Why Your Social Network is Your Greatest Resource.

Photo by Jules Savoure

As a kid my grandfather would often tell me “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. During my teenage years I would ignore his advice, as I kept trying to better myself believing that I alone could achieve my goals. Yet, he was right. As I’ve continued to study human behaviour, my thinking has significantly shifted away from believing achievement to be the result of individual talent to having a deep appreciation for our social networks and the value they bring. For instance, scientific studies continually reveal that your likelihood to make meaningful relationships, discover new ideas or get a promotion at work, is all due to the connections you currently hold with others. Why is this the case, and what can you do about it?

Your social network describes not only who you are connected to, but also the ways in which you are so. For example, you may have a handful of people that you are closely connected to, or you may have a network full of acquaintances or ‘friends of friends’. Similarly, we do not have one ‘grand’ social network. Instead we have multiple networks, each serving a different purpose. For example, you are likely to have separate ‘friendship’ and ‘advice’ networks that include both the same and different people.

The key thing to understand about your social networks is that they have their own strengths and limitations, and that both who and how you’re connected to others bring significant implications. Therefore, the more you understand how you are interacting with people, and why you are doing so, the more you can start to use these strengths more effectively so that you can start to lead a more a happy and fulfilling life.

Specifically, some psychologists argue that as a result of our evolutionary history, human beings are driven by three innate needs: the need to get along with others, the need to get ahead of others, and the need to find meaning in life. As such, these three drives shape all human behaviour, and in particular, are manifested in our social network. The better we understand what motivates us and how this shapes our connections, the better we can cut through the complexity in life and use it to our advantage. Here’s how:

Your social network helps you get along.

We are wired to seek out and build relationships. Its why we we crave contact with others, and why being rejected hurts so much. When we look at the research, those individuals that are the most trusted have the most fulfilling and supportive relationships. If you want to get along with people and have a healthy social circle, you should make sure that your relationships are reciprocal — you both give and receive social support, advice and assistance. Not only does this continue to build trust, the bedrock of all lasting relationships, but also invokes the ‘reciprocity principle’ — a psychological phenomenon where giving favours is a self-perpetuating loop: the more you help, the more you receive.

Another way you can foster strong and trusting relationships is to evoke homophily. Homophily describes how we are attracted, and most receptive, to those that are similar to us. This is because we are more likely to trust and cooperate with those that share the same beliefs, values and life experiences — or in other words, our identity. Humans have a tendency to see what is different (and in many cases wrong) with other people, and frequently make social comparisons which can have both positive and negative effects on our subsequent interactions with them. Fortunately, people have more in common than you think. When trying to bond with new or difficult people, try to find ways in which you are similar so that you can build a foundation for a more productive relationship in the future.

Your social network helps you get ahead.

This may seem obvious, but yes, we are highly motivated by competition and status. Psychologists (myself included) have spent much time investigating the role of personality traits (i.e. an individual’s behavioural dispositions and tendencies), and found that high levels of extraversion, ambition and grit are positively related to achievement, yet this only tells half the story. We do not behave in a vacuum, rather our thoughts, feelings and actions are always being influenced by those around us. If we are to truly understand how we can reach our potential, we need to use a holistic approach. This is why your social network should not be ignored: it describes not only who you are connected to, but also how. In other words, the way your network is structured can put you at an advantage or disadvantage as a result of the way vital ideas, information and resources are shared amongst people. If you want to use your network to get ahead, there are two things you can try.

Firstly, become a social broker by being the person that connects others. Brokers have social capital — they can extract value from their relationships to help them achieve their goals and get ahead. Research has shown that individuals who connect otherwise unconnected individuals and groups are more likely to get ahead as they are able to gain access to new ideas, valuable resources and spot new opportunities (this is particularly important for you entrepreneurs). You can seek out brokerage positions in the network by connecting with new people outside of your friendship group, department or organisation.

Secondly, learn your social network. A seminal study by David Krackhardt showed that employees who had the most accurate understanding of how their network was structured (that is, they knew who was turning to whom for advice and friendship), had more influence and power in their network — they had become the informal leaders. Although they were not given authority by their superiors, through their ability to accurately perceive and manage other’s relationships they were more aware of the ‘social cliques’ and office politics that would stand in their way. You can gain more influence by becoming more mindful of not only your own, but also other’s connections, and begin to use them to your advantage. After all, the person who can win at office politics can climb the greasy pole…

Your social network helps you find meaning.

The fact that every human culture has some form of religion, knowledge system and artistic practice, demonstrates that we are determined to find meaning in our lives. Shalom Schwartz proposed that people are motivated by ten values that define our identity and self-concept. The more we are able to practice these values, the more satisfied we feel and believe that our lives have meaning. Given this, we can view our social network as a vehicle for finding meaning in our lives. For example, the relationships we hold have a significant impact on our likelihood to discover new ideas and experiences. The theory here is that we can more readily find meaning in our lives, by optimising our network to increase the frequency to which we have interactions with those who may help us practice our values.

According to Mark Granovetter’s ‘Strength of Weak Ties’ theory, acquaintances or ‘friends of friends’ are the source of creative and novel ideas. This is because they are outside of your ‘filter bubble’, or social circle, and therefore likely to have have different cultural or ideological perspectives that may broaden your own, and thus satisfy your need for self-direction and development. In fact, with the adoption of social media technologies, there is much research to suggest that in fact our social networks are becoming more isolated and less satisfying due to personalisation algorithms that narrow our stream of information and increases ‘niche picking’ rather than expanding our intellectual, political and spiritual horizons. To overcome this is difficult, as change, ambiguity and facing challenging beliefs can be uncomfortable. Yet, the more you reach outside of your current network to build new relationships and seek information from new sources, the more you will be able to find meaning in your life.

In a hyper connected world where we continue to face increasing amounts of complexity in our lives, trying to carve out a fulfilling and satisfying life is a challenge. Yet it is important to remember that your social network is arguably your greatest resource. Use it properly.