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What Organizations Overlook When It Comes to Social Networks - and How You Can Explain It To Them.

Recently, we sat down with Head of Insights at the FSCB, Kate Coombs, for a series of interviews. We will be sharing each of these with you over the coming weeks. In this first installment, we discuss how informal social networks not only affect your career, but also your sense of belonging.


Social networks (networks of social interactions and personal relationships) exist both formally and informally within organisations. While formal social networks are those prescribed in organisational charts, informal social networks are those which form outside of designated reporting lines. An increasing body of scientific evidence reveals their importance in driving career progression in the workplace, yet 14% of employees surveyed by the FSCB in 2021 report not feeling included in the informal networks that matter for their careers.

Kate: Our data shows that a significant proportion of employees do not feel included in informal networks that matter to their career and an even larger proportion are neutral. What role do informal networks play in someone’s career development? How much impact can they have?

Aneeta: Social networks are profoundly important to your career. Before you will ever get to a selection panel, before you ever get into a leadership development programme, you first need to perform highly and your ability to perform highly depends very much on your informal social networks. This includes having the information that you need, being invited to the right meetings, even receiving feedback about what skills you need to develop and what kind of leader you need to be. Your informal social networks are also the people who can sponsor your career. They are the people that tell others, ‘She is a really high performer.’ When they are sitting in on meetings about who should be given an assignment or who should be put forward for a leadership development programme, they are the people who speak up and put your name in the pool.

We are often very focused on formal selection systems, such as how CVs get evaluated or how interviews are conducted, as mechanisms of promoting equality in organisations. Alongside these formal processes, however, informal social networks can also be contributing to bias and inequality. That’s why it is so important that organisations consider then, and that’s why Raina and I were so happy to contribute the items that we designed on this topic to the FSCB survey.


Kate: Should firms be encouraged to think more about the role of informal social networks for underrepresented groups or excluded groups?

Aneeta: Yes. It is especially important because often people do not think about it when crafting their diversity and inclusion strategy and interventions, but they should. We do a lot of workshops and talks on this, to support leaders and D&I practitioners in understanding how to take this next step in their inclusion efforts. There is evidence that just as women and members of racial minorities are disadvantaged in the formal organisation (i.e., who makes it to the top of an organisation), disadvantages exist informal social networks as well, for example who is drawn in versus on the periphery of the important informal networks at work. This can mean they tend not to have relationships with the people who could sponsor their careers, and they tend not to get the same information, reputation, and feedback benefits from their informal social networks, as do people who are in the majority, which is usually white men.


Kate: Why and how do informal social networks form?

Raina: Whenever you put human beings together, they form relationships. Human beings are a fundamentally social species. From an evolutionary perspective, we survive by collaborating in groups. We are naturally primed to form relationships to get along and get ahead. The evolutionary drive to form relationships with people we like and respect will overcome any formal mandate as to who individuals should interact with at work, which is why social networks are so powerful in organisations.

So, what drives people to form relationships with some people and not others? The first driver is liking. We prefer to interact with people we like and try to avoid interacting with people we don’t like. We care much more about liking than we do expertise. From an evolutionary perspective, I care more about whether you can help me, than whether you are going to harm me. In fact, even if you are the world expert on something, and I need your expertise, I will not ask you for advice unless I like you. Liking is a key driver of informal relationships.

Another key driver is proximity. If you and I are physically in a situation where we bump into each other a lot, then we are much more likely to form a relationship than people who are further away. Humans are lazy networkers. This is why people who have offices near elevators and stairwells tend to have much bigger networks than people with an office tucked away in a corner.

Another key driver of relationships is similarity, or the ‘birds of a feather effect’. We tend to have relationships with people who are similar to us. Often, similarity means similar on demographic characteristics like age, ethnicity/race, and gender, but it can also be on deeper characteristics like values and interests. Members of underrepresented groups are disadvantaged by the birds of a feather effect. These individuals often network widely, but the lack of demographic similarity they have with most members of the organisation is working against them, meaning they have to work harder to form and maintain relationships. A lot of exclusion that we see in organisations is a result of lazy or unintentional exclusion – meaning that majority group members don’t think too much about the fact that similarity might be driving them to form relationships with other majority group members and as a result, exclude members of underrepresented groups.


Kate: If these social networks are by nature informally constructed, can they be leveraged intentionally to support the progression of under-represented groups?

Raina: Yes, and this is something I focus a lot on in the workshops I run for executives. A key part of an effective intervention is awareness raising. Once executives understand that similarity, or the birds of a feather effect, may be undermining their diversity efforts, they can change their own behaviour. They suddenly understand that they need to sponsor the careers of members of underrepresented groups and include them in their networks. Awareness raising at the executive level can have a big effect. It can be a matter of illuminating the gap and letting people step into it.

I also help organisations design “network nudges”, which are cues to behave differently in certain moments which can reduce the network disadvantage of underrepresented group members. For example, when thinking about who to recommend for a stretch assignment, rules like “more than 1” (i.e., more than one member of an underrepresented group) can help.

Aneeta: There is also an interesting interface between belonging and social networks. For people who do not feel included in the social network, that is obviously going to affect their belonging. In some not yet published data that Raina and I hold, we find that people who do not feel like they belong when they join new organisations, fare less well in the social network development over time, over a six-month span. There are two points I would note. Providing leaders and employees with a better understanding of everyday one-to-one interactions that foster belonging, and how that ends up building into the social networks that we develop over time, would help. It is not a matter of ‘I now need to wave a wand and reconfigure all of

the ties across all of these people.’ There are simple straightforward things that leaders can do. It goes back to some real basics around good leadership.


This article was first written for the Financial Services Culture Board and appeared on its website on 18 March 2022. Find out more about the FSCB.

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