Conventional wisdom says the more connections you have in your professional network, the more successful you will be. When a worker has more connections, it means he or she is more likely to receive information and more likely to be promoted. Decades of research haven’t gone far beyond the “more is better” mantra until now.
New research by Brooks Holtom, associate professor of management at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, finds that who you are connected to matters most.
“The degree to which an individual is connected to people with strong, positive reputations means it is less likely for them to leave their current job,” Holtom said. “It is hard to replicate that social network when you move to a new firm. It can be done, but it will take months or years to develop those relationships of trust with people who have strong reputations.”
Together with co-authors Gary A. Ballinger and Rob Cross, both from the University of Virginia, Holtom analyzed the social networks of employees in two different large firms, one a consulting firm and another a technology firm. Then, they waited 18 months to see who stayed and was successful at each firm, and who quit to accept opportunities elsewhere. The researchers found that employees who were more connected to people with strong reputations were more likely to stay. Those who were not as well connected were more likely to quit. As demonstrated by other research Holtom and colleagues have published, this elevated turnover can be very costly for organizations.
Holtom advises companies to regularly evaluate intrafirm social networks, including measures of employees' reputations. While this research demonstrates that people who are well-connected to others and have strong reputations are less likely to leave, when they do leave the losses can be extensive. Not only is the social network disrupted in important ways, but others often follow them, creating a sort of “pied piper” effect.
The authors also argue that employees who have strong reputations and are highly sought after by other colleagues for advice are unusually valuable to organizations. Companies should identify these employees and target their retention efforts on them. Employees at all levels who are sought out by others are highly valuable because of the access to information that they have. Employees who are connected to multiple groups have tremendous value because they bridge structural holes. However, this effect is most pronounced for people in leadership positions. Because of their unique location, they can gain greater advantage by brokering information across groups.
This research was published in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.