In today’s flat and fluid organizations, building an effective internal network is crucial for success. Extensive research has shown that the networks of informal relationships that managers forge in the workplace influence key aspects of their performance — how fast they learn, how creative they are, whether or not they’re staffed on high-visibility projects, and how much influence they garner within the organization. It also affects more tangible aspects of their job, such as their compensation, year-end bonuses, and career advancement.
When it comes to building a network, our research shows that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy; different kinds of people benefit from different kinds of networks. The key challenge, then, is to figure out what is the right kind of network for you.
To help managers and organizations address this challenge, we conducted a two-and-a-half-year field experiment at the Italian subsidiary of a global semiconductor company. We were particularly interested in understanding whether individual cognitive styles — a person’s natural or preferred approach to processing information and solving problems — influenced which kind of network managers built within the workplace and, in turn, what impact such networks had on their performance.
Two Key Insights from the Research
Our research uncovered two important insights.
- First, the key to building a performance-boosting network is to create a network that supports you in areas where your cognitive style is not naturally suited.
- Second, except for a select few top performers, most people do just the opposite of what they should do: They build networks that reinforce their existing strengths, rather than compensating for their weaknesses.
Based on these insights, we have developed a simple three-step guide to building a performance-boosting network.
A 3-Step Guide to Boosting Your Network
Step 1: Identify your cognitive style.
The first step to building a performance-boosting network is to identify your cognitive style. Some individuals, known as “innovators,” excel at generating new ideas and approaches but may struggle with implementation. At the other end of the spectrum, “adaptors” are skilled at implementing ideas but may lack creativity. The distinction between innovators and adaptors is one of degree rather than a categorical one: Most of us fall somewhere between extremes. Understanding where you stand along the adaption-innovation continuum is crucial for developing an effective networking strategy.
There are several ways to measure your cognitive style. One is to take a cognitive style assessment, which provides a validated method for placing your cognitive style along the adaption-innovation continuum. Another approach is to self-reflect on your work habits and preferences. Do you enjoy generating new ideas and approaching problems in a creative way? Or do you prefer to focus on the implementation and execution of ideas? Are you comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty? Or do you prefer clear instructions and defined roles? Are you most at ease during idea generation or during idea implementation? These questions can help you get a sense of your cognitive style.
Consider Alex, a middle manager working in the semiconductor company we studied. Alex has a markedly innovative cognitive style. She often comes up with new and creative product concepts and enjoys working with colleagues who bring diverse, novel, and cutting-edge ideas to the table. While Alex’s key strength is idea creation, like most innovators, she struggles when it comes to bringing those ideas to actual fruition. Idea implementation is where Alex’s cognitive style is not naturally suited.
Now consider Taylor, another middle manager working in the same company. Taylor is a typical adaptor who excels at implementing rather than creating ideas. Taylor’s key strength lies in bringing concepts to fruition via carefully thought-through, meticulous action plans that produce measurable impact. Where Taylor’s cognitive style is not ideally suited, however, is thinking outside the box and coming up with truly novel concepts and ideas. For that reason, Taylor instinctively enjoys working in close-knit groups where everyone shares similar ways of approaching the problem at hand and where “getting things done” is easy.
Step 2: Map your network.
Once you have identified your cognitive style, the next step is to map your network. Here, the key dimension is whether your workplace network is cohesive or open.
A cohesive network is one where most of your contacts interact with each other frequently. Cohesive networks are made of strong relationships among people who know each other well and, therefore, typically feature high levels of mutual understanding and consensus. Cohesive networks are ideally suited to get things done efficiently and effectively because they help you focus on the “here and now.” At the same time, however, they can insulate you from the wealth of information, opinions, and resources residing outside your group. They can also limit your ability to think outside the box and restrict the boundaries of your creative imagination.
In contrast to cohesive networks, open networks place you at the intersection between unconnected people and groups across the organization. Building an open network means exposing yourself to more diverse perspectives, information, and opportunities. Such breadth of exposure fuels your creativity and enables you to come up with big-picture ideas projected in the future. Yet, precisely because they place you in the middle of many different groups and viewpoints, open networks are simply not geared toward executing, implementing, and bringing creative ideas to fruition.
There are several tools you can use to map your network and measure how dense vs. open it is. To start, however, you can also use a do-it-yourself approach. Start by creating a list of your contacts, including colleagues, collaborators, mentors, and other individuals you interact with regularly and who play an important role for you at work. Then, categorize these contacts based on your relationship with them; for example, close colleagues, distant colleagues, mentors, etc. If most of your contacts are strong and mutually interconnected, you are likely to have a cohesive network. If you have many weak ties and several of your connections do not have ties among each other, then chances are you have an open network.
Step 3: Maximize the complementarity premium.
According to our research, the most effective way to unlock the full potential of your network is to maximize what we call “the complementarity premium” by building a network that supports you in areas where your cognitive style is not naturally suited. However, most people do just the opposite: They build networks that reinforce their natural strengths and this hinders their ability to perform at their best.
For example, when we looked at Alex’s network of informal ties, we noticed that many of Alex’s contacts were weak and mutually unconnected, cutting across multiple groups throughout the company. Why did Alex build such an open network? Because like most innovators, Alex loves engaging with diverse viewpoints as a way to stimulate creative thinking. Despite Alex’s innate preference for an open network, this kind of network does not provide what maximizes Alex’s performance. For that, Alex would have to maximize the complementarity premium by building a cohesive and aligned network of colleagues who can help Alex implement and bring her creative ideas to fruition.
Taylor offers an interesting mirror image to Alex’s story. Taylor built a cohesive network of strong relations among tightly interconnected contacts because, like most adaptors, Taylor enjoys the feeling of belonging to a cohesive group where everyone already knows “how we do things around here.” Yet a cohesive network strengthens Taylor where Taylor is already strong rather than counterbalancing Taylor’s key weakness. For Taylor, like for most adaptors, maximizing the complementarity premium requires an open network. An open network would help offset Taylor’s lack of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking because it would place Taylor at the juncture between mutually unconnected people and groups with more diverse viewpoints.
In sum, neither Alex nor Taylor was using their network to shore up their own weaknesses.
We also found that although most managers behaved similarly to Alex and Taylor, top-performing managers did just the opposite: whether innovators or adaptors, they built a workplace network that maximized the complementarity premium. First, there are people who we call “entrenched innovators,” who embedded themselves within a dense clique of colleagues who knew each other well and had strong ties among each other. Such an informal but cohesive group was key to keeping the entrenched innovators focused on not just producing great ideas, but also on converting them into actual products, services, and other tangible and measurable outputs. While operating in such a cohesive group may at times feel claustrophobic for innovators, it generated a huge complementarity premium. In the context of the highly innovative, knowledge-based firm we studied, entrenched innovators featured consistently among the absolute top performers.
Second, there are “brokering adaptors” — individuals who have an adaptive cognitive style, who also forge open networks bridging across organizational silos and disconnected groups, often via relatively weak ties. Such open networks expose the brokering adaptors to a variety of creative ideas, perspectives, opportunities, and challenges, which frees them from adaptors’ characteristic tendency to focus solely on the here and now. The brokering adaptors in our study realized the value inherent in their open network by leveraging their innate idea-implementation skills. When compared with adaptors embedded in cohesive networks, their performance was 60% higher.
Practical Implications for Organizations
Our research is beneficial for individuals looking to build their own internal networks. But it can also help guide organizations in helping managers to build a cohesive vs. open network depending on their specific cognitive style. Compared to the widespread approach of training everyone similarly, irrespective of their cognitive style, a focus on maximizing the complementarity premium may produce a significant return on investment in terms of improved performance, productivity, and innovation for the organization.
To maximize the complementarity premium for managers, organizations should take a more targeted approach to networking by considering managers’ cognitive style. Here are some specific recommendations:
Map managers’ cognitive styles and networks.
The first step is to map managers’ cognitive styles and networks by administering cognitive style assessments and network questionnaires. This will help the organization identify who needs to be supported, and how, in building a complementary premium.
Organizations may provide training on the importance of understanding cognitive styles, networks, and the complementarity premium. This will help managers become aware of their cognitive style and understand how it affects their networking preferences and performance.
Several studies show that, since a person’s cognitive style reflects a habitual pattern or preferred way of processing information that is deeply ingrained, it is very hard to change. Hence, rather than attempting to change their cognitive style, managers should be encouraged to acknowledge it, leverage its strengths, and cope with its limitations by building a network that maximizes the complementarity premium.
Organizations should avoid one-size-fits-all approaches when it comes to helping managers build performance-boosting networks. Rather, they should design different approaches reflecting managers’ individual cognitive styles. For example, training for adaptors should focus on building open networks that expose them to diverse ideas, while training for innovators should focus on building cohesive networks that limit the amount of novel information that they are exposed to.
Invest in training.
Part of our research, using a field experiment, shows that even a single day of executive education training on networks enabled managers to modify their network structure, which converted into measurable performance benefits several months down the line.
The training we conducted consisted of a full day of executive education divided into two parts. During the first part of the training, managers learned about the benefits of forming relationships across functional departments. The training illustrated practical tactics to help them form such relationships. During the second part of the training, managers engaged in two in-class exercises: a negotiation simulation played in pairs, and a group exercise (three to four persons per group) in which participants were asked to identify a pressing issue faced by the company and propose possible solutions. We created pairs and groups that maximized managers’ exposure to people who were not previously part of their network.
Hence, the training provided managers both with the knowledge and the opportunity to form new relationships. The innovative performance gains were assessed by the direct superior of managers one month and seven months after the training.
Use a wide array of organizational levers.
Organizations should use a wide array of levers to help managers build their networks to maximize the complementarity premium.
For example, they could encourage adaptors to work in cross-functional teams, mentorship programs, and networking events to help them build ties with people from across mutually disconnected silos and groups.
By contrast, organizations should encourage innovators to engage in team off-sites and teambuilding activities to develop longer-lasting, closer working relationships with colleagues closer to their day-to-day operational environment.
Leverage technology to connect managers.
While events can be effective ways to foster the development of managers’ networks, organizations can also use technology for this purpose.
For example, we are currently working with one of our research partner companies to develop an algorithm to prompt managers with networking recommendations designed to maximize their complementarity premium. This organization has an ongoing program to help managers foster their network. As part of this program, the company organizes one-on-one meetings in which random pairs of participants spend time with each other doing meaningful joint activities.
We are now working with this company to optimize this matching procedure by maximizing complementarity fit. Rather than randomly pairing managers, the algorithm will match adaptors with unfamiliar colleagues located across distant organizational silos, while it will encourage innovators to strengthen their existing ties and build network closure in their local environment. For people who don’t have a marked cognitive style (i.e., they are mid-way between adaptors and innovators), the algorithm will help managers build a balanced network, that is, it will alternate between meetings aimed at building cohesion among a manager’s close working contacts with meetings aimed at developing bridging ties to maximize access to diverse ideas, information and resources.
The program will be deployed in areas of the organization that need to foster innovation and we are hoping to see substantial gains for these managers who are placed in the optimized version of the program, compared to the current version.
Scope and limitations
The key learning point from our study is that the type of network that matters differs from person to person depending on their cognitive style. The concept of complementarity fit is both simple and generally applicable.
Yet, some limitations should be acknowledged. Notably, besides cognitive style, several other factors, such as national and organizational culture, may affect which type of network is most effective.
Despite this and other limitations, the results of our field experiment represent a clear advancement in our understanding of networks and offer practical guidance to optimize individual managers’ networks so they can perform at their best.
Employees who apply insights about cognitive styles and networks can enhance their performance, fostering professional growth and career advancement. By embracing this approach, organizations may not only improve their overall performance and ability to innovate, but also lay the groundwork for cultivating leaders. These leaders, attuned to achieving a complementarity premium in themselves and others, may become a vital asset in enhancing both individual and organizational success.
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