I like you: you're like me

Raina Brands shows the value of diverse networks – and the pitfalls of interconnected ones with the same demographic characteristics

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Whether we want to admit it or not, we like like-minded – it feels natural. Familiarity breeds contempt goes the clichéd saying, but similarity breeds connection.

Social scientists have long observed homophily – meaning love of the same – across ties of many kinds including friendship. The homophily principle springs from the things we can see. Like an automatic barcode scanner our brains rapidly compute how we compare to others. “Are we a similar age and the same gender? Are we the same ethnicity or race?”

The experience of one Asian trustee, who we’ll call Anushka, helps explain. She admitted feeling uncomfortable at her first board meeting. The group, she said, was distinctly “pale, stale and male”. Anushka looked for similarity among differences and on the surface found none. She held her breath until she spotted another female trustee and let out a loud sigh of relief. Anushka admitted that she noticed the other trustee’s demographic traits first (she was a similar age and black). Anushka and the other female trustee went for lunch after the board meeting and forged a deeper connection from there.

The sea of sameness: sink or swim?

Anushka’s anecdote shows that homophily serves some useful purposes – building fast connections with strangers, for example. But it also has a downside. Some evidence shows that co-workers are only likely to create social connections in a social-work setting if they are of the same race. This can limit people's social worlds. Similarities in surface-level traits, such as race and ethnicity, can also create divides.

Raina Brands, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS), examines how informal networks of friendship, advice and communication help or hinder managers in the workplace. “At first, we form relationships because of shared demographic features,” she says. “But as we interact we become more similar, which reinforces our attraction to each other.” This dynamic spiralling effect produces dense pockets of similar people in organisations around the world.

“When we say build diversity into your network, it's not because men and women or different ethnicities or people of different ages are inherently different. It's because they're interacting in different social environments. They see the world differently.”

If sleep and food habits are contagious, so are organisational behaviours

Your sameness is catching

Relationships drive behaviour. So over time, we begin to act like the people in our networks. Dr Brands points to Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives penned by Nicholas A Christakis and James H Fowler.

Their research on contagion – shared ideas, attitudes or behaviour patterns in a group through imitation and conformity – shows that surprising things can spread. “Happiness, obesity, drug use and sleep habits are all contagious,” says Dr Brands. Social networks influence our ideas, emotions, relationships, behaviour, health and more. In other words who’s in our network changes the way we think about every aspect of our lives.

Take obesity. The authors made the case that if your friend’s friend’s friend who lives a thousand miles away gains weight, you’re likely to as well. Obesity, like many patterns of behaviour, spreads through three degrees of influence. Even if a friend of a friend loses weight and you’re not living in the same city, you’re likely to lose weight, too.

“This is one of the reasons executives should care about the diversity of informal networks in their workplace,” says Dr Brands. “We're moving away from top-down models of management to more bottom-up models. If sleep and food habits are contagious, so are organisational behaviours. Change flows through people – through their informal networks. Ideas get trapped in these cohesive subgroups. If you want to ignite, say, a change process, you need groups to connect and talk to each other.”

Unpacking the benefits of network diversity

Building a diverse network brings many benefits, including new information, fresh perspectives, increased creativity and opportunity recognition. Organisations such as global pharma giant, Pfizer, have long recognised the value in collaboration and networking. A decade ago, the firm set up pfizerWorks, an outsourcing system to allow Pfizer colleagues to ditch the busy-work taking them away from collaboration. PfizerWorks allowed employees to outsource the drudgery with the click of a button and focus instead on using the networking process to mobilise action and share knowledge.

The perhaps less discussed benefit of network diversity is best described by Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. In his book, Bowling Alone, he draws attention to the shrinking access to “social capital”, arguing that the lack of community sharing is a serious threat to our civic and personal health. He claims that social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For instance, joining and participating in a group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.

Dr Brands says: “We’re often interested in individuals’ social networks, but there are societal consequences to the networks that we form.” Diversity, for example, can strengthen our community networks. “The homophily principle means you will find individuals interacting in very cohesive groups but with few connections between them. Paradoxically, these cohesive groups create fragile communities because there are no bridges between them.”

Extrapolate this into the workplace and there are further implications. “Firms with interlinked subgroups tend to weather crises better,” says Dr Brands. Time and again, simulations show that bridges between group members allow for better information sharing. Ties between non-similar people are also weaker and dissolve at a higher rate.

Why diversity is hard to achieve

What stops people from building diverse networks? Three factors, among a raft of others, says Dr Brands.

Structure: “In skewed populations, where certain demographic groups dominate, homophily is more common. The odds can feel stacked against you. Organisational layout and the flow of work can also hinder. For example, if your desk is stuck in a darkened corner you’re less likely to meet new people compared to someone positioned near the entrance. If your work is channelled through one or two people, you’re less likely to interact with new colleagues compared to those involved in project-based work.”

You: “Relationships simply take time. It’s easy to add lots of weak ties, and diversity in your weak-tie network is very helpful informationally, but for deep-level contagion, you require stronger, closer relationships. Problem is, you can only have a finite number of those. People typically have a core network of around eight to 10. If you make a new, close friend, somebody will exit from your core network. You can't maintain it.”

Others: “Your ability to build new relationships depends on the response of others. Your initial preferences will be driven by similarity and so too will the preferences of the people you want to reach. Diverse interactions often feel less fluid because being the same age, the same gender or the same race is a proxy for having a similar experience in the world. Interactions within the context of those similarities can feel more comfortable.”

Three tips to building diversity into your network

Relationships with people who are demographically dissimilar to us provide access to new information and different perspectives. If you want a diverse network, though, be prepared to put in the work. Dr Brands recommends:

Leading by example

“Leaders have an opportunity to change the dynamics of in- and out-groups. They can model inclusive behaviours,” she says. For example, Thomas Mussweiler, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at LBS, studied what happens when people spontaneously compare themselves to others. The ubiquity of spontaneous social comparisons suggests that we constantly change our notions of who we are. It also means that leaders have the opportunity to champion more diverse traits than the big social categories – age, gender, ethnicity – such as being a member of a group or team.

Solving something

“Telling people to get together and network doesn’t work,” says Dr Brands. Instead, use projects and assignments strategically. “Solving a problem and joining a project taskforce is a more effective way of uncovering deep similarities and forging diverse ties.”

Asking for a favour

“I owe you one!” is a great way to start a relationship. Favours tend to help the trust-building process. It shows you value the person you’re trying to connect with and gives them the option to reciprocate.

So, what’s stopping you from diversifying? Why not map your network with a specialised tool: UCINET, R, SocNetV or Gephi. What do you observe about your current network and how do you plan to commit to connecting with people different to you? Tell us by leaving a comment below.

Comments (1)

JTJ 6 years, 2 months and 18 days ago

This made me think hard about my group of friends. I think they’re diverse, but we mostly have something demographically in common. I’m going to consciously try and change that.