As unemployment climbs to its highest rate in nearly a century, many people are searching for work. Our natural instinct is to go to our strong ties — the people we know well and see regularly.
But classic evidence suggests we’re more likely to get a job through our weak ties. It’s not just because we have more acquaintances than friends and family. It’s because our strong ties tend to give us redundant information: They know many of the same things and the same people as we do. Weak ties open up access to new people and new leads.
That knowledge doesn’t always help us, though. It’s tough to reach out to distant colleagues and seek their help in finding a job. We go to our strong ties because it’s comfortable. The good news is that there’s another kind of tie that can give us the best of both worlds.
In one study, researchers asked hundreds of people to seek advice on an important work project. Surprisingly, the participants didn’t get the most valuable help, solutions and referrals from their current ties. They got it from their dormant ties – people they hadn’t talked to in at least three years.
Like our weak ties, our dormant ties have fresh perspectives from meeting different people and learning different things. But like with our strong ties, we have some shared history. When we’re looking for help, it’s easier to ask someone we used to know than someone we hardly know.
The novelty of reconnecting isn’t just valuable; it’s enjoyable, too. Conversations with our strong ties can get mundane pretty quickly. What did you do today? I made tacos for dinner! When we reconnect with dormant ties, they have more meaningful updates to share.
An extreme example is David Wisnia and Helen Spitzer who fell in love in 1943 while in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Before they were separated, they made a plan to reunite in Warsaw after the war ended, but they never found each other. Last fall, after 72 years, they were finally able to reconnect.
We’re more likely to get a job through our weak ties. It’s not just because we have more acquaintances than friends and family. It’s because our strong ties tend to give us redundant information.
Over the next two hours, they reminisced about how they had met and shared how their lives had unfolded. They talked about their children and their work and their grandchildren. He sang the song she had taught him all those years ago, and got the answer to a question that had been on his mind for seven decades: Had Helen saved his life? Not just once, he learned, but five times.
Although moments of reconnection can be powerful, we often miss out on them. The mere thought of reaching out can make us uncomfortable. “I groaned”, one participant in the study confided. “If there are dormant contacts, they are dormant for a reason, right?” But in most cases, they aren’t dormant for a reason. We get busy, we change jobs, we move. We didn’t mean to fall out of touch. In one study, many people felt anxious before reconnecting, but 90 per cent reported afterward that it was fun and enjoyable.
Even when we decide we want to reconnect, we’re often unsure about how to do it. It helps to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes: How would we want them to reach out to us? It becomes clear that we don’t have to wait to ping them until we need something.
Reconnecting doesn’t have to be transactional. It can be a genuine effort to rekindle a friendship. Instead of just doing my annual “Happy birthday!” post, I’d love to hear about the highlights and low points of your year. Or I was thinking about the people who matter most to me, and I realised how much I missed our interaction.
As LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman suggested on my TED podcast, WorkLife: “Remind the person about what you found special about your interactions then, and where that leads you now to be reconnecting”.
Reconnecting doesn’t have to be an act of taking. It can be an act of giving, a gesture of generosity. I read an article that reminded me of you, and thought you’d get a kick out of it. Or I met someone who shares your interests – let me know if you’d like an introduction. In the middle of a pandemic, the barrier is even lower.
“People think it will be awkward or unwanted if they pick up the phone and call an old friend they haven’t spoken to in years,” Dan Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, said. “But in this time of crisis, reaching out is even easier because there is a very natural opener: Calling to see if you and your family are okay?”
There’s evidence that helping others can help us feel less lonely. It allows us to feel that we matter, that we’re valued and appreciated. In some of my research, I’ve found that on days when we’ve had a positive impact on others at work, we feel more competent and bring more energy home. Even small acts of kindness can be antidotes to isolation.
There’s no better time than now to get in touch with the people you used to know. If you’re still looking for an opening, here’s one more option: I just finished reading an article about the value of reconnecting, and it made me realise how much I missed our friendship.
By Adam Grant © The New York Times
Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist at Wharton, is the author of Originals.