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Of Earth Quakes and Careers

The part of the U.S. where I live was roused from its collective sleep in the wee hours of Friday’s pre-dawn morning by an earthquake that measured 5.2 on the Richter scale The Richter Magnitude Scale and lasted for more than 30 seconds. What was so different from this one and previous others was the intensity — and the fact that there was time to wonder whether it was going to stop, get worse or maybe even escalate into the “big one” that is long overdue here in the Midwest.

It was a little unsettling. But amazingly, there were no personal injuries, though some people narrowly escaped harm at the epicenter, a small community that is about an hour north of where I live.

As one of our local TV stations was already doing its morning news run, coverage was immediate – and calls and e-mails from throughout the region quickly pored in to the media. All had a common theme. People were reporting that their loved ones from nearby or far away had felt and heard it, too. Aside from the realization that a single phenomenon could be experienced simultaneously hundreds of miles away, such events are unique in other ways. Instantaneously, they capture and define a moment in time. They also evoke an immediate and unchallenged awareness of whom you need to call, whose well-being you hold dearest, and whose voice and frame-of-reference you most need and want at that moment.

These are “strong” ties.

You might wonder what this has to do with careers or career theory — and you would be justified in asking. Strong and weak ties are concepts that have been defined and studied — and proposed for further study to help us understand how careers unfold and advance. They are particularly meaningful in considering networking and job-finding.

Emotionally, you and I might think of strong ties as those that we hold with the people who are most important to us – families, best friends, even pets. But in the career world, we can think of strong ties as the connections we have with the people who are most like us, who are part of our world day-in and day-out. An example of a strong tie might be the editorial staff of a newspaper. Reporters and editors work late into the night under pressure to get the facts right and out there on time, night after night, week after week, year after year. At the end of the evening, they meet at a local pub to chill and recount a post mortem on what it took to get the job done.

On the other hand, weak ties are different.

An example of a weak tie might be someone you worked with 10 years ago and now e-mail once a year just to stay in touch. Both of you now work in different occupational sectors than the one that you once had in common. Another example could be two people who serve on the board of directors of a local not-for-profit organization. One is a banker, the other a hospital administrator. Except for regular board meetings, the two have little outside contact; but they’re well-enough acquainted to stop and chat if they meet by chance in public.

Which kind of tie do you think might be of greater benefit to your career?

Think of “strong” ties as “redundant” ties, and you can see where an argument for the diversity suggested by “weak” ties comes from. Ibarra & Deshpande (2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007) write, “weak ties are argued to be more valuable since they act as bridges among diverse networks and bring new information not available through redundant ties in close objective networks.”

They go on to report that the empirical support for the value of weak career ties is strongest for “finding a job” versus “other outcomes such as promotion and salary. (e.g. Boxman, et al., 1991; in Ibarra & Deshpande, 2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007).”

Notice the mention of “networks.”

Ibarra & Deshpande say that “networks of relationships” are the “social resources as well as social contexts in which careers take shape.” So let’s think about this for a minute… You’ve just been downsized and need to find new employment. Your first thought might be to query the people you work with every day (strong ties) about possible opportunities elsewhere. But the “weak ties” argument mentioned above suggests that you might get better results by mobilizing your weak-tie network — if you have one. If you don’t have one, you can ask your strong ties to approach their strong and weak ties on your behalf, but that can get tricky… because it requests third parties to spend their social capital on people whose skills and work ethic they can’t actually vouch for. (We need to talk about this in a future column).

But I digress… so back to the point.

Job seekers: Get your own network – and make sure it includes plenty of weak ties. If you don’t have a network, you can start building one through short-term volunteer projects that involve team work and meeting groups of people — people whose jobs, interests and abilities are very different from yours. There are also organized networking opportunities; but I have to wonder how much good it really does, for example, when women go to a networking group luncheon and sit at the same table with people they already know.

Yes, I know, we are talking about moving beyond one’s comfort zone here — but will a little anxiety really be all that bad? And don’t take your best friend with you because it will be too easy to cling to him in retreat. The idea is to forge new acquaintances, so get out there and dance.

A couple of other points need to be brought in here:

One is a term – “homophily” – that I was unfamiliar with until reading about it earlier this week – before the earthquake, actually. “Homophily” refers to the degree of demographic and identity similarity of individuals who regularly interact with one another. (Ibarra, 1993; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007). Mayrhofer, Meyer & Steyrer (2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007) report that “homophilic reproduction” and “reduction of opportunities” have a tendency to be linked. In other words, if we continue to associate only with people we know, people who are like ourselves, people we feel comfortable with… then we are reducing the possibilities (career and otherwise) that may be open to us in the future.

The second point comes from Weick (1996; Thomas & Inkson, 2007; in Gunz & Peiperl, 2007), and it has to do with context. Think of “context” as the circumstances you begin to explain when starting an answer with, “Well, it depends.” Weick describes strong and weak “situations,” rather than strong and weak “ties;” but there may be a caveat for us here. A “strong” situation is one that is highly constrained. The careerist doesn’t perceive a great deal of freedom to choose her actions. A “weak” situation has few constraints. The “actor” is free to move about at will. An example: You work for a rigidly bureaucratic organization in which it would likely be a career-ending move to bypass your supervisor and request an appointment with the company president to tell him about a great idea that you have for a new product. However, if both you and the president of the company get downsized, the constraints are off. You can approach her without fear of anything more than embarrassing yourself. This is a “weak” situation.

Thomas & Inkson interpret Weick as stating that “career outcomes can be powerfully enacted by their career holders in an environment relatively free of constraints…” but in strong situations, “perspectives encouraging individual enactment may be limited.”

So the lessons put forth for your consideration today are:
1) If you don’t have a network of weak ties, please get busy and start building one.
2) Before you start using those ties, pay attention to the degree of constraint in your environment – i.e. whether you are acting in a weak or strong situation.

And, I guess, if there’s a third piece of advice this week, it is this: Get under a doorway or a desk if there’s an earthquake.

Jan

Want to know more?

Primary ReferencesGunz, H, Peiperl, M. (2007). Handbook of Career Studies. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Ibarra, H, Deshpande. (2007). Networks and identities. H. Gunz & M. Peiperl (Eds.) Handbook of Career Studies: Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Mayrhofer, W, Meyer, M, Steyrer, J. (2007). Handbook of Career Studies. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage.

Secondary References
Boxman, E, De Graaf, P, & Flap, H. (1991) The impact of social and human capital on the income attainment of Dutch managers. Social Networks, 13: 51-73.

Ibarra, H. (1993). Personal networks of women and minorities in management. A conceptual framework. Academy of Management Review, 18 (1), 57-87.

U.S. Geological Survey. (Accessed April 20, 2008). The Richter Magnitude Scale. U.S. Government Printing Office. Abridged from The Severity of an Earthquake, a U.S. Geological Survey General Interest Publication.
The Richter Magnitude Scale

Weick, K. (1996). Enactment and the boundaryless career: Organizing as we work. In M.B. Arthur & D.M. Rousseau (Eds.), The boundaryless career: A new employment principle of a new organizational era (pp. 40-77). New York: Oxford University P

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