As organizations try to be more agile, reducing formal hierarchies and bureaucratic structures in order to react more quickly to the changing business environment, they are increasing their focus on unleashing the potential of collaborative work relationships.
But most organizations are not providing leaders with the tools they need to succeed at this task.
Kristin Cullen-Lester, an assistant professor of management who joined Bauer College this fall, recently published a review of research and practice on development efforts to improve organizational networks in The Leadership Quarterly.
Among the findings she and two colleagues reported: Few companies help leaders understand, leverage, and shape the network of informal relationships in their organization. Instead, development efforts are more often targeted at helping leaders build their own network for personal growth and advancement.
“Unfortunately, many leaders do not pay attention to or are reluctant to proactively build and leverage their social connections within the organization,” she says.
That’s a missed opportunity, Cullen-Lester says.
Leaders should know that networking within an organization has the potential to be about “developing meaningful relationships that help the organization, foster a sense of community and improve performance.”
Cullen-Lester’s next research project explores which factors influence whether new colleagues will “hit it off” and develop a positive workplace relationship. She is working with a company that has designed an app to bring co-workers together (think dating app adapted for the workplace).
The knowledge from this and other studies may ultimately help leaders promote the development of effective networks in the organizations they lead.
But there’s a caveat, Cullen-Lester says. Proscribing informal relationships, or social engineering, is rarely successful. Successful companies “identify barriers to collaboration and focus on removing those barriers so connections can happen naturally, instead of trying to force them to happen,” she says.
Having a clear understanding of the network behind the organization is critical.
“For leaders, it’s not just what you know and who you know that matters, but rather, whether you know who knows who,” Cullen-Lester said.
By Julie Bonnin