How Does Who You Know Affect What You Know?

Bad decisions are a big drain on personal time–and they often waste precious resources. But why do these failures happen? Early on researchers focused especially on problems inherent to small groups, including bad chemistry, ineffective leadership and groupthink. Then there was a strong suggestion that bad decisions were the result of “cognitive biases.” That included overconfidence and the tendency to overlook or ignore alternative viewpoints.

Although all of the above are definitely a part of the problem, Cross, Thomas and Light seem to have a better resolution of the issue. In an intriguing piece of research reported in the Sloan Management Review, they focused on how informal networks affect the decisioning of leaders. They’ve found the most significant answer to the question of bad decisions: network bias.  

Two conclusions are very significant:

–Leaders often try to rectify inefficient and ineffective decision making by increasing collaboration.  Cross found that engineers and scientists looking for information were more than five times as likely to turn to friends or colleagues than to a different network or research.

–Leaders are often blind to the way their own informal network bias affects how they frame decisions. Execs often frame problems–and resolve them–based on what their network of colleagues suggest. The network may be within the team or merely a part of the organization. But using networks carelessly can be a serious problem for effective decisionmaking.

Both of these conclusions also apply directly to career development.  When we have career questions regarding decisions to whom do we usually go?  Our network of friends.  And networks have a high tendency to be composed of birds of a feather.  Social scientists have known for years that “who you know” has much to do with “what you know.” There are upsides and downsides to that conclusion. 

Think, for example, of your career networking this way. Do the members of your network know one another? Do you have colleagues in your network that know only a few of your friends? Or do you have a network in which none of the members know your friends or each other. Your best opportunities fit the second and third situation. Non-redundancy is more often the key to career success. 

That suggests that if we want to control our careers in a volatile environment, we’d better start looking beyond our friends and our own echo chamber.


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