Do You Two Know Each Other? New research by MIT Sloan Professor Ray Reagans explains why some have an inaccurate read on their professional network

People with a high need for closure see social connections where none exist; perceive more relationships between socially similar people than actually are there

Ray ReagansRay E. Reagans, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management; Associate Professor of Organization Studies

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 7, 2010 — To get ahead in today’s ultra competitive job market, it’s not only what you know, it’s who you know (and who they know and who they know.) And yet as any career counselor will tell you, simply being well connected doesn’t necessarily guarantee success: you must also understand how the people you know are connected to each other.

Understanding how professional and social networks operate is hard for some people. According to new research* by Ray Reagans, Associate Professor of Organization Studies at MIT Sloan School of Management, individuals with a high need for closure (NFC)—people who strongly prefer order and predictability—are more likely to assume that socially similar people are connected to each other, and that their network connections are balanced, i.e., that their friends are also friends with each other.

“In order for networks to be useful, you need to accurately see how your networks are connected,” says Reagans. “People with high NFC tend to overuse heuristics—educated guesses based on past experience—and are therefore much less likely to benefit from networks. It could also hinder their careers. Even if they know what kinds of contacts are valuable, their inability to accurately see relationships will limit their ability to select the right contacts.”

His research has big implications for how jobseekers and employees ought to use their networks to find employment or advance their careers. “People with high NFC may be using their time ineffectively,” he says. “We all tend to make decisions with heuristics. They’re efficient shortcuts that often lead to good decisions. But warning: sometimes they get in the way.”

In a series of three experiments, Reagans and his colleagues—Francis Flynn and Lucia Guillory, both of Stanford—looked at how people with high NFC judge social and professional relationships. In each experiment, participants completed a survey that measured their NFC, rating their agreement with statements like: “I don’t like situations that are uncertain.”

In the first experiment, they tested a cluster of MBAs who’d been enrolled in a business program together for six months. Participants filled out a questionnaire that assessed their relationships with classmates, as well as their perceptions of the relationships between others in the class. The team found that people with a high NFC tended to perceive social ties where they didn’t exist, and assume that their contacts knew each other.

In the second and third experiments, Reagans and his team tested subjects’ tendency to assume that people of the same race are connected. Subjects were first given photographs of 16 students of different races and asked to draw a diagram of where they thought relationships existed. In the final experiment, subjects were shown a photograph of 36 employees of varying races seated at a lunch table for 30 seconds, told to memorize it, and then reproduce it ten minutes later. The results of both experiments showed that people with a high NFC tended to perceive relationships between people of the same race. Most of us have a baseline tendency to believe that individuals of the same race, age, and gender are connected, a presumption known as the “social similarity principle.” Our intuition is correct: relationships do cluster that way, but there is significant variation. “People with a high NFC overuse the principle,” says Reagans. “They tend to believe that African Americans are mostly friends with other African Americans, and Asians are mostly friends with other Asians.”

Reagans says that people with high NFC need to learn how to see their networks more accurately, and that employers and business schools ought to help them. “A lot of companies and MBA programs provide networking opportunities, but for people with a high NFC those opportunities are not productive.

“There needs to be two interventions. First, educate workers and students on what kinds of relationships are more valuable. And second, educate them on how their biases and preconceived notions can limit their ability to realize the benefits having the right connections can create,” he says.

*Do You Two Know Each Other? Transivity, Homophily, and the Need for (Network) Closure Francis J. Flynn, Ray E. Reagans, and Lucia Guillory

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