Friend of a Friend

By Don Officer

We tend to act as if our closest friends are our biggest assets. While that may be true for social support or trusted information, it’s not so true when it comes to opportunity. Research shows that our biggest opportunities and best sources of new information actually come from our “weak ties” or “dormant ties” – our connections with people we don’t see often or haven’t spoken to in a long time.

                                                                                                                          – David Burkus, Friend of a Friend…

More and more it appears we are living in times of profound distrust. Politically, nations are polarized and divided. Economically, trade and transactions have devolved into zero-sum games. Socially, we now cleave to whomever we identify with, not out of affection, but for protection. Within organizations, researchers estimate over two thirds of their employees are disengaged.

The isolation these discouraging trends tend to promote is especially ironic when we consider the far greater accessibility to virtually everyone in the world that new technologies have made possible. Could it be we are actually clumsily inept at using the new tools or in interpreting how our ineptitude looks to the people we hope to connect with? Must we face the uncomfortable truth Heidi Halverson writes about in Nobody Understands You and What to Do About It? Study after study shows we are hopelessly lazy in either interpreting what we see in others’ behavior or in anticipating what we project ourselves. Take away that thin contextual tissue of familiarity and think how much greater the challenge of interpersonal communication becomes.

No wonder we prefer the comfort of familiar connection. Yet as David Burkus explains in Friend of a Friend… Understanding the Hidden Networks that Can Transform Your Life and Career, always sticking with who or what you know the best curtails your opportunities in ways you will never know. This timid social climate we choose to inhabit is mined with different risks we can scarcely imagine. Before we discuss how to tackle the conundrum, let’s look at the enormous opportunities we forego by always playing it safe.

Burkus has researched network science and derived a baker’s dozen of strategies to optimize your networking. His strategic approach not only extends your effective reach, but also provides cognitive tools to help you avoid the minefield of misunderstanding it has become so easy to stray into. Granted that close ties provide a generally safe haven when you need it, consider why loose or dormant connections lead us towards the sweet spot of untapped opportunity.

First, loose connections are already more open to what you have to say because they already know you. But second, they bring novelty and thoughtfulness to the relationship because there’s so much still to discover or catch up on. Your talking space (in whatever medium or platform) is neither threatening nor mere wallpaper. But note that close or loose, security focussed or innovative, all network ties are strengthened and activated when you acknowledge value and demonstrate gratitude for both contribution and potential. A facilitator once told me networking was a numbers game. It’s not; quality and authenticity make all the difference.

Burkus urges stepping back to see your entire network, disjointed or intertwined, apparently inhabiting different universes, but all coming together in your own unique perspective. Remember how you’ve learned to navigate this one of a kind network environment of yours. Maybe there are more interesting paths and links than you’ve imagined so far. Maybe also you can become a link yourself by serving as a broker to make connections nobody else has. This is often the quickest way forward or upward. From this angle you will also appreciate how the world organizes itself into silos of understanding. When connecting becomes riskier, those silos may become castle keeps or towers. Burkus suggests you figure out the ingenious ways network clusters function while retaining the ability to step back and reframe as necessary.

If you are tasked with forming a team yourself, draw from your whole network as much as possible, avoid group think and use multiple strength sets to close capacity gaps. Remember also that the best teams come and go according to shifting challenges. And to fight that probability, become a super connector ready to tap new blood and access new opportunities. Do it right and you’ll look like you represent a majority opinion, buttressed by best practices through your astute choice of key connections. By the same token, resist homophily or too much “similarity” among your connections. You’ll be more comfortable hanging out among the folks you know all the time, yet more vulnerable to unexpected or disproportionate shifts on your blind side.

If you want to develop stimulating new ties, avoid “mixers.” Join in activities instead. You want to build purposeful connection not reinforce everyone’s nondescript aloneness. As you may have noticed, just as cross training builds more robust fitness faster, knowing your connections through more than one channel, that is, activity, interest or organization, builds better understanding and deeper trust sooner. Executives don’t normally golf together only to show off their drives or drink in the fresh air. They are getting to know one another in a different context.

In the stripped-down misleading communications that social media promote over more familiar pathways to verifiably healthy networks, it’s easy to miss red flags. Barkus warns us to pick our friends carefully. Mood and attitude are contagious; as a grateful leader you know that full well. Still, good feeling is as catching as negative. Judy writes of a team critic turned to add value, not discouragement, to a floundering project. Your network needs your support as does your team.

David Burkus reminds us we don’t have networks, we are embedded in them. Navigation is all. Make sure you sail with the wind, grateful for the new places and connections where it takes you. Recall as well, the highly commended and competently commanded crew that steers you.



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning, Inc. Senior Vice President, Judith Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment will help you see the possibilities.