Putting the Strength of Weak Ties to Work

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.