Networking is an integral part of your career. Former president of the New York Stock Exchange, Tom Farley, once said that he owed every job, including his role as president, to networking. Your social network will help you coordinate success in your career, whether that is to find a new position or execute a project.
Organization theory seeks to explain the dynamics of our relationships in the workplace, and yet it lacks a robust framework to understand how individuals choose to pursue relationships and foster social networks. In a recent article, “Relationship Formation and Change in Ego Networks: A Regulatory Focus Framework,” Hansin Bilgili, Tsvetomira Bilgili, and Alan Ellstrand, Associate Dean of Programs and Research in the Walton College of Business, theorizes four postures workers take towards networking.
The researchers intend for their work to help account for individual agency in research on social network construction. They label the four configurations dutiful coordinators, aspirational arbitrators, versatile brokers, and indifferent egos. Each type of networker, according to the researchers, represents an intersection between loss prevention and promotion focus.
While the theory will be instrumental for researchers exploring the nature of our work relationships, it can also be enlightening for individuals to understand these archetypes as they strive to realize their goals and imaginations. By the end of this article, you should have a sense of where you might fit in and the relative strengths and weaknesses your approach to networking has.
Cross Section of Priorities
The different approaches to networking arise out of two separate foci. Bilgili, Bilgili, and Ellstrand say that people focus on promotion and prevention when networking. These foci are not mutually exclusive and individuals can be highly motivated by both.
Generally speaking, those who focus on prevention seek security and are accordingly risk adverse. On the other hand, promotion-focused individuals are willing to take on risk for the chance of growth and expansion.
In other words, promotion-motivated individuals tend to keep a loose social network rather than a thick knot of enmeshed relationships. They use their disconnected relationships to maximize personal gain. Prevention-motivated networkers prefer to bring the nodes of their networks together to facilitate collaboration. These individuals are more likely to prioritize obligations and responsibilities and, accordingly, less likely to attempt to extract profit per se from their networks.
Networkers trying to prevent loss (i.e., maintain the status quo) may not want to engage with the social messiness surrounding the fall out of a long-dead relationship, having already come to terms with its loss. People looking for gains, however, may feel a once-strong relationship that has gone dormant has already been tapped for all its worth to them.
The researchers describe this archetype as “characterized by high promotion and low prevention regulatory foci.” They’re very likely to establish new relationships, but they’re also not as motivated to maintain existing relationships. In short, aspirational arbitrators “do not focus on the downsides of risk.”
A potential weakness of this approach to networking is that others may view the individual as similarly instrumental, meaning that nearly all of an aspirational arbitrator’s relationships decay in the first year. But for aspirational arbitrators, this decay is perceived as a good thing because the turnover allows them to widen their access to various skills and experience.
Bilgili, Bilgili, and Ellstrand contrast the aspirational arbitrator with the low-promotion, high-prevention dutiful coordinator, who prefers to unite their networks. They are community oriented, and they seek to disperse benefits throughout their networks.
These people are, however, more likely to exist within closed social networks, giving them far less versatility when they encounter a problem the network doesn’t have an immediate solution for. Still, dutiful coordinators can count on more trust and reciprocity than aspirational arbitrators can, and coordinators tend to perform better when knowledge sharing and cooperation are necessary.
Versatile brokers blend both of these approaches and “are driven by both personal aspirations and ideals as well as duties and oughts.” These high-promotion, high-prevention networkers can balance the maintenance of strong ties with people against the need to dissolve relationships from time to time.
They tend to not have social networks quite as large as aspirational arbitrators nor nearly so tight and closed ones as dutiful coordinators. Versatile brokers display a great deal of flexibility in other contexts, and their approach often lets them reap the benefits of both dutiful coordinators and aspirational arbitrators without succumbing to all those postures’ drawbacks. Indeed, versatile brokers are able to switch back and forth between both approaches as the situation demands.
The final archetype the researchers identified shows a “lack of internal motivation,” which they say “may indicate [a] reluctance to actively form, change, or structure [their] network.” These low-promotion, low-prevention individuals tend to have fixed, moral beliefs that networking is useless and to some degree unsavory. As a result, indifferent egos tend to have the smallest, though stable, social networks with no strong orientation towards union or disunion.
Ellstrand, Bilgili, and Bilgili point to earlier research that suggests this approach to networking is likely to decrease job satisfaction and reduce mental wellbeing. We all know the saying that “no man’s an island.” Unfortunately, indifferent egos would believe otherwise at their own expense.
The researchers’ theories about networking suggest that all of us try to build bridges, even if we don’t all approach it the same way. Some of us like to cobble together stalwart, stone bridges – inflexible but stable – and others are content to string a moveable rope bridge across the way.
As long as you’re not sitting sullen on the banks in the mud, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any approach. And hopefully, by seeing some of the pitfalls of your own approach and the strength of others, you can work towards a well-considered networking approach that’s right for you.
Bilgili, Bilgili, and Ellstrand coauthors hope that their work will help foster new, boundary-spanning research that develops a systematic approach to social network dynamics. In the meantime, go work your own magic.
Mitchell Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of English at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the Global Middle Ages and cross-cultural communication in the European Medieval and Early Modern Periods. When his nose isn’t buried in a book (usually a Japanese textbook right now), he can be found hiking the Ozarks or at the gym improving his grappling. He lives with his wife, Rachel, and their small menagerie, two cats, Hildi and Winnie, and a goofy dog, Birch, in Fayetteville.
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