If you are like many of the successful executives I teach, chances are that your density score is higher than it should be. When I conduct this exercise in class, the average density hovers above 50%, although it is significantly lower for professionals who work mostly with outside clients such as consultants, investment bankers, lawyers, headhunters, and auditors and for people who go back to school to orchestrate a career change. The range of scores always extends to 100%: when nearly everyone with whom you discuss important work issues knows each other, you have an inbred network. There’s no other way to put it.
To understand the problems of having an inbred network, let’s look at the effects of network density in a completely different context: the so-called obesity epidemic. Two previously unknown university professors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, became overnight celebrities when they showed that being overweight can be contagious.
Christakis and Fowler analyzed the health records and social relationships of 12,000 Framingham, Massachusetts, residents from 1948 to the present. Using advanced visualization techniques and careful statistical controls, they showed that overweight people tend to hang together socially, while thin people tend to be friends with other thin people. But this is not a mere correlation showing that birds of a feather flock together: being connected socially to people who are overweight, even indirectly, seems to make a person overweight. The researchers concluded that thin and overweight people tend to live their lives within different and unconnected social clusters —‘microclimates’, so to speak — within which different social norms about what is normal and desirable have developed. Political views also hang by cluster. Tightly connected members apparently had no external perspective on the world beyond their immediate group.
At work, when we surround ourselves with people like us and with whom we’ve worked before, the network creates an echo chamber in which no new information circulates because everyone has the same sources. That’s how groups become mired in consensus, and after a while, everyone thinks and acts alike. Panel 3 below The innovators’ network dilemma presents convincing data that bears out this observation.
This state of affairs also limits significantly how valuable you are to your network, since you bring nothing unique that the network members can’t get elsewhere. Your comparative advantage— how you differentiate yourself from others who are as smart, hardworking, or expert as you are—depends on your capacity to connect people, ideas, and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another.
Some research suggests that there’s an optimum level of density, about 40%. But of course, that depends a lot on what a person’s job is. When your network gets too sparse, you lose connectivity. You are a ‘visitor’ to many networks but a ‘citizen’ of none. You may have access to lots of ideas and people, but you can’t put them to use inside your organization (or any other group to which you belong), because you lack inside information about how to pitch your ideas, who might be opposed to them, and how to win people over — all critical parts of leading change.
Too sparse a network, and you might also lack credibility and visibility with important gatekeepers, who might not know you well but who implicitly evaluate you on the basis of who you know that they also know (the principle on which professional networks like LinkedIn work). This is often a problem when you are the minority in a group. People are apt to have relationships with people like them, so minorities and majorities and professional men and women are unlikely to have highly overlapping networks. In a study of boards of directors, for example, James Westphal found that minority directors tend to be more influential if they have direct or indirect social network ties to majority directors through common memberships on other boards. These overlapping networks serve as a form of social verification and increase the likelihood that the minority’s ideas will be heard.
In sum, as Malcolm Gladwell illustrated in his book The Tipping Point, networks run on ‘connectors’, people who are linked to almost everyone else in a few steps and who connect the rest of us to the world. Connectors can see a need in one place and a solution in another, a vacancy in one area and a talented person in another, a discovery from a different discipline and a problem in their own, and so on, because they’re just one or two ‘chain lengths’ away from the issues. That is, you can reach connectors through someone you already know or through someone who knows someone whom you already know.