Tanya Menon – Organizational psychologist
I started teaching MBA students 17 years ago. Sometimes I run into my students years later. And when I run into them, a funny thing happens. I don’t remember just their faces; I also remember where exactly in the classroom they were sitting. And I remember who they were sitting with as well. This is not because I have any special superpowers of memory. The reason I can remember them is because they are creatures of habit. They are sitting with their favorite people in their favorite seats. They find their twins, they stay with them for the whole year.
Now, the danger of this for my students is they’re at risk of leaving the university with just a few people who are exactly like them. They’re going to squander their chance for an international, diverse network. How could this happen to them? My students are open-minded. They come to business school precisely so that they can get great networks.
Now, all of us socially narrow in our lives, in our school, in work, and so I want you to think about this one. How many of you here brought a friend along for this talk? I want you to look at your friend a little bit. Are they of the same nationality as you? Are they of the same gender as you? Are they of the same race? Really look at them closely. Don’t they kind of look like you as well?
The muscle people are together, and the people with the same hairstyles and the checked shirts. We all do this in life. We all do it in life, and in fact, there’s nothing wrong with this. It makes us comfortable to be around people who are similar. The problem is when we’re on a precipice, right? When we’re in trouble, when we need new ideas, when we need new jobs, when we need new resources — this is when we really pay a price for living in a clique.
Mark Granovetter, the sociologist, had a famous paper “The Strength of Weak Ties,” and what he did in this paper is he asked people how they got their jobs. And what he learned was that most people don’t get their jobs through their strong ties — their father, their mother, their significant other. They instead get jobs through weak ties, people who they just met. So if you think about what the problem is with your strong ties, think about your significant other, for example. The network is redundant. Everybody that they know, you know. Or I hope you know them. Right? Your weak ties — people you just met today — they are your ticket to a whole new social world.
The thing is that we have this amazing ticket to travel our social worlds, but we don’t use it very well. Sometimes we stay awfully close to home. And today, what I want to talk about is: What are those habits that keep human beings so close to home, and how can we be a little bit more intentional about traveling our social universe?
So let’s look at the first strategy. The first strategy is to use a more imperfect social search engine. What I mean by a social search engine is how you are finding and filtering your friends. And so people always tell me, “I want to get lucky through the network. I want to get a new job. I want to get a great opportunity.” And I say, “Well, that’s really hard, because your networks are so fundamentally predictable.” Map out your habitual daily footpath, and what you’ll probably discover is that you start at home, you go to your school or your workplace, you maybe go up the same staircase or elevator, you go to the bathroom — the same bathroom — and the same stall in that bathroom, you end up in the gym, then you come right back home. It’s like stops on a train schedule. It’s that predictable. It’s efficient, but the problem is, you’re seeing exactly the same people. Make your network slightly more inefficient. Go to a bathroom on a different floor. You encounter a whole new network of people.
The other side of it is how we are actually filtering. And we do this automatically. The minute we meet someone, we are looking at them, we meet them, we are initially seeing, “You’re interesting.” “You’re not interesting.” “You’re relevant.” We do this automatically. We can’t even help it. And what I want to encourage you to do instead is to fight your filters. I want you to take a look around this room, and I want you to identify the least interesting person that you see, and I want you to connect with them over the next coffee break. And I want you to go even further than that. What I want you to do is find the most irritating person you see as well and connect with them.
What you are doing with this exercise is you are forcing yourself to see what you don’t want to see, to connect with who you don’t want to connect with, to widen your social world. To truly widen, what we have to do is, we’ve got to fight our sense of choice. We’ve got to fight our choices. And my students hate this, but you know what I do? I won’t let them sit in their favorite seats. I move them around from seat to seat. I force them to work with different people so there are more accidental bumps in the network where people get a chance to connect with each other. And we studied exactly this kind of an intervention at Harvard University. At Harvard, when you look at the rooming groups, there’s freshman rooming groups, people are not choosing those roommates. They’re of all different races, all different ethnicities. Maybe people are initially uncomfortable with those roommates, but the amazing thing is, at the end of a year with those students, they’re able to overcome that initial discomfort. They’re able to find deep-level commonalities with people.
So the takeaway here is not just “take someone out to coffee.” It’s a little more subtle. It’s “go to the coffee room.” When researchers talk about social hubs, what makes a social hub so special is you can’t choose; you can’t predict who you’re going to meet in that place. And so with these social hubs, the paradox is, interestingly enough, to get randomness, it requires, actually, some planning. In one university that I worked at, there was a mail room on every single floor. What that meant is that the only people who would bump into each other are those who are actually on that floor and who are bumping into each other anyway. At another university I worked at, there was only one mail room, so all the faculty from all over that building would run into each other in that social hub. A simple change in planning, a huge difference in the traffic of people and the accidental bumps in the network.