social and professional networks become echo chambers. We spend our days reading posts and articles that reinforce our point of view. We begin to falsely believe that everyone shares our political viewpoints, moral code, and life philosophy.
Then — as one example — we are horribly surprised during an election year. Just ask my liberal friends in California who couldn’t believe that people voted for Trump.
Well, I still have weak ties to the Midwest (where I grew up). So, I wasn’t surprised. I already knew that millions of people held very different viewpoints than my friends in Silicon Valley.
I’m not saying that you’ll always enjoy being exposed to different points of view. But, you shouldn’t place your head in the sand and dream that the world is 100% aligned with what you believe. Awareness is powerful.
4. Improved cultural understanding
By “culture,” I’m referring to it in every sense of the word. It’s a system of collectively held values unique to countries, geographies, cities, professions, religions, politics, online communities, and more.
You are a product of your culture. It influences you in ways you probably know, but also in ways you aren’t aware of.
The attitude of “us” vs. “them” is rarely healthy. Embracing the weak ties in your network allows you to become more culturally aware and sensitive. You can appreciate where someone is coming from, even if you don’t fully understand it or want to adopt it yourself.
For example, I’m still connected to old colleagues from my time living and working in Shanghai. Living there certainly improved my cultural understanding of my friends in China. Time and distance have made these ties weak, of course. But, maintaining a degree of connection to my friends and coworkers ensures that I never forget what their lives are like.
5. Increasing the diversity of your network
Thanks to my time working in tech and all of my international travel, I have a fairly diverse network that spans the globe. But, I also have a diverse network that spans professions and socioeconomic classes too. I’ve spent time with billionaires, and I hang out with people who are barely getting by.
Diversity in your network is essential for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we tend to befriend and connect with people who are similar to us. Believe it or not, we also tend to have genetically similar friends (how freaky is that?).
However, research has proven that more diverse teams generate the best outcomes. This diversity includes backgrounds, education, socioeconomic status, profession, industry, gender, race, and age.
If your network is homogeneous, it’s time to shake things up.
“A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.”
Your weak ties are weak because they are outside of your social and professional bubble. And that’s exactly what makes them so valuable. Diversify your network to become more creative, collaborative, empathetic, and successful.
6. Increasing the power of your network
You’re limiting the power of your network when it only consists of the familiar people who are already in your network. They may introduce you to a few new people from their unique networks. But like attracts like, which isn’t always good.
I see this happen all the time. People in a specific profession make friends with other people in their profession and have a network mostly filled with individuals near their experience level.
College students have a network full of other students.
Junior designers have a network full of other designers.
Real estate agents are connected to a bunch of other agents.
However, your weak ties will help you build a more powerful network that spans professions and industries and includes people at higher levels of influence.
My weak ties, for example, introduced me to CEOs, VC partners, and angel investors. Now, they are in my extended network as new weak ties (no, we aren’t buddies who golf every weekend).
7. You are viewed as unique
This benefit is a funny one that I discovered over the years of my career. It’s related to the old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.”
“Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes off the edge of admiration.”
— William Hazlitt
Your friends, family, and colleagues are all too familiar with your stories. They are so accustomed to you that they may even take you for granted at times.
Many years ago, I did many speaking tours when I was the VP of Consumer Products for Yahoo Search. I would present to organizations inside the company on the main campus in California. I also traveled internationally to present to our offices in London, Barcelona, Bangalore, etc.
Recently, I’ve given talks and workshops to tech teams in the U.S., but also at conferences in other countries. Looking back on 15 years of doing this, I noticed an interesting pattern:
The less familiar the audience was with me, the more valuable they thought my talk was. They viewed me as unique, and that somehow made me more interesting to them.
It’s nice to feel appreciated. Everyone should have the experience of being treated as special, interesting, and entertaining. It’s a nice confidence boost!
The strong ties in your network may not think that interacting with you every day is all that special. But, the people who are weak ties will value time with you and make you feel appreciated.
Light up those weak ties!
It doesn’t matter what you want to accomplish professionally; activating the weak ties in your network will help you more than you think. Reaching out to your acquaintances — old and new — will increase the diversity, power, freshness, value, and uniqueness in your professional social graph.
However, this doesn’t mean that you need to transform your weak ties into strong ties. That’s impossible. It’s too hard to maintain strong ties with a large group of people.
It’s really more about creating a stronger, broader network of weak ties and not letting those relationships completely fade away. If that happens, they become absent ties. It disconnects those other networks entirely from you, and potential opportunities vanish.
Reactivating old relationships was a lot harder a few years ago. You may have only bumped into these people thanks to business trips, conferences, industry events, or a chance encounter (e.g., seeing someone at a local cafe).
For example, I spoke at a conference in Melbourne, Australia, about two years ago. I met some wonderful people, and we connected on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. But, when would I ever see them again under ordinary circumstances?
However, now I can just set up a Zoom appointment and catch up with someone halfway around the world. Some of these new acquaintances joined my career community, and now I can chat with them there.
Are you ready to reconnect with old friends and colleagues? Are you ready to meet some new acquaintances to add to your professional network?
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who also hosts a private mastermind community for solopreneurs and entrepreneurs who want more accountability and support. If you’re not interested in starting your own business someday (or accelerating an existing one), this community isn’t for you.
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.