The Problem with Close Social Networks

The Problem with Close Social Networks by Dr. Greg Waddell

The Ant Nebula. Available at Nasa.gov.

When organizations overemphasize unity at the cost of diversity, they are in danger of self-destructing.  The very strength of their relational networks becomes weakness as they face a changing world. I can think of five dangers related to high-density social networks; perhaps you can think of more and can share them with us in the comments section at the end of this post. Or, better yet, perhaps you can suggest some ways to overcome these dangers.

1. Routine

Once the relationships within a group of people become thoroughly embedded, that group’s activities become routine. The group is self-sufficient and the needs within the group are mutually satisfied; there is, therefore, no need to experiment with new ideas or innovative methods. It is often the case that members of such groups like it this way and will fight to keep it this way. The very process of becoming a tightly-knit, self-encased group has also created an aversion to change.

2. Circular Influence

When people are linked with people who are linked with one another, you have a circular social network. Influence flows from one person to another person and to another, and so on, until that same influence returns to the first person in the circle. There is no influence coming from outside the circle. These kinds of groups develop a small-world perspective where life’s experiences are only evaluated from within the context of that group.

3. Isolation

Regardless of how strong the links may be within a group, if that groups fails to connect with its external environment, it eventually becomes irrelevant to that environment. Knowledge that is vital to the survival of the group may have no path by which it can penetrate the group.

4. Natural Selection

As groups increase in social density they go through a natural selection process that attracts like-minded personalities. There are many ways to measure personality; one of those ways is to look at whether we are externally driven or inner driven. The externally driven individual tends to be driven by the norms of the group to which he or she belongs. People who are internally driven tend to follow their own inner sense of value and belief, regardless of the social network. Healthy groups need a good balance between both personality types.

But as groups become more tightly connected by close friendships the internally driven individuals tend to get pushed out by a natural, almost imperceptible, process. They may not leave physically from the group because there may be other factors keeping them there, such as family ties or because they need the money. Nevertheless, they have left the group in spirit. They no longer share their ideas or invest energy into the advancement of the group.

When this happens, the main body of this tight-knit group may evaluate this behavior as a lack of commitment, or a negligence of duty. In reality, however, the cause of the disengagement they see may be due to the group’s social density.

The externally driven individual, consequently, often finds himself or herself living within partitioned worlds in which they must make adjustments in order to “fit” the context in which they act at any given time. Such people also often feel trapped within the tightness of the network.

5. Resistance to Change

Once a group has become a high-density social network, it can become extremely resistant to developing new relationships outside the group. Building new relationships from scratch takes a lot more effort than what most people are willing to put forth.

Some people, however, are able to do this; it is a divine gift. These people are the key to reopening the pours of the organizational body — assuming the organization still has some of these people in their midst.

An alternative strategy would be to break up the infrastructure that enables the social ties to exist. This is more of a sledgehammer approach, but it can work although permanent damage may be done to those once close relationships.

6. Self-referential Evaluation

Social network density also affects how an organization evaluates itself. Closed organizations tend to evaluate their success by their own internal criteria. They measure themselves by themselves. This can be a fatal mistake because, regardless of how many or how amazing an organization’s past performance, if it loses touch with its customer, it will eventually die.

On the other hand, organizations that are good at connecting people, tend to include external criteria in their self-analysis. They also invest in researching their external environment, both at close range and also globally. Not only do they allow information to flow outward from themselves, but also inward from external sources. And this inflow of information keeps them in touch with their market.

Sorry that this post came out on the negative side. Perhaps a follow-up post is needed to express the positive side of these principles. What do you think?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Close Social Networks

  1. This happened at the last place I worked. The culture became so inward, they were not able to make the changes they needed to stay healthy.

    • David,
      Amazingly, most of our organizations are unhealthy and do not follow some of the most basic knowledge that has been acquired over the years about organizations. Also the process described is a natural human characteristic. It takes visionary and capable leadership to help the organization avoid this process.
      Thanks so much for coming by.

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