Employees' personal networks create a win-win opportunity, writes Val Leveson
People draw a sense of identity through their interactions at work - and the more people they know, from a broader span of the organisation, the more they feel they belong.
You will probably employ someone with particular skills to fill a role in your organisation - but if you treat them as a cog in the machinery and don't recognise what else they can bring to their work, you may be losing out and not engaging in a way that will encourage them to stay.
Employees may be able to bring things to the business that you didn't expect - particular knowledge or talent, or even an all-important network that will help your organisation thrive.
Kaye Avery of Career and Transition Consulting says: "My approach would be around drawing out the best from employees by creating the conditions for them to add real value.
"This is the key, I believe. It's about inspiring people to engage wholeheartedly. If people don't believe in what the business is doing or their leader, they will not want to give much away ..."
Avery says taking a real interest in your employee and what they can do is part of creating a good employment brand. "Good managers do that - they see opportunities and provide them. This doesn't mean the core job doesn't get done - but it's about encouraging people when the conditions are right."
Perhaps an IT person has an interest in art, and the company wants to commission an in-house poster. If the company can find the time for that person to create the artwork, it makes sense to let them do it.
"If someone is a marathon runner or holds a homeopathy certificate, why not ask them to put a presentation together for staff? That works for everyone - it helps people know who's in their team and builds respect. This all can add value."
Helena Cooper Thomas, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland, says: "An employee who brings in their network can be more useful to the company. It's about bringing in social capital - for the company, having more diverse networks is better."
She says successful networks are about giving as much as taking. "It's a two-way exchange. People with larger and more diverse networks are better-placed to have novel information and alternative perspectives.
"Research in North America shows that those with these kinds of large, diverse networks are more satisfied with their jobs and careers, and have higher salaries."
She says it's not necessarily about filling a position with someone who has good networks rather than the required skills - but it is about encouraging employees to use the networks they have.
For networks to be useful to the organisation, Cooper Thomas says it's important for the goals of the organisation and individual to be aligned. "Research shows innovation is found in the small spaces between organisations, which networks span. People with more extensive networks are more likely to have these productive spaces for innovation. If an employee is in a technical job, for example, their connections can help them generate new ideas or products."
She says people may discuss what they're working on with family or friends - and without really knowing it, those people can be helping the organisation.
"It's diversity of the network that seems to matter. If you go to people who are like-minded, you may not get a different view of the problem. If your employee has gone to someone with a different view of things, that person could come back with an innovative idea or a fresh perspective on how to solve an issue."
There is evidence that if a CEO of an organisation seeks advice from other CEOs who are friends, and avoids advice from CEOs who are not friends, they may not get the bad news until it's too late. As a CEO, you don't want to surround yourself with "yes men" - and that applies to people at other levels as well.
Cooper Thomas says that is why it's important, when you're looking at the building of your company network, to include people who have diverse views - having a range of perspectives can take longer to work through, but it's likely to deliver more exciting, innovative results.
Employing someone just for their immediate access to knowledge from a good network can bring short-term benefits. However, she says: "Long-term, you want someone who will share that knowledge and pick up more. It's about being generous - paying it forward - and helping the company benefit."
A study with students indicated that people in work groups with friends showed a performance boost. "There is evidence that the more connected an individual is, the more able they are to be innovative."
Cooper Thomas says people also draw a sense of identity through their interactions in the organisation. The more people they know, from a broader span of the organisation, the more they feel they belong. When bringing new people into the organisation, it's important to help them create those broad relationships.
She says a few organisations support social interactions at work - this brings useful conversations through informal contact - and should be encouraged. "It's not about staff having coffee eight times a day and skiving, but rather recognising that there is value going for coffee sometimes.
"Having a good network within the organisation gives staff a sense of belonging.
"Them having a good network outside the company can benefit the company with potential markets and innovation."
Val Leveson is an Auckland-based counsellor.By Val Leveson