How a group of strangers can help you in 2017

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If you’re at a career crossroads, or need to make a big decision this year, befriend a stranger, says Kerry Potter. There’s real merit in seeking advice from people you don’t know

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By Kerry Potter on

If you’re feeling a bit “meh” and uninspired by work and, well, life – and who isn’t, during these sluggish January days? – then I think you need to know about the power of weak ties. Strong ties are your nearest and dearest, your favourite colleagues, your best friends, your (cringe) “squad". Basically, they’re exactly the people you usually turn to when you feel you need a boost. Conversely, weak ties are people you don’t know very well: vague acquaintances who perhaps work in a completely different industry, or live somewhere else, or who are from a different generation – the people you don’t mess around endlessly on Twitter with, essentially. We don’t actually realise how important these people are.

Workplace psychologist Tony Crabbe, the author of Busy (a brilliant book for those who’ll have “Ran around like a headless chicken” on their gravestone) is an advocate for seeking out these “weird contacts”. He says: “We tend to end up clustering with people who are like us, and who see the world through the same lens as us. Your network can become like an echo chamber because you hear a lot of self-reinforcing ideas” – a scenario which those who were knocked for six by last year’s political upheavals might recognise.

“The advantage of weak ties is that they have a different take. They are the people who will challenge you and push you, and won’t just back up your world view. They’ll encourage you to think differently – and more creatively about your work. Great leaders and innovators are often really skilled at finding these slightly weird contacts.”

Crabbe cites a study in which two groups of workers were given a problem to solve. One group was told to garner advice from tried and trusted contacts. The other could only speak to dormant contacts – people they’d lost contact with. The workers rated the quality, innovativeness and usefulness of the contributions from the dormant ties far more highly than those of the close ties.

We tend to think of networking as sucking up to people in our industry who might be able to help us find an amazing new job, or making as many contacts as possible. But we shouldn’t just think about our network in terms of size – we should also consider its diversity. Crabbe points out that studies show people are actually more likely to land a new role via a weak contact than a strong one, despite the fact that we naturally start by tapping up our closest connections.

We tend to end up clustering with people who are like us, and who see the world through the same lens as us. Your network can become like an echo chamber because you hear a lot of self-reinforcing ideas

So, here are some things you can do to harness your weak ties. In the workplace, don’t just have one mentor – someone senior to you within your company – have several. If you work in an office, broaden your contacts in different departments – it can be a tiny tweak, like not always ringing the same person in IT. And, if you’re self-employed, consider working in a co-working space – the broad mix of people and industries under one roof can provide both interesting new friends and useful work leads. It’s basically the Holy Grail of weak ties.

Nurturing weird contacts enriches your life beyond work, too. My friend Tasmina Perry is a successful romantic novelist and is currently obsessed with evening classes in her local community centre – life-drawing, calligraphy; she’s not fussy. “It’s obviously good to learn a new skill,” she says. “But what I didn’t anticipate is that I’d meet such a mix of people who I just don’t come across in my normal life. I’m now friends, for example, with a brilliant Iraqi midwife. I find it very energising and it also inspires characters and plotlines in my novels.”

Crabbe suggests ritualising habits that’ll bring you into contact with new people – go to talks, volunteer, get involved in community activities – and try not to slink home after work and get stuck into your Kindle, however tempting it is. And school-gate parents may be stereotyped as cliquey, gossipy and annoying, but they are also a huge, varied network of different people and different ideas.

Crabbe, meanwhile, is a big fan of talking to people on plane journeys (I KNOW, but bear with us here): “When you get the opportunity to make a new weak tie, you’ve got to seize it. It can be awkward, but make yourself have that conversation with the person next to you on the plane, rather than immediately whipping out your earphones. You never know where it might lead.” Basically, it’s about making yourself more open to new connections, rather than just reverting always to type.

One of the charming things about last month’s I’m A Celebrity was that, unusually, the campmates largely got along famously – and it was especially lovely to see the blossoming of cross-generational friendships. Don’t make the mistake of only having friends who are the same age or who are experiencing the same life phase.

And if none of that persuades you, maybe this will: it’s actually beneficial for your wellbeing. A new study in the field of behavioural flexibility shows that people with highly inclusive behaviours and diverse networks were four times more likely to rate themselves as having good wellbeing than other people. They had lower stress levels and felt happier at work. So, with that in mind, anyone for macramé at the town hall on Tuesday night?


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