How Personality Shapes Your Network

A while ago Tim wrote an excellent post on the difference between networking and network structure. It’s one of my favorite posts and it’s among the most popular on the blog. Just to recap the main idea from that post – some network structures are better at supporting innovation and we need to understand how we can form these structures better.

As Tim says, there is a lot of evidence that bridging communities that don’t communicate is a precursor to innovation. In technical terms, this is called bridging a ‘structural hole’ and we can see this in different accounts of creativity and breakthroughs in the arts, sciences and business. Also, the divisioning of organizations and the consequent creation of silos is a creator of structural holes that puts up a barrier to innovation. The diagram below shows a network map where person 5 is bridging a structural hole.

bridge

Having a lot of contacts through being an active ‘networker’ will not support innovation if we just keep networking with people who are similar to ourselves and our friends. This might create bigger and denser clusters (e.g. nodes 1,2,3 and 4 in the diagram) but won’t help us to bridge clusters. In other words, the number of contacts that we have matters a lot less than the question of who our contacts are with.

One of the big questions in our research is how networks evolve and we are starting to understand how personality types affect the formation of innovation networks. The obvious statement to make is that extroverts will be essential to encourage innovation networks because they form and maintain contacts. However, this assumption falls into the networking trap where we assume that more contacts are better.

One of our PhD students, John Chen, is looking at small business networks and he has found that one particular psychological characteristic is highly correlated with the person’s positioning in the central points of networks where they can bridge groups and coordinate activity. This particular trait is called ‘self monitoring’ and is closely related to what I would call social adaptability.

People with high self-monitoring characteristics are aware of their own personality and can adapt it to suit different groups and circumstances. This is quite different from simply being ‘outgoing’. When Tim and I meet people in organizations who are playing key bridging roles they are very skilled in different social settings, but I wouldn’t describe all of them as being particularly extroverted.

While we still need to do a lot more to develop this research, I think this finding has some immediate implications:

We can’t assume that the extroverted people who get the most profile are necessarily the best organizational bridges. It’s really important to understand the network before making changes to the organization.

While some people have natural self-monitoring skills, it’s also possible to train people in becoming better bridges.
In the same way that many organizations take a lot of trouble to build emotional intelligence in their managers, there is really no reason why the same thing can’t be done to develop better ‘bridging intelligence”

Thanks to John Chen for allowing me to share his research findings.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

15 thoughts on “How Personality Shapes Your Network

  1. “While some people have natural self-monitoring skills, it’s also possible to train people in becoming better bridges”.

    To me, this connects nicely to Tim’s recent a riff on the importance of empathy in innovation!

  2. I think you are right, Sam. There is a whole range of psychological characteristics that could influence innovation because they affect network structure.

  3. Thanks Darcy. We will try to post more results from the research as they come to hand.

  4. The assertion that the bridges aren’t always extroverts reminds me of a paper that looked at dissemination of new drug information in health networks. Although the pharmaceutical company initially thought that high-profile/popular doctors should be targeted to influence uptake of new drugs, the research found that there was actually a low-profile doctor bridging two distinct groups of practitioners who had far more influence. By targeting this individual they could accelerate uptake.

  5. Fascinating post and a great find thanks to @darcymoore.

    This is the 2nd time in the past week that I’ve pondered on the topics of innovation and knowledge (information of value). First as a response to Chris Betcher’s blog and here now.

    Again, I draw from my previous experience as a Systems Designer/Analyst. In the IT industry, this role acts as a bridge between the 2 silos of IT and the Business. This context is proof that people can be trained to be better bridges. Truth is, the more you do the act of bridging, the better you get at it. Also, it’s often the better listeners (rather than the talkers – stereotypical extroverts) who make better analysts.

    As you say, aggregation, filtering, and connecting are key skills as well. Questioning and listening precede these 3. Presentation (getting it out there) succeeds these 3. In my response to Betcher’s blog, your 3 fall within the analysis/synthesis (#2 in my set of 3 on knowledge). Like being a bridge, your 3 can also be learned and make for a good solutions designer.

    …i hope this makes sense….

    This post made me think and learn. Keep ‘em coming.

  6. Thanks Malyn. This makes good sense to me. We need to do a lot more to understand what makes a good connector. I was thinking of three network connectors in some organisations that Tim and I work with. One is a total extrovert, but the other two aren’t. However, they are all naturally curious people and good listeners. Tim and I like working with them because we only need to explain something once and then they come back with ideas that we hadn’t thought of.

  7. John,
    social networking and network analysis is indeed a fascinating subject. I myself got really into this only a couple of years ago and being drawn to the cognitive aspects of our being, it is interesting to see the evolution of networks and sub-networks over time.

    I totally agree with you and Tim on the power of bridging communities. In fact, this is one of the underlying concepts behind network weaving. Adding new hubs to the existing network strengthens the overall network. And the more diverse these new hubs are in relation to the existing network, the more the new learning and innovations that can come out of the network.

    Also as you and John Chen point out, the “influencers” or “extroverts” are not necessarily the best network weavers and/or bridgers. There are certain qualities a good weaver/bridger should have that goes beyond being famous or influential. I would definitely like to hear more about the”self monitoring” trait you mention here – it looks to be an interesting concept.

    I also like your idea of helping folks develop “bridging intelligence”. However, I am not sure if training will make a “bridger” out of every manager (just as every manager cannot be made into a good leader). I think there are some deep underlying qualities that has to be present in the individual which then can be developed by external training to make them an ‘expert’ at bridging — anyway, just a thought :-).

    Enjoyed the post.

    Regards,
    Ned

  8. Hi Ned. Thanks for these thoughts. Another PhD student Sam tellsme that wikipedia has a useful entry on self monitoring so that would be worth a look. You are probably right about bridging being based in personality but I reckon that some of it can be learned. We need to do more research on this area.

  9. Hi Ned,

    I certainly agree with you that training won’t be able to make every manager a successful broker. However, there is some evidence that you can teach people to better understand and exploit the social capital embedded within networks- a key part of which is learning how to be a better brokerage. Ronald Burt and Don Ronchi conducted a field trial where they taught executives how to do this and found some pretty strong effects on subsequent performance evaluations, retention and promotion. You can read about their results here: http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ronald.burt/research/TESSC.pdf

    If you’re interested in how self-monitoring and social networks influence performance in organisations, a good place to start is Ajay Mehra’s website: http://ajaymehra.net/research.html

    Cheers,

    Sam

    Ps. Here’s the wiki on self-monitoring: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self_monitoring

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