Updated on 07.27.09

Putting the Strength of Weak Ties to Work

Trent Hamm

While doing research for my book, I’ve been spending some time digging into building friendships and relationships with people around you. How valuable are they, really? How can you make them more valuable? Are online relationships valuable at all, or just a distraction?

In the process of researching these topics, I dug into a famous sociology paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter. In it, Granovetter argues that the stronger a relationship is, the more likely you are to have an overlapping set of relationships with that person.

Take your mother, for example: if you’re close to her, you likely have relationships with a huge number of people in common – relatives, hometown friends, and so on. Compare that to a guy you met at a conference a while back who works in a related field to yours – you might know two or three people in common, but your weak connection isn’t supported by much of an overlapping social network.

Granovetter’s argument seems obvious when you stop and think about it, but what’s even more interesting is that you can use your knowledge of it to build better relationships with people that you want to know better.

Why would you want to do this? Let’s say, for example, that you’re new in a particular field and you’re seeking a mentor to help guide you to success. Or, let’s say you’re tired of your current career and you’re thinking about switching to a new one, but you don’t know for sure what you might do next. Alternately, you might be thinking of moving and you’d like to find a community where you’ll already know some people when you arrive. Or it could be as simple as wanting to find new and interesting people to invite to your weekly backyard barbecue.

In each case, the more relationships you have in place, the more likely you are to be able to get your foot in the door where you want. You’re more likely to get value from those relationships, and you’re more likely to make their lives more valuable as well.

So what can you do about it? In a nutshell, build lots of weak connections and then strengthen the ones that are valuable to you. Let’s break it down.

Build Lots of Weak Connections
Many people immediately assume that to do this you must be the person at the meeting who shakes everyone’s hand and says nothing. I think that’s the worst way to do this.

Instead, the best way to build weak connections with lots of people is to go where there are a lot of interesting people and provide as much value as you can. Conventions and meetings related to your field of interest are great ways to start, as are community events and festivals.

Here’s what you do. Go to such meetings and get involved. Get over your stage fright and offer to present. Attend talks and presentations that are in your wheelhouse, pay attention, and ask questions that are interesting and potentially useful to others in the room.

During the downtimes, follow up on this by entering into conversations with the presenters and with others who are expressing interest in your particular areas. Swap ideas with them – then swap contact information with them. Schedule dinners with several people at once – group meals are always a great way to improve relationships.

What you’ll find when you’ve left is that you’ve swapped a lot of valuable information and ideas with a lot of people – and you have contact information for these people.

Now, follow up. Don’t let those weak connections die. Research these people online. Follow them on Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. Drop them a line regularly just to see what they’re up to.

Even more important, whenever you hear of a need that you can easily fill, fill it. If someone’s looking for a job, send them any job leads you have. If someone needs some information, give it if you have it (and can do so without getting yourself into trouble).

Strengthen Valuable Connections
Eventually, you’ll begin to find that some of these relationships have more value than others – they’re closer to your own interests, provide lots of good ideas, and so forth. Focus on strengthening these relationships.

Invite such people to a barbecue at your own house – and invite several such people from different areas that you’ve built connections with over time. Doing this enables you to introduce lots of people to each other, helping them out, and further cementing your own relationships, while also learning a lot of new things due to the fresh mix of people.

What you’ll eventually find is that if you need help, having lots of “weak” connections that are fairly strong will come in handy. Remember above, where Granovetter argues that “weak” connections are simply ones where you don’t have many people in common? If you have a lot of those, you’re suddenly indirectly connected to a ton of people – and if you have a strong relationship with the person in common, you’re more likely to get the help you need, when you need it.

The more I investigate the power of social networks and how the internet makes it easier to maintain them, the more I’m beginning to believe that the relationship is the key source of value in the modern world.

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  1. harry says:

    this is a great post!
    But I’m curious about other ways to quickly build these weak connections. What if you can’t make speeches or presentations for whatever reason?
    I also think this type of thinking can be applied to building up a strong social circle.

  2. I’ve never heard the term “weak connections”, or maybe I’ve just categorized them as acquaintances, though admittedly that isn’t a term you’d use in a business sense.

    However what I’ve found is that as much as I cherish strong connections, it is often the “weak” ones who are the source of help in some form. Maybe it comes down to that our strong connections are people who are very similar to us, and when things change, they can’t help us as much as the ones who are a little different.

    It’s human nature to cling to the familiar, but it might do some good to step out and connect with more of the “weak” kind. Circumstances are always changing and they might become strong connections at some point in the future.

  3. steve weaver says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet, but I’m pretty sure this is what Seth Godin means when he talks about “tribes”. You’ve done a very nice job of condensing an idea into the basic premise. That’s why we come here. Thanks!
    This has given me a slightly different perspective on building my own community. In a world where niche is king, you still have to sift through tons of potential people to find those who qualify. This is a great way to get started. Maybe you, and your readers, can provide examples of what has worked, and bombed, when they tried to put this principal into action.

  4. NMPatricia says:

    Right up there with Harry, is that this post got my brain thinking about ways to apply this to a social circle. We moved to a new place about a year ago and have struggled with meeting people (we knew no one). We don’t work. I have been working on inviting people from our neighborhood and have a couple of other ideas. I know the suggestion about volunteering as a way to meet people. Easier said than done to put myself out there. Anyways, great post and lots of food for thought.

  5. In any business, it is very important to become a “friend” of your clients, your suppliers and business partners, and even your competitors. They start to rely on you, you start to making them favours and this, on the long run, pays off.

  6. Damester says:

    Just because you are connected to a lot of people and there may be overlaps, does not necessarily mean you have stronger relationships or a better chance to successfully network.

    And even strong relationships, which may or may not have work in common, don’t always lead to the kind of help you need. For example, writers and editors tend to know lots of other writers and editors. But that’s a negative when trying to get work, because you are, quite often, competing and/or looking for the same work. (Especially if you specialize in a particular industry or type of writing.)

    Same applies to actors, other performers, musicians. The world or work is often small, and not in the best sense. At certain levels, you are literally going up for work against many of the same people, time and again.

    What you need are people who know the people who are hiring…because a lot of time, surprisingly, they don’t know the kinds of people they want to hire. (That’s why personal referrals for work are so critical to getting an interview. Everybody wants somebody else to vouch for someone, so their time is not wasted.)

    Professional relationships are exactly that, professional ones, based on one’s work/career, etc.. Yes, many do turn into personal ones (my closest friends were people I worked with and for over the years. I think it’s because we have shared values and experience and interests. The work itself is not what kept us together all these years, even though we have worked together on more than one occasion.)

    I have a problem with the use of the word “valuable” (as opposed to what, worthless?) and “weak” in all of this. You really don’t know the value of a relationship until you’re in it. And I guess I still believe (paraphrasing the I ching) that all relationships should be based on genuine interests, respect, shared values, etc. Not how much we someone can do for us (or even us for them). There’s way too much of that and always has been.

    As more and more people are seeing today, you can have roots in many “communities” (working moms, fellow club members, associations, etc). It all really depends on how much effort someone will expend on your part. And people are really busy today, just holding their own.

    Surprisingly, this is rarely a quid pro quo. Most people I know spent/spend a lot of time in genuine networking to keep in contact with people. When they needed help, a lot of the time they got more from actual strangers than from those for whom they may have done a lot in past.

    You have to look at it as a circle, where you give as much as you can without expectation. You don’t really know who in the circle might be of help. Ironically, the closer many people are to you, the less they “see” your actual skills, abilities and/or understand your capabilities beyond what you may have already done. They often prove almost useless in terms of real networking.

    (How many friends really know the exact skills, experience, knowledge is involved, let alone daily activities, entailed in another friend’s job? Seriously.)

    Help those you can, when you can, because it’s simply the right thing to do. Ask for help, but don’t expect or demand it.

    Less is often more in an effective network (the old 80/20 Pareto principal). More is not necessarily better, plus how many people can you really create a genuine relationship with?

  7. Damester (7)–You’re raising some excellent points. I think this is why traditional networking often yields poor results. We often network with people who are too close to us, doing work too similar to what we do, for any of us to help each other. A network of engineers probably won’t produce too many job leads for it’s members because each member will be competing for the same job openings.

    The strength of networking comes from doing it with people who are involved in work that’s related to–but not identical with–what it is that we do. That would be people who are close enough to our work to be able to refer us to employers and customers, but not identical so that they compete.

    Maybe the second group would represent weak connections, but they wouldn’t be without value.

  8. Kate says:

    A more sophisticated version of this argument is presented by Ronald Burt.

    He argues that it is not the connection that matters but the hole that it bridges. That is, it gets back to the adding value.

  9. Paul says:

    I think some of the comments above are a little too cynical. If I know someone who is a good fit for a position I will send them the info and let them decide. I find the overlap between my skill set and the people in my network is not so great that everyone I know is competing for my job. If you find that is the case, I suggest you embrace continuing education because these competitive pressures will not go away on their own.

    As for the failure of volunteering to generate contacts, try different kinds of volunteer work, don’t forget non-profits, as well as continuing education, take a group exercise class, join a forum about a subject you find interesting. The biggest factor is it has to be something new, because your old social circle has probably reached a steady state. The side benefit here is even if you meet no one new at least you learned something new.

    I think somebody should have mentioned the Never Eat Alone book by now. The post says to provide value, one way to immediately provide value is to be a good listener.

  10. AnnJo says:

    Each generation has its own style, but somehow, the program “build lots of weak connections and then strengthen the ones that are valuable to you” seems such a coldly utilitarian approach to human interaction. Some of the greatest connectinos are those who have nothing in common with you but mutual liking, and no “uses” whatsoever.

  11. David says:

    Fantastic stuff. Until now, I would have thought only the oppsisite were true (that is, to focus on the stronger more promising contacts).

    Establishing these contacts is easy, cultivatng the relationship I believe is the harder part.

  12. Tyler@Feettothefire says:

    That’s why so many professional people of a certain age golf, it is a great way to connect with people and form those “weak connections.”
    Depending on your age and interests church, sports, social clubs, etc. are the way to form “weak connections,” but if you want them to go to “stronger” level than you will have to put yourself out there and engage people on a personal level.
    As another note, when I moved to Miami I found people were really open to meeting new people. In the Midwest, not so much. My theory is that people in the Midwest tend to be from there and thus have their high school friends and their families all around them and thus don’t encourage other relations as much.

  13. Drew says:

    I’m curious to know if anybody has any good conversation starters for engaging someone in conversation and help quickly build a connection/contact.

  14. Sierra says:

    I’ve long thought that relationships and personal connections are the most valuable currency I have. As a stay-at-home parent, freelance writer and home educator, I have professional skills, but they don’t bring me as much value, even in terms of cash or bartered goods and services, as my relationships do. Having a wide network of social and professional acquaintances helps me with my career, but it also has a lot of direct benefits. There are things ranging from kids’ clothes to computer parts to massage that we never have to buy because they are readily available through our social network.

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