How Fragile Social Networks Harm Us at Work

How Fragile Social Networks Harm Us at Work

Social connections at work are good – a well-networked organization is a stronger, more efficient organization. Much evidence exists to support this idea, both on this blog and beyond. But a recent working article from Harvard and the University of North Carolina takes these insights even deeper: fragile social connections – those which can be easily dropped – may actually harm both organizations and the people who work for them.

Authors Paul Green, Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats examined field data collected over four years from a food manufacturing and agribusiness company, and later in a lab experiment with students. In the field, they examined 347 employees performing “a wide-range of interrelated functions, including farming, harvesting, trucking, processing and distribution.” They found – across gender and age – that people drop their social connections with those who provide negative feedback. Why? Because negative feedback threatens our “positive self-concept,” or our essential sense of self.

Illustration of a man standing defensively.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Miyamoto Musashi in His Prime, 19th Century, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Crucially, the authors emphasize that employees aren’t trying to avoid the hard work of improvement; rather, by seeking out positive social affirmation, employees are actively working to maintain their “psychological well-being.” “Individuals do not necessarily rationally encode feedback as a developmental insight; rather, they experience it as a socially activated threat to their self-concept.” But, by rejecting those who give them negative feedback, employees not only “remain blind to [their] deficiencies,” they miss out on “opportunities for improvement” as well as “support and advice that is key to one’s career and development.”

While the article indicates that organizations may do well to rethink their feedback mechanisms, Francesca Gina, writing in the Harvard Business Review, emphasizes that the onus is on individuals, too. “The message is clear,” she writes. “If you are serious about improving at work, then you should be sure to develop and nurture relationships with people who are willing to give you that tough feedback.”

And perhaps tough feedback wouldn’t be so threatening if we did just that. When we develop and nurture our workplace relationships, coming to understand and respect each other as people rather than simply co-workers, as humans rather than job descriptions, we establish a trust that mitigates the threat of negative feedback. Said a different way: it’s easier to assume positive intention in strong feedback when we truly know and trust the provider of the message.

Our evidence supports that strong relationships with others do help us respond positively to their constructive feedback. As one participant recently reflected, getting to know people beyond their roles in the workplace helps you understand “where people are coming from.” He further emphasized that “we were more comfortable saying where there may be an issue or there be a challenge [. . .] and vice versa. If someone did a really great job we all felt more comfortable to celebrate those, as well. [ . . ] we learned that we’re all in this together and we all want to accomplish the same thing. That makes the challenges easy, because we both want the same end goal.”

Employers that foster strong relationships between colleagues reap benefits for many reasons, many of which we have previously explored. But this research, together with our experience, offers a new insight into what trust and recognition can do for organizations: it encourages people to move beyond feelings of threat and helps them to grow and improve.

We all want to respond to constructive criticism with grace and to maintain our psychological well being. Strengthening our relationships with coworkers is one important way to get us there.

Image: Ilya Repin, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lenksy’s Duel, 1899, Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.