Everyone knows that networking is the most effective way to land a new job, but not everyone uses their network effectively in their job search. It's not necessarily because people are shy, and thus reluctant to ask others for help.
It's because certain types of people fail to see the connection—or lack of connection—among individuals in their network, and consequently, they make erroneous assumptions about their network contacts, says Ray Reagans, associate professor of organization studies at MIT Sloan School of Management.
In 2008 and 2009, Reagans, along with Stanford research partners Francis Flynn and Lucia Guillory, conducted three studies designed to find out whether certain people could accurately assess the structure of their networks. Their work built on research conducted by Ronald Burt, a professor of sociology and strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Burt's research suggested that the structure of one's network—that is, whether or not the individuals in one's network know each other—may be more important than the size of the network.
"Most of us conclude that having a good network is about who you know. If you're connected to the right people, you'll do well," says Reagans, adding that that belief is only partly right. "Burt put forth this idea that what really matters is not who you know, but whether or not your contacts are connected to each other. He said you're well-connected when you have contacts who don't know each other."
Those job seekers who have contacts in their network who don't know each other provides them with "information advantages," says Reagans.
"If you were to ask your friends to help you look for a job, if they all know each other, they'll all be searching in the same place," says the MIT professor, citing Burt. "If your friends don't know each other and you asked them to help, they'd be searching in multiple places, distinct places. Burt is describing a network that gives you more range or exposure."
Reagans, Flynn and Guillory wanted to know if people could even perceive their networks—and the connections they contain—accurately.
Reagans and his partners found that individuals with a high need for closure, order and predictability can't accurately read the structure of their networks. In fact, they're more likely to read structure into their networks where it doesn't exist: They tend to assume that their friends are friends with each other and that socially similar people (people who share the same race, gender or age demographic) are also connected to each other. (Sound familiar? Do you tend to make the same assumptions? ISTJ IT professionals certainly prize closure, order and predictability.)
"People who have a high need for closure are more likely to assume that two people [in their network] who don't know each other are connected," says Reagans. "When two colleagues don't know each other, it doesn't make sense to them. People with a high need for closure can't see the structural holes in their networks. They force a structure on their network when it isn't there."
The problem with those assumptions, says Reagans, is that they're not always correct. Moreover, if job seekers know they should be looking for structural holes in their networks—the places where two people in a network don't know each other—an individual with a high need for closure will rarely be able to accurately identify those holes because they impose connections among people where in reality connections may not exist. The heuristics used by people who need closure could hold them back from contacting someone in their network who could otherwise help them. Consequently, says Reagans, people with a high need for closure are less likely to benefit from their networks.
He offers job seekers the following three pieces of advice for making the most of their networks:
1. Build a network of people who don't know each other. Seek structural holes in your network. Take the time to figure out how people are—or are not—connected to each other. It's OK if a portion of your network consists of people who know each other (perhaps you all used to work for the same company at the same time in the same department), but as long as those people have moved on to new jobs, they can plug you into their networks, says Reagans.
2. Resist heuristics. Be aware of your tendency to make connections among people where they might not exist, and resist that temptation.
3. Test your assumptions about your network. A simple way to determine whether people in your network are truly connected is to play the childhood game of telephone. If you have some kind of juicy gossip, share it with one person in your network. If it comes back to you from someone else, then you can be sure of connections among your contacts. You can even ask the person who asks you about it where they heard the news.
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.