—— Sociologist Brian Uzzi explains why our casual acquaintances lead to success at work and why women benefit less from this than men.

Fragmented person


Brian Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago is always eager to talk about his favorite research subject: network theory, which examines social structures, often using the aid of mathematical models. He’s spent decades researching the question of how various social ties affect our lives and our economic success, and in particular how this differs for women and men.

Herr Uzzi, you study the concept of strong and weak ties between people. What is this all about?
———— There are strong ties, for instance to family and close friends, and weak ties, for instance to general acquaintances. There’s also a third category: missing or invisible ties. This can include a neighbor who I nod to in greeting out on the street in the morning. We speak about missing ties because network models usually don’t take these into account.

So there are close and less-close relationships to our fellow human beings. This sounds trivial at first. What interesting insights result from this for an individual’s success?
———— The most interesting aspect of it is certainly that the weak ties are more important for a person’s success than the strong ones. Sociologist Mark Granovetter described this back in 1973 in his book The Strength of Weak Ties, one of the most influential works in this field.
Acquaintances are more important than family? That doesn’t seem to make sense at first.
———— If you think about it a bit, it’s logical. Our strong ties are to people who move in the same social circles as we do, so at work that would be for instance co-workers from the same department. Weak ties are to people who work at different companies, possibly even in different industries. We get new information from these types of people that we would otherwise never hear about. We find out which company is currently hiring new people or laying off staff, how much can be earned in other jobs. So, through weak ties, we collect market information that fills in some of our blind spots. This allows us to identify new career opportunities, both in our own company and in companies that we may not know about—and better prepare ourselves for salary negotiations.
Is a fifty-year-old paper actually suitable for explaining the modern working world?
———— The theory has proven to be really robust. Recently there was a large analysis based on contacts on the professional social network LinkedIn that largely confirmed the concept. It showed that the weak links—meaning those where you had just one friend in common—were much more likely to lead to a new job opportunity than those with people with whom you shared many more, say 25 contacts. Social networks are at least as relevant today in explaining economic outcomes as the offline networks that Granovetter analyzed fifty years ago. The new study shows that the theory is keeping pace with the changing working world.
Can the theory be expanded thanks to data from social media?
———— This has led to an interesting new aspect. It’s been shown that a connection with ten mutual contacts is twice as likely to lead to a new job than a connection with only one mutual contact. This means that strengthening a social tie does help up to a certain point, after which it decreases: an inverted U-shaped curve. In practice this means that moderately weak ties have the greatest effect, even greater than very weak ties.
How can that be explained?
———— We have two opposing effects here. Firstly, weak ties bring us new and useful information. Secondly, we mainly help people we have something in common with. This can be something as simple as the fact of sharing the same birthday. The moderately weak ties are precisely at this sweet spot: these people have information that we don’t yet have, but also have a little in common with us—so they are willing to help.
Is a professional social network really appropriate for analyzing this theory? For example, I’m not connected to my family and close friends on LinkedIn, so they don’t count.
———— That may be, but that applies to most everyone using that network. A bigger problem with the study was that it didn’t look at gender. Yet gender has a huge impact on the effect of weak ties, which I was able to show in a separate study.
Photo glass office building
Can you explain that?
———— First off, weak ties promote better job placement for both men and women. However, women need something else for this effect to take hold: strong ties to other women. A recent study that I conducted with colleagues shows this very clearly once again. We looked at the placement of university graduates, particularly in STEM fields. It showed that all other things being equal, women graduates only get the job if they also have strong ties to other women.

Why is that?
———— The reason for it is notorious discrimination. Women are asked different questions in job interviews, are treated differently than men. This makes them uncomfortable. It lowers their performance in the interview, which is then readily used to weed out women applicants. This finding builds on the original proposition of the strong/weak ties theory because it can be used very well to explain inequalities in career mobility.
To what extent are women helped by strong networks with other women?
———— Only there do women receive the necessary preparation for such interviews. They can be warned what type of questions are coming. They can be helped to prepare because other women have had similar experiences. But this is the type of personal experience that we’re more likely to share with closer friends. This isn’t something you’d get from weak ties.
And men don’t need this?
———— No, men don’t need this type of double network for their career paths.
Portraitfoto Brian Uzzi

“The most interesting aspect of it is certainly that the weak ties are more important for a person’s success than the strong ones.”

So women need a network of weak ties and another of strong ties to other women. How do you set up a good network in the first place?
———— Setting up a network of weak ties is difficult mainly because it goes against our instincts. Friends of friends often become friends of our own. We want that psychologically, that is how we feel comfortable. But this creates a sort of echo chamber of connections, echoing the same information over and over. The benefit for our own careers here is correspondingly minimal.
Can social networks help combat this effect?
———— They basically reinforce it. Social networks push us into echo chambers because of their famous algorithms. On the other hand, they also make it easier to meet new people. This is the crucial point for creating new weak ties: you have to continually renew your own network, especially when you’re having success. That’s because success can become a trap. When two authors co-write a book together and it becomes a bestseller, the likelihood that they will collaborate again increases exponentially. The likelihood that the success repeats itself, however, does not.
“Kill your darlings”, ist that the idea?
———— You should continually be looking to include many different perspectives in your own network. Let’s say you were working in finance. In that case, it would certainly be good for you to know people in as many banks as possible: one at Goldman, one at Deutsche Bank and so on. You should pay attention to that. Then you should also look for contacts in other industries. Why not someone from the tech sector?
But how do women get a network of strong ties to other women? After all, traditional networking events are more likely to produce weak ties.
———— That’s right. If you’re part of a women’s network, you initially create a lot of weak ties. These then help you to get to know the market. But your acquaintances from these networks don’t tell you how to act as a woman. Translating these weak ties into strong ties requires work. You need to create some sort of shared experience.
So invite people to lunch?
———— No, that’s not enough. It has to be something where you reveal something about yourself and your personality. The effects of running groups have been well researched. Someone who joins one is more likely to create strong ties with the other members. The effect is enhanced if you’re working towards a common goal, like a race for example. This effect isn’t just observed in a professional context, it’s similar with families. If you visit your parents and cook a meal together, it has a greater effect than just sitting on the couch watching television.
Can too many weak ties also become a problem?
———— In fact, at some point, accumulating more and more weak ties stops doing any good. Someone who has fifty weak ties to others is no more successful than someone with ten. And weak ties don’t motivate people to change job positions, either. After all, you don’t speak with these types of people every day, just every so often. So you aren’t getting market information every day that might make you nervous. I see the weakness of social network analysis more in the fact that it focuses predominantly on how networks influence success. Failure, in turn, hardly plays any role at all. Not every job interview I get thanks to my weak ties is successful. But previous research suggests that it’s the strong ties that sustain you through various unsuccessful attempts. So weak ties are far from a panacea for career planning.


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