Employee Engagement Misses a Network Perspective

Almost all of us have had the experience of encountering someone far from home, who, to our surprise, turns out to share a mutual acquaintance with us. This kind of experience occurs with sufficient frequency that our language even provides a cliché to be uttered at the appropriate moment of recognizing mutual acquaintances. We say, “My it’s a small world.” – Stanley Milgram, The Small-World Problem

The Org Chart

As companies have grown in size, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom in its entirety. The org chart tends to be used as short hand for the subcomponents. There’s department X, Y and Z. But who works in those departments, and what do they do? In very large organizations, it can begin to feel like a very big jigsaw puzzle with sections coming together to form clear images while the rest are grouped into generic piles by color or texture with little understanding of how they fit together.

But the org chart is not the only means we have for making sense of the organization. Through conversations with colleagues we learn about other areas of the company and how they fit together. When these conversations are strictly work related, they overlap with the formal hierarchy. Whereas non-work conversations open up new realms for engaging with each other and consequently for indirectly surfacing topics about the company from other angles.

Friendship and Network

The role of friendships in the workplace is well established, it is one of a handful of questions that Gallup monitors for Employee EngagementQ10: “I have a best friend at work.” Yet, while most articles about the importance of friendships in the workplace highlight how they lead to increased productivity, employee happiness, ability to challenge each other’s ideas and a sense of comradery they fail to highlight how these individual relationships link up to shape the larger company.


The field of Employee Engagement needs to incorporate insight from the field of network science to fully understand why relationships matter. Otherwise one will overlook the spillover benefits that are best understood by looking at organizational networks. If employees are only linked to a friend the bond with the organization is relatively weak. But what often happens is that this bond is much stronger because I am not only linked to my friends at work, but also indirectly to my friends’ friends, many of whom are also linked. In this way, relationships at work not only form a tie between two people, but an interlocking web of relationships. For a rich account of this network perspective, look at Andrew Parker and Rob Cross’s concise pieceIncreasing Employee Engagement Through Organizational Network Analysis.

Furthermore, friendship forms for different reasons than the org chart (although it certainly is influenced by this formal structure) since that is who we spend time with. The benefit of having a different set of causal motivations for forming social ties than work ties, a different set of relationships form, which thereby are more to bridge disparate groups and link organizational silos.

Small World Phenomena

Let’s take a closer look at one of the most famous experiments of Harvard social psychologist Stanley Milgram, his 1967 small-world experiment. In it he identified people who were physically and socially distant from Cambridge, Massachusetts and gave them a task to deliver an envelope to someone they knew on a first name basis that might be able to get it to a target recipient in Boston. While many estimated that this was an impossible task, many of the letters were delivered in just a couple of links.

The associated idea of “the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” is based on the actor’s near central role in the entertainment universe. Whereas other actors typically stick to one genre (think Jim Carrey & comedy), Kevin has been in a wide range of genres putting him in touch with a variety of co-stars.

Clusters and Bridges

These examples illustrate two network terms ‘clusters’ and ‘bridges.’ Clusters are groups of individuals who have many shared ties, whereas a bridge is a relationship between two individuals across such clusters where there are few or no other relationships between those clusters. If workplace relationships were 100% work related all the time, they would be very defined clusters that perfectly overlap with the org chart and the senior leadership would be the only bridging set of ties connecting different departments. Fortunately, this is never completely the case. Conversations emerge around the watercooler and the cafeteria, or through actively managing the network through a designated “network weaver,” as Valdis Krebs and June Holley call them, or througha variety of interventions aimed at designing such interactions.

Friendship at work provides an array of localized benefits, between the two friends. Furthermore it connects colleagues into a wider web of relationships which is important not only for feeling part of the larger whole but also understanding how the organization works beyond one’s immediate realm.

Originally published on Hrchitects.net

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