Is your network structure set up for success? Dr Xi Zou charts where to look for connections to achieve high performance at work
There are many theories to help people build the optimal network. Some suggest managers keep their contacts apart and enjoy the benefit of being the unique person connecting people to new networks. By contrast, others suggest mangers build new connections and fill in the “holes” within their networks, to build cohesion.
Xi Zou, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and co-author of ‘Bonds and Boundaries: Network Structure, Organizational Boundaries, and Job Performance’ finds that both pieces of advice are right.
“The wisdom is to know where to keep contacts apart and where to connect them to each other,” says Dr Zou.
Dr Zou says a fundamental link between network structures and job performance exists. In an analysis of more than 300 managers, she identifies that network structure matters in predicting four types of job performances – creativity, decision-making, task execution and teamwork. From the dataset, she finds that when managers successfully keep their contacts inside and outside of the organisations apart (namely, creating a “structural hole” across the organisational boundary), they were rated better for creativity and decision-making. Simultaneously, managers who introduce disconnected colleagues within their organisations (filling in the structural holes within their firms) scored higher in their task execution and teamwork.
Managing complexity is tough. Leading people when dealing with myriad external and internal stakeholder demands and guiding them through changing ecosystems requires different skills at different times. Each job dimension done well adds up to a competitive advantage, yet each job dimension is strengthened by a particular network structure.
“You need a network with more structural holes across the organisational boundary to achieve better creativity and decision-making performance,” says Dr Zou.
The idea in brief
Research shows that often, people who build active and diverse networks are more likely to have good ideas. The disconnections between the spheres within and outside the organisation bring opportunities for fresh experiences in new social spaces. Novel ideas often come from such distinct groups. It’s the age-old idea that people don’t know what they don’t know, and that different perspectives expose them to new information.
“And yet not all disconnections are equally valuable,” says Dr Zou, “the disconnections across the organisational boundaries are particularly useful. Diverse knowledge is more likely to come from connections outside your organisation.”
Like with creativity, structural holes at the organisational boundary create opportunities for managers to bring information from the outside in. By doing so, people can solve complex workplace problems.
Decision-makers who are more comfortable with integrating viewpoints from different social circles are more likely to avoid cognitive bias and less likely to be “trapped by group thinking”.
“Few structural holes inside the organisation lead to better task execution and teamwork,” says Dr Zou.
The idea in brief
The more organisational connections a manager has, the more likely they are to maintain focus on their tasks and see project plans through. Dr Zou says: “In a cohesive social network, individuals are less likely to behave opportunistically because information about their behaviour is readily accessible to others.” A cohesive network also creates a strong culture that shapes the way problems, and solutions to those problems, are perceived.
“Building an interconnected network provides a coherent language,” she says. “It is useful not only for supporting coordination, but for maintaining a dialogue through which information and solutions can be discovered.”
While connections outside the team can be critical for getting buy-in to new ideas, a cohesive network within the organisation enables managers to monitor teamwork through a range of interconnected contacts. In essence, teamwork is most effective in a cohesive intra-organisational network.
“It is down to you to create the right bonding at the right place, while setting a clear boundary at other places,” says Dr Zou. Only then can you network your way to a competitive advantage.