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My guest this week is Marissa King, a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management.
I was fascinated by Marissa's work after coming across her book, Social Chemistry Decoding the Elements of Human Connection.
Earlier this year, our conversation covers the three types of social networking styles the surprising impact of covid on social networks and what her research tells us about building high performing teams. This episode covers many topics I haven't explored before that I find fascinating. I hope you enjoy my great conversation with Marissa Kang.
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So, Marissa, thank you so much for doing this with me today, I came across your book from a past guest, Priya Parker loved it, read it in a day or two, have really been looking forward to talking to you before we get into the subject of that book, which is, I think, very broad and will apply to just about everybody listening. I'd actually love for you to begin by giving us the origin story of your career and the topics that you've spent a lot of your time researching and studying, because I think they sort of formed the soil that then allows the rest of the conversation to happen.
My career trying to investigate and understand why we see things that look like large scale social epidemics that are actually very individual in origin. So if you begin by thinking about the autism epidemic, which is where I started to thinking about mental health, medication use, anxiety, depression and more recently substance abuse disorders, I spent a lot of time documenting how do we see these large scale things that look like epidemics, even though we know that they're not contagious? What underlies all of this phenomenon is that our individual local behaviors aggregate through social networks and then cascade to create large scale societal shifts.
And what happened over time is I began to see signature after signature of the same social signature across a wide range of contexts. And what I realized is what's common to all of these or what's one commonality is just a lack of social connection. Eventually, I got sick of pointing out, here's the problem. Here's another problem. Here's another problem. There's lots of policy solutions. But I also wanted to offer at the individual level what's something that we all can do in our day to day life to help whether you're struggling with mental health issues or trying to help support someone struggling with addiction.
Can you say a little bit more about maybe we'll dig into a few of these examples. What was it about autism that was initially appealing and maybe put some numbers or some evidence around what the actual trend has been? That seems like a particularly important one. Maybe walk us through that one as a case study for some of these ideas, let we shift back 15 or 20 years and think about what was happening during that time is used times. It's a rapid escalation in the prevalence of autism, which is a very individual level disorder.
So you're seeing really almost exponential growth in the number of kids in particular who are being diagnosed. But what was also surprising about this finding is there is a huge amount of variance geographically and where you're seeing cases. So in some neighborhoods, in communities, you would see this rapid escalation and then in others, nothing really was happening. And as you start to think about it, there's lots of things that could help explain, as it could have been an environmental toxicant.
There are lots of things that could be happening at the local level. But what I knew from someone who studies health and contagion and diseases is that there's also something that's very peculiar about this social signature at the rate of growth. So if you look at the same thing, if you see product and marketing going viral at the exact same signature. And so what I was interested in is what was happening on the ground. And much of what actually was happening is simply increasing awareness or greater understanding of the ability to identify that was actually happening from parents talking to other parents.
And that word of mouth contagion was really critical for explaining why you see this rapid increase in prevalence. And if you look over time, you'll see that the exact same social signature in lots of different things that seem like they're being contagious. But it's actually just the social networks or social dynamics that are allowing for greater identification that are really driving that phenomenon.
That's fascinating. Just to play that back to make sure I have it right, it's not likely that the actual instances of something like autism are strangely geographically concentrated, but rather just the awareness of autism as a thing to be considered or potentially applied to somebody as a diagnosis or something is based on this social function. My framing that right. Exactly.
In our work, we found that that social function accounted for about 30 percent of the increase in prevalence. So there are certainly other things that are going on that are actually increasing like through prevalence in the population. But a big part of it was actually identification and stigmatization.
And what about for something like mental health and substance abuse? Again, both like the social awareness lens, but also the actual underlying prevalence. Has the prevalence of those things risen or is it just our language and awareness of it that makes it look as though the prevalence is higher today than 50 years ago or something?
It's both, particularly when you start to move into thinking about things like anxiety or depression or substance use disorders. Certainly the underlying prevalence is increasing, but at the same time that you're also seeing a stigmatization, some people are more willing to talk about it, which is also fueling the societal level of recognition and importantly, our ability to treat it. What I became interested in over time is both of these processes. So I deeply care about identification and access to treatment.
But at the same time, there's this peculiar questions like why are we seeing this true increase in underlying prevalence across these conditions that are in some ways related, but also in some ways not related? Dress that was at the heart of really why started focused on individual networks and how can we think about what we're doing at the individual level, help address this true underlying prevalence, the true increase, not just identification.
Was there a specific moment in your early research that was like a Eureka or AHA moment for this understanding?
There was like thinking about autism and perhaps some tangential. But when I was in college, I was assigned as part of a class to go to the WTO protests in Seattle. So we were just told to go to a protest and it really had no idea what I was in for. And what I saw there was this individual showing up, environmentalists with huge butterflies. You had union leaders. You had people from all different walks of life, and they came together in this moment of profound collective transformation.
How do you get these movements, whether it's a social movement like the protests against the WTO? I've also studied the antislavery movement. All of those have a very similar pattern. When we think about collective dynamics and that moment where I'm like, oh, there's something that happens when groups of individuals come together that produce something that's totally different than those individuals in isolation.
Could you describe maybe the broad framework, nature of that pattern, what is most commonly shared across all these disparate kinds of growth of an idea? How would you generalize that pattern?
What we know from close to three decades of research in the social sciences is you can break down social networks. What's common to all of these is they propagate on social networks. And we can think about our networks, just the traces of interactions that connect us all. And those create this can actually be boiled down into three fundamental elements. So I call this in my book, Brokers' Expansionistic and Convenors, when you're applying them to the individual. But by starting to understand those three very basic fundamental pieces, it's really what makes the world small.
So if you think about it, in the nineteen fifties, Stanley Milgram was doing experiments where he mailed letters to people to try to see how small is the world. And that study led to this phenomenon of we're all connected by six degrees of separation. And that idea has been shown to be true over time. If you look back to Malcolm's experiments early on, to more recent research in the two thousand, we're all still connected by the same six degrees of separation that's fundamentally unchanged.
But why? We're all connected by six degrees of separation. And what allows this propagation. Widescale takeoff's and social changes is if you understand these three basic pieces and how they fit together, those pieces have to be in place for anything really to have these large scale cascades or transformations.
It's a great excuse to talk about the unique aspects of the three categories and not only the role they play, but the types of people that make up these three different. So you already listed them. So convenors brokers and expansionists are the three categories you tell me, which you think is the most appropriate to start with. And maybe we can dive a little bit into each.
We can start with expansionists because it's often times when people have in mind, when they're thinking about networks, they're often thinking about networking. And that's not all there is to networks, but expansionistic simply just have extraordinarily large networks. So if we think about most people, no one average, around six hundred and fifty to nine hundred people by expansionists know it's magnitudes of order more so often that it's helpful to apply this to your own life. So to figure out if you're interested, you can ask yourself like how many people do you know name and how many people you know, name Emily?
And if it's two or more, you're likely in this expansionists category. What's really important about expansionists? If they have a lot of power, they have a lot of influence and they have a lot of reach, they have this ability to really create change, importantly. And we're thinking about from the context of networks, what they also do is they create a lot of randomness. You kind of need this randomness to get connection across groups because most people aren't expansionists.
Most of us actually fall into other different network types. If we think about a second type convenors, a convening network structure is very different. Their friends tend to know one another. If you imagine having a barbecue or a birthday party with everyone, they know each other. If they do, then you're likely a convener. Worked at the same job for a lot of time and that creates a lot of trust and reputational benefits. The downside is there echo chambers.
These groups are often selfs, but insular. They're not talking to one another. So if we start to about like, how do these pieces fit together? Because you need all of them to create large scale social change.
The benefit of that can be structured as you can get ideas to catch on or if you're trying to create behavioral change, even if I'm trying to, I don't know, start going to the gym more often. Having that type of behavioral reinforcement allows people to really adopt behavioral change and adopt new ideas, but they tend to be insular. So having this expansionists is part of the system is really critical. And then the third brokers and brokers, all markhor signature is really they connect social worlds that normally wouldn't come together.
And because of that, they tend to be more innovative. They. They tend to be more creative and that ability to bridge. It's also really critical if we go back to thinking about the WTO protests, the ability to have the environmental groups talking to unions, it was really, really critical in its brokers to connect those worlds. And that has benefits for them, but it also has benefits for society. And so you really need all three of those things, because the way they fit together in many ways are this magic puzzle that allows things to take off.
Is there a good acid test? You mentioned the acid test of Alan and Emily, the party. If everyone knows each other, is there a similar acid test for brokers am a broker.
I see itself. This is an interesting group. And one of the things that is really the finding of a broker is that you can ask yourself, are you good at making impromptu speeches on things you know nothing about? So if you answer yes to that question, you may be a broker in. The reason that that's true is that property is actually allows you to talk to different groups very fluidly, which allows that connection to happen. This is also a diagnostic for a personality characteristic known as high self monitoring, which is really like a chameleon like are you.
And it's funny when people think about their own networks. If you ask people like what personality trait would matter, most people are just like, oh, extroversion, introversion should be the most important. But it actually turns out this chameleon like property of self monitoring is by far the biggest predictor of what type of network you'll have.
How would you describe a low self monitor for brokers of high self monitor?
Low self monitor would be someone who is the same. They believe, like you have a fundamental sense of self that you should be the same in every situation that you don't really change.
I like these three categories. And I'm curious, as you were coming up with these ideas, what was on the cutting room floor and what were the empirics behind these things? Like give us a sense of sort of the research angle on why these three categories, maybe some other category you considered, but left out. I'm just always fascinated by how you arrived at three categories that make a lot of sense. We'll dive into them a bit more. But yeah, I'd love to hear the sort of research behind it, really.
I'm a network scientist, so when I look at the world, I see connections between people. Like if I'm sitting in a restaurant trying to figure out what's going on, I like looking at who's talking to whom and mapping those connections.
And we have the ability to do that with real world social interactions. And this has become increasingly possible, particularly with trace data. So you can take email, network exchanges and map those networks. You can put wearable sensors on people and map those Face-To-Face interactions. And we've been able to do this for decades. But our ability to do it more effectively has increased over time with increased data availability. But essentially we can create maps and these maps really are tell you what your social life has been like leading up to this moment, but also where you're likely to be headed.
And based on its natural constraint of how human interaction work, it's actually a pretty fixed number of characteristics that you can use to characterise these maps. And in part, if you think about what are some of the most important characteristics, we all, no matter who you are, have a fixed amount of time. That means that if you're thinking about this from an investment standpoint, you can either allocate data a fixed amount of time that everybody has into a smaller number of relationships that are deeper in nature.
Or you can have lots and lots of connections. But those are necessarily going to be thinner types of connections. And so we all can only be in one place. It really defines a lot of what our networks look like. And so these tradeoffs between space and time and how we invest them rate these three sets by which we can characterize most people's networks, which then the world I see are really just maps. It's really cool to think about the data that now exists on social networks in four networks, via physical location, et cetera.
What in your empirical work in those data sets were some of the surprising or most memorable moments of discovery?
Well, the surprising thing is how reliable people are in the sense that you can get an amazing level with which you can predict the likelihood that something is going to happen. By just knowing these simple forms, you can predict everything from who's likely to get engaged in fraud and malfeasance to who is likely to be promoted. There's something extraordinarily powerful about this way of seeing the world that it's like we have these faces that have incredible predictive ability, but yet no one knows what they look like.
We all have networks, but it's so rare that we know what they actually look like, even though they have this extraordinary power.
And I think the other piece that really blows my mind is that we can think about this. Constellation's is having important predictors of our life, but also the extent to which they literally get under our skin. So when you're in certain types of networked interactions, you can actually measure cortisol levels, which are a marker of stress and understand see the change based on the type of interaction that has a physical effect on your body.
So that connection between this micro level physicality to things like larger scale, predictive outcomes of where your career is going, there's something that's kind of magical about the whole thing.
If you're a network scientist and network science is sort of a field, what are the major like? Subcategories of that field that you think are most important. So you've talked a lot about the importance of interaction and the types of interaction, maybe that's the major subcategory or one. What are the other sort of like, you know, you're teaching a course on this, like what would be the other chapter titles of Learning Network Science?
I usually break it down into these different levels of interaction. So some people are very interested in the micro levels of interaction. So in a moment to moment basis, what effect is these interactions have on your cognitive capacity, your physical response?
So that's one group of people some people are interested in, very much like what does your individual network what does your network tie up? What implications does I have for your mental health, your physical health, your longevity and your professional success?
And then there's a whole other group of people are way of seeing this who are really interested in what's happening in organizations.
So thinking about how do you design organizations, how do you design work in a way to more effectively harnesses informal interactions? The final group are the people who are interested in these large scale transformations. And I think what's really cool is trying to think about connecting across them. And because of just the way that science works, people usually stick in their own little corner of the world.
I think the thing that's really powerful, thinking about how this works across all these different levels, I'd love to pick a couple ideas or points from each of the categories.
And maybe before we go into the organizational and almost like societal level change, to spend a few more minutes on the individual, you're onramp into this space being things like autism, mental health, substance abuse, that in many ways the book social chemistry is almost like something to give back to suggest ways people might avoid some of those outcomes through better social connections. I'd love to talk a little bit about that. Things that you've seen in your research that suggest better potential outcomes based on behaviors that we choose.
And I don't know if the right way to do this is by by the three types. Shouldn't expansionists do more or less of this? But you tell me, what kind of have you learned about what makes for something that people could actually sink their teeth into and go do to improve the nature of their social connections?
And one of the pieces that really drew me to this is you mentioned my thinking about, all right, what's common to all these struggles. And really at the heart of that was thinking about this just loneliness that so many people struggle with in that sense of like loneliness and social isolation is something that we have all, unfortunately, the opportunity to experience during the pandemic.
Everyone now has some ability to empathize with what the consequences of a lack of social connection are. What I try to draw attention to my work, just a first order way of thinking is that a lot of people are actually very, very resistant to the idea of thinking intentionally about their own relationships. And this makes a lot of sense. Our relationships are in many ways one of the things that we hold most sacred. So for a lot of people, there's this just natural aversion to thinking intentionally about the relationship.
It's great, actually. I Tiziana Kotaro, who's at Rottman and Francesca at Harvard and their colleagues, which actually shows that even just this idea, if I ask you to recall a professional networking event and literally makes you want to wash your hands and think of cleansing words shows just how strong this moral aversion to the idea of networking is. And networking really is just this intentionality combined with this emphasis on meeting new people. We all have networks already.
And what I try to do in my work is for people that it's actually really, really critical to think intentionally about our relationships, not in a way necessarily that we're like trying to get something out of them, but both for ourselves in terms of emotional support, if that's what you're struggling with and particularly the thing about loneliness or that type of mental health struggles, or if it is in a professional context, whether it's growth and development, that ability and willingness really to think honestly and reflect on our relationships is something that many, many people are willing to do.
But the truth is that there's actually extraordinary value in your existing set of relationships. The most concrete. The question I have is actually to invest in and reaffirm your existing relationships, reach out to someone you haven't talked to in two or three years. We know that that's actually the most effective thing you can do in terms of harnessing your network to by thinking in that way and starting to shift your perspective. It's not only beneficial for you, but it's also beneficial to everyone that you're connected to.
Maybe we could take down the three types in here, like the most common pitfalls, because investing in the existing network sounds like a very anti expansionist concept. So maybe the pitfall being expansionist is not spending enough time with the people you have made a good connection with or something. So maybe for each have you found something that they should think about doing more of or less of? I like your phrase of it's about the network not networking. The thing that matters here is the health of the network itself.
So investing in that is probably the best outcome. So what are the ways do you think those three types could best better invest in their own network?
So expansionists, as you mentioned, the drawback to that type of network is is an extraordinarily large network. Is there the people actually who are arguably most at risk? Loneliness, there's a storyteller, Shep Gordon, who is one of the most famous managers in Hollywood, is on his deathbed. He thinks he's going to die and the only person who shows up is his assistant, loneliness among the famous. But there's so little truth to that. And even if we think about the business context, we know from lots of research that actually rates of loneliness increased significantly as you move up the organizational hierarchy.
So CEOs have extraordinarily high levels of loneliness.
Thinking about that issue, like one of the best transitions that you can actually make is to think about more like a convener. So convenors have more social support in their network and arguably for CEOs and people in the street that transition to think about, like, how can I develop an inner circle of people that are truly trusted and are willing to offer me social support is one of the most important transitions you can make. And to do that, it's actually just simply investing more time in a smaller set of relationships.
And there in particular, I think it's far easier actually to call on people that you know and trust already, but you may not have seen in some time because that trust is already there and you need to be investing actually more in your existing relationships instead of trying to think about new ones in particular.
One of the easiest ways to do that, actually, is thinking about how you can give to others, take on a new mentor, take on a sponsor, help someone else out.
And by helping them out, you're really reaffirming and developing that trust, but also reinvigorating a sense of purpose. I assume that convenors sort of have the opposite problem, because you mentioned earlier that they are insular. So is the prescription. They're maybe like sort of the opposite, like get out and meet more people. How do you think about convenors?
You quickly meet new people, but it will draw back to that. Is this tendency towards groupthink or just being in a bubble? And we all have a tendency to affiliate with people, whether it's of the same race or the same gender or people who look like us or think like us. This is a natural tendency. It's known as the homophily or the birds of a feather flock together. So we all do this. But the problem becomes if you have this dense network, it becomes amplified.
What convenors really want to think about is how can I actually interject more diversity in thought or diversity representation into this type of network? And one of the ways of building that is actually just to be curious, if you're meeting someone new rather than focusing on similarity, which is something we all default to think about, like can I be curious and perhaps find an uncommon commonality that could be a bridge to us, which it will inject more diversity into that type of network?
Well, the first two are so good. I have to ask, of course, about brokers, too. You said you're a broker yourself, so you'll know this one especially. Well, advantages are obvious. You're driven by curiosity. You're prone to connect disparate groups together already. What's the dark side or the downsides of being a broker that could be intentionally improved?
Let's say you're often greeted with suspicion. Rumbaut, with the famous network sociologist, says are at risk for reputational assassination. Because you're between two different worlds, like are you with us or are you not with this? That chameleon personality trait can often be perceived as being Machiavellian. And the antidote to that is actually we know the people who are perceived as empathic brokers don't face the same downfall if you are in that position. One, it's important just to be cognizant about how you're coming across.
In the other piece we know is if you're in that position, you have a choice. Essentially, you keep people apart to benefit yourself or you bring people together. There's a lot of research. This is actually in that idea of thinking about bringing people together, that their that creates benefits not just at the individual worker themselves, but to their organization or community. So do this for a brokerage Relayer to think it had to be more empathic, engaged with each side, more than imagine essentially from a perspective taking what are their interests, what are they thinking in this one different world?
And then should I just connect these two people that I'm sitting here in the middle instead of keeping them apart?
One other threesome that you talk about in the book is this idea of people being in the category of secure, anxious or avoidant. Say a little bit about why that's an important framework and how it maps onto the rest of what we talked about.
In some ways we've been talking about how do you change your network? And some of the things we've talked about have been focused on changing your behavior. Another really easy way to change your network is actually just to change where you're spending your time.
That's actually what defines a lot of our network.
But what's interesting about thinking about anxious or avoidant or really attachment styles, Indie's attachment styles are formed very early in your life.
So before your age one, you've developed an attachment style and that attachment style actually has a strong predictive effect on what your network is likely to look like in adulthood. So as early as age one in many ways were being groomed into certain ways and dispositions from a network perspective, walk through those different types of it's happening.
That young what is different between the secure, anxious and avoid and what are those map onto?
So this goes back to early relationships with caregivers. How this was often or discovered going on was if you essentially left a child in a room and their caregiver walked. Away, what would be the child's response to the subset of people are securely attached, so they have faith really that their caregiver is going to care for them, that they're going to come back, that they're not really threatened in any way by developing a strong attachment to that caregiver. And then the thing about anxious or avoidant types there, types of insecure attachment.
So if someone who is anxious, it is very, very worried and concerned and fearful about developing relationships in general and avoidant types. It's a reaction to that. Also, that same type of fear. Just leave me alone. I'm OK by myself because there's that fear of actually, if you need someone that they're not going to show up for you.
Is there meaningful mapping of those attachment types onto the broker convenor expansionists categories that you've observed, or is that too hard to draw? Those connections?
Attachment styles, in many ways going to be most predictive of how likely someone is to be a convener. Remapping a secure attachment style is going to translate more into a convening like network, which is really has these benefits of social support.
We've got some nice language and groundwork laid about how networks work in the different types of networks. Map that onto changes in the world. So we've seen in the last decade the rise of incredibly high velocity social networks and messaging capabilities. We're doing this on Zoom. You're in Idaho. I'm in Connecticut. And this is possible and it feels very human. One of the things I've observed in covid, I don't know which category. I'm I'm probably an expansionist.
I know a lot of people. The ability for me to meet more people and feel like I know them a little bit has exploded. It's just stunning. So I'm just curious how you think about the velocity and the fidelity of interaction and how that changes your view of the world or what it makes you think about.
I think you're definitely in the minority there. And I want to come back to that because I actually think it's an interesting way of thinking about our responses may have changed depending on your network. But if we think about this in general, on average, what's happened during the pandemic in a study, I compare people's networks a year before, like Balen and then in the midst of it. And what we saw overall is the networks have shrunk by close to 15 percent, which is around two hundred people.
So the thing about the outer layer of our network was really interesting is that that shrinkage is due almost entirely to a reduction in the size of meant network. So many networks have shrunk by close to 30 percent or four hundred people and women's networks have hardly shrunk at all. Wow. Yeah. If you start to dig into that, I mean, one of the first things that that we know for so many different angles that women have far less time during the pandemic, particularly working women who have children.
This is isn't because women are investing more time in their relationships. It's actually that they're investing that time quite differently. So men and women just generally tend to both maintain networks differently and they also tend to approach them differently. And those gender differences actually explain women's resilience during this time when women have actually really struggling on so many other fronts.
Say a bit more about I should have asked earlier about the difference between men and women at a high level. What are the most common differences to their approach to networking? And I want to come back to covid specifically because that's a fascinating finding.
Women and men in general, they tend to develop different types of networks, but also the returns to different networks are quite different. So, for instance, women tend to keep their workplace and personal lives separate more and that separation actually leads them to. So women tend to be brokers in the sense that they're keeping their separate. So women tend to be brokers. And the benefit of not for women is that they tend to have more work life balance. The ironic twist, this is actually the returns from a professional standpoint to women from brokerage actually are quite lower than men.
Brokering is perceived to be in conflict with the common stereotype of women that they tend to be more communal. In many ways. It's this stereotype backlash that leads to negative consequences for female brokers outside of work life balance.
So men's tendency then, especially in work and the bleeding of the work network into sort of the personal that covid, I guess you're just not with the people. So it's just different. Has created this shrinkage, this massive shrinkage. I have that roughly, right?
Yeah, that's right. In part, why that's true is that men tend to maintain their networks by doing things together. So men may I don't know what men do. They go to a bar together, they play soccer together. They do whatever men do together, but they tend to maintain ties through shared activities during covid. That's impossible or it's much more difficult versus women actually tend to maintain relationships through competition. The ability to have conversation has been unimpeded during the pandemic that women's networks and our ability to maintain our social ties hasn't diminished as much as men's.
I'll put a plug out there for finding a great place to hike. That's how I do mine. Maybe that's the excuse because everyone's comfortable hiking and nothing else. So a daily hike with the random person. Plug for that for sure. I'd love to talk now about organizational behavior and what you've learned about. I don't know what the right word is here like. Pruning or improving the way that a system, an organization is set up. And again, this may be changing quickly based on the mode or method of interaction.
But when you study organizations, specifically, what changes here? So what is new about what you've learned relative to the more individual level that we've talked about so far?
One of the things that's really interesting is we start to shift and think about organizations. It's surprisingly rare how much organizations invest in trying to understand the social capital within their organization. So we think about networks as a resource that social capital, we spend a lot of time thinking about human capital, but we really don't think carefully about social capital. And one of the things that I find most discouraging when it comes to this is it seems like because there's not that much thought being devoted to what's happening in organizations, that we tend to just follow trends.
So if we were talking three years ago, the idea of thinking about like how do we manage informal relationships in organizations, so many companies we're focused on, like let's just build open office spaces, ensure their financial savings to that. But underlying that idea really was like we just have people bump into each other. We're going to have more creativity and innovation. The flip side of this now, organizations have completely gone on another management trend.
I think we can all just work together virtually. And that's just going to work out fine, too.
And so you see these huge bubbles following of management fads and trends to manage informal relationships, which actually ordinary value. But you can't really treat it like that. I mean, even in the most simplistic form we've seen, they're actually very, very different networks than most people have in organizations, just aren't. It's going to how to leverage that and how to support within organizations to think about how do I support someone who they can be in or how do I make the most of that?
Or if I'm trying to seat a team where I need more trust, how do I do that using these basic network forms?
It's sort of a mind blowing idea because one of the most popular ideas out there, I guess, in business right now is the Netflix Bar Razr concept that you want to focus intently on having the highest quality possible people together and having just a crazy high standard for who you let into the organization.
Once the bar is cleared up, good stuff happens. I've never heard anyone really talk intentionally about you get one hundred great people together, but now they all interact and it's the sum total of those interactions that lead to the outcome. So I've never thought about it. But like what is interesting here, what does the research suggest are best practices? Things to consider great people is one thing, but interactions is maybe everything.
So what have you learned about those interactions as you were just describing this trend towards like the Netflix series? Like I think of that as just selection, but then we have to think about what's going on in the network. And there's a ton of research. Too many cooks spoil the broth, the type of phenomenon that actually you don't want a lot of superstars on the same team actually just got off a call from talking to someone who is the head of an emergency department who is describing this exact same problem.
Like if I put too many fast people in the ed, the whole department slows down because they start to get bored. This idea that if you just put all the superstars together, you're going to have a great team or a great organization.
It's just simply misguided because you need to think about, as you said, what's the optimal some of those parts with great research also that was done at Google by Julia Resourcefully, which tried to ask the same question. What leads to the highest performing teams at Google? You can't create a team just putting together the people with the highest individual performance. You actually have to think very carefully about the collective dynamics and processes that are going on within those teams.
So let's imagine a perfect team. If a perfect team is not ten star all star performers vying for the piece of the pie, I'm sure there is no perfect team. But as we approach perfect teams, what sorts of things do we observe?
I don't know sports very well, but I had this idea I was going to be like, you can give me any individuals. And if you put this one secret process, which I'll get to together, I can make a superstar team. And then I started to give the bad news bears or whatever the reason, like, oh, actually, I wouldn't push it.
That part, like you do need competent individuals. Right. But the idea of a team like what you're trying to do on a team is you trying to put together a diverse group of individuals who each have unique talents and ability. That's why you create teams in the first place. In order for those individuals to work well together, you need something that's psychological safety or the ability to feel like you can speak up without fear of reprisal. And why that's so critical is if you want to harness that knowledge, if you want to harness that diversity, you have to allow people to be willing to put it out without fear of shame and understand we're all trying to learn together.
And that collective mindset of I just throw anything at all that your expertise is valued is really, really key.
What do you think organizations, generally speaking, do the worst when building and sort of maintaining their teams? Like what are the most common pitfalls?
One is that we don't empower people enough. A team will be put together, but that's reporting to a manager in that hierarchy. Within the team, there's far too much deference given to who's ever. Whether the manager or the formal leader, and that really just negates the purpose of having a team in the first place, which is you actually won that unit working together, it's cohesively as a whole. The most simple basic process is equality in a game that everyone needs to be speaking about the same amount of time.
And when that's happening, right, you have a high functioning team, but it's extraordinarily rare that you actually have equality in the game. There's like all sorts of reasons. The competitions go very lopsided. That's one piece in the second piece is I think you often organizations or divisions let teams go on are longer than they should. And what that is essentially doing is that's creating a convening like structure. And then you're just ending up with group think if that team really needs to stay together, then people rotating in and out.
You need to have people like as temporary members or do something to shake it up. But otherwise things just get really, really stale far too fast.
Is there anything you've learned about the role of conversation specifically? So if you think about network structure and you've got nodes and edges, I guess you could text. You could call. There's a limited number of modes of interaction and conversation. Seems like a really key one. What have you learned about just conversation? Generally, there's an enormous power.
First off, just in human voice. And so one of the things that's been interesting during the pandemic is, again, talking about these management infections that everyone just went to video conferencing. And I think the idea is we're are going to have more the ability to read no cues. And we actually know from lots of research that actually our ability to do that on video is really poor, depend on what you're trying to maximize, like we can do faster task performance with video on.
But if you care about things like social connection or empathy, actually the research my colleague Michael crustless, it's far better actually just to have a voice only because we're much better at listening and listening. If I had one magic superpower to give it to anyone, it would be a good listener. And so anything you can do in conversation that moves towards being a better listener is going to make you a more effective manager. And it's also going to make you a more effective human.
But listening super hard.
We all think we're really good listeners, but most people are actually really terrified.
What do you think makes for a good listener and what gets in the way of being one person?
It gets in the way of it that we were just talking about is actually a distraction. There is great work showing how easily we're distracted. An example of this is there is a study looking at people notice clown cycling by on a unicycle and you think, like, of course, I would notice like how could you miss that? Whether or not they were using a cell phone or not had a huge effect. And it's some extraordinary percentage of people, like two thirds of people don't even notice it's gone on a unicycle just by having their cell phone out.
We're distracted all the time. And there's so many channels of distraction that we can miss things that it's called inattentional blindness. So that's a part of it is just simply being distracted and not being present. The second is, even when we're present, sometimes we're trying to be good listeners to try to just figure out, like, what are you doing when you're actually thinking or listening is simple.
Exercise is just ask someone like day going or how are you doing today? And try to give them 30 to 60 seconds uninterrupted and notice what you do.
A lot of people will think about like, oh, I want to jump in with a story of my own. You might have a story of love like a unicycling clown. That's one tendency would you think are being helpful to me, too. But actually that derails conversation. And then other people often want to give affirmation like. Aha, yeah. Like they're giving verbal signals because they're focused on really active listening techniques. But in that focus on the active listening technique, you're actually not listening.
You're trying to be a good listener.
Yeah, it's it's a fascinating skill, the distraction piece. And this guy, Eric Maddox, who was very involved in the finding Osama bin Laden via active listening to this network of people around bin Laden. And he sort of like flip the script on how we treated these people from being aggressive to being very compassionate and just listening to them talk about their families. And eventually he's credited with finding where bin Laden was hiding. And it was all active listening.
And his number one thing was distraction. The amount of crap that you're thinking about as somebody else is talking most commonly being what am I going to say next? Is studying, right? Like if you just shut off our own minds, life would get so much better.
That is incredibly powerful and it makes so much sense. The question is, what's the most important from a conversational perspective? But it's actually the in action and conversation. It's like the whole that's missing in conversation. That's the most powerful thing. It's weird how you can do the most by doing nothing in many ways.
So I love the idea of talk is the phrase you use an equal talk, honestly, is like the composition of the team. By definition, if you've got a good diverse team diversity being key, you're naturally going to talk roughly an equal amount because you're going to bring something unique to the table. Is there anything else that you've seen organizations do other than trend following or. Open workspace and versus remote that you just think is timeless, good policy for running an effective organization with a strong network.
I think the biggest piece is actually to be attentive to the network in a conscious way. If you think about what's happened even during covid, we've tried to default that having human interaction in some ways mimic the way it was before. So if you think about things that people are doing right now, they may have like random coffee on Zoom or they may have I think I had one last night, which I'm definitely not going to, which is like a departmental come together on.
I don't know what people do on it. It's really ineffective. But the point is that we think that you can just bring people together and create some sort of social interaction or social connection. Truth is, if you want to create real relationships, there needs to be some purpose or intentionality behind that.
The likelihood that a random pairing coffee chat is going to actually lead to an enduring relationship is actually really, really small. I'm going to attend this departmental thing tonight or whenever it was a pretty much zero. But what would be different?
What's different is if you create a common purpose for people to come together to have a conversation about things that they might not otherwise then can endure. So a much more effective strategy than, for instance, having a company Christmas party. We know that actually for many people that that's actually isolating and exclusionary. So particularly for people in the numerical minority, whether that's women or African-Americans, anyone who who's in a numerical minority is likely to actually feel excluded from that because they don't feel that they can engage in the same types of ingratiating relationship building conversations that would normally happen.
So the idea then is to think about how can you create a common basis for conversation where we can all come together and talk about things that we have in common that aren't pretty surface level. So a far better idea would be having someone come give a very short lecture on Egyptian history, something that no one knows anything about. So we're all in the same playing field, but have that conversation go deep enough that it creates meaningful conversation that can likely endure.
And so that's an example of a very long winded example of how many to do this best or intentional about it. In those intentional interactions, they create safety where people feel that they can speak up and reveal aspects of themselves that they choose to. But they also create a structure that's a combination of safety and structure to informal interactions that everyone feel like they can participate rather than just put people in a room and see what happens, which some people certainly thrive in.
But there are a whole lot of people who don't.
Have you learned to think about touch? We talk about conversation. I'm very close with my doctor. He's a close friend as well, for obvious reasons. He's been hyper hyper conservative during covid. He's now been vaccinated twice and wearing masks and wash their hands. Immediately afterwards, we shook hands for the first time. It was just like so nice. And it just made me realize, like, holy crap, this is something that is really missing and it's another mode of the edges of the interaction between nodes in the network.
Is there anything interesting there, even as you said that just about shaking hands, there is a deep sense of longing. It's your first sense to develop. It's arguably one of your most sensitive senses. So you can convey through time certain emotions like compassion or empathy that is really hard to convey. Otherwise, if you think about the very first thing that happens when a child is born, it's that skin to skin contact in the same thing is true in death.
You hear about some of the most touching stories from me. I work I spend a lot of time working in the health care industry about what happened in those last moments when people, particularly in the beginning of a pandemic where people are dying alone, nurses reached out and held someone's hand despite the risk it was to themselves. It's so, so essential. And so the idea that we've already lost in many ways during this past year that sense. But my concern is, is that hypersensitivity to physical space and physical boundaries may make this endures for a longer period of time, which would be just devastating.
But, yeah, it's kind of a crazy thing to consider hugging a grandparent or something that's been vaccinated or something like this. Like it's just kind of shockingly emotional moments which reveal the bizarreness of this pandemic. I mean, it's totally wild.
I think with all of these things, whether it's actually just our social interactions in general, my hope is that the past year has made us realize just how important they are that hopefully will be more attentive to them moving forward. So if there's any one silver lining, it's like hopefully we'll hug our grandparents a little bit more.
I'd love to turn to the final category that you referenced earlier. So coming from the individual to the organizational to the societal, you started with the WTO story. And I've always been fascinated by mass movements, Vezzali, also by cults as sort of like a perverse version of a mass movement. Talk us through what you've learned there about things that transcend individuals and organizations and become. Something much bigger and how technology in the modern world may have changed that or amplify that for me to where there's so much power, it's like other society work.
And to understand that it's a network industry, I argue that you have to understand how the networks are working.
One of the pieces that's been disheartening or somewhat worrisome to me, particularly I think about what's happened during the pandemic, is we know that when people are interacting online, this tendency towards insularity in talking to people who are already think like us, look like us, that becomes hyper exacerbated online. So online in many ways, we're all living in echo chambers.
And if you think about the added layer of that, when we don't have the ability to bump into people, we wouldn't normally do that.
That's essentially creating just polarization. And so if we think about a lot of the large scale social issues that we're facing during this time, whether that's issues around race, polarization or political polarization, we know that our lives are structured and have been structured over the past year. But then increasingly so, his hyper exacerbated this. If we want to start to think about like how do we fix this problem, we have to figure out how do we start to have conversations and come together, how to bring groups together that normally wouldn't talk to each other.
One of the things is this is most likely happened actually is at work, which makes the workplace particularly powerful. So we know that our interactions at work are far more diverse than our other domains of life. So if you compare it to diversity of interactions within schools, within neighborhoods, within voluntary organizations, by far our interactions are most diverse at work.
And what school is at work also, you can create social structure. So I can't in my neighborhood, like I don't get to choose who my neighbors are. I don't get to choose them. But at work through either formal project assignment or a clean MySpace, I can actually create opportunities for people who normally wouldn't come together to talk. And it's not necessary that I'm saying like the workplace is the panacea for solving these large scale social problems. But the idea is the same.
How do you get people to come together to have meaningful conversations? You normally wouldn't talk to each other and accept that that rate is just thinking about the human aspect. So we talk a lot about listening or even just the power of voice and empathy. It's hard to do that online because you miss the human element to overcome anything that has to do with causation. We have to think about first, how do you bring people together? But then how do you do it in a human way?
What have you seen about whether it's Colts' or some other huge mass movement that drives those things forward? If we've moved to the very highest level of organization of huge groups of people, these patterns that you've studied, the propagation of ideas through a network, what are the key ingredients for something to cross that tipping point of cultural relevancy where sort of everyone's heard about it?
There has to be a common vision or a common goal, but it has to be defined in a way that it allows for individual difference. Imagine that you're trying to get the environmental movement to catalyze. We may both be interested in this, but for a very different reason. You love to hike, so you may be interested in preservation of nature versus I care deeply. I don't know about reducing energy cost and doing that in a long way that's sustainable from a business, whatever those are.
The first thing is everyone needs to come together and understand, like we're on the same page for the same goal.
But we may also have very different reasons for that being true and figuring out how to create essentially a tent that's big enough that allows that common purpose to drive us, but also to understand that they're going to be points of difference among individuals about why that is important, because it seems like that's probably true for successful businesses to the job of the leaders is to set this common roadmap or vision, but allow space for autonomy.
Exactly. Is a network us and I guess we were talking about the example of environmental and imagine us all in our different convening like circles are closed communities, but we have to figure out a way for those communities to talk together and then ultimately work together for a higher purpose. And the exact same thing is true within an organization.
We just call those little cults circles. We call them divisions. Right.
Or departments in the same is true to figure out like how do you get the optimal rate of collaboration between those units is necessary to support this higher level vision without just creating too much chaos or spending too much time interacting? What's that exact point of perfection?
I'm a big fan of respecting nature and biology because they're such well-worn things. They've evolved over a long period of time. Some of my favorite points are just returned to what makes us human. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the biological underpinnings of Dunbar's number, because I think everyone knows Dunbar maybe mentioned what it is for those that don't. I thought the biology of this was totally fascinating and it's kind of a fun place to wrap up our conversation around.
It's all being rooted in our humanity. What a beautiful place, and this is the thing that gets me, it's this kind of feels like magic. How is this possible on a human level?
We know that the size of our networks is in many ways constrained by our cognitive abilities that are actually fundamental physical things that relate to biological and evolutionary constraints on how large any one individual's network can get, which is isolated in this famous number of one hundred and fifty, which is Dunbar's number, and the size of organizational units, the size of army companies.
It's the size and it's really constrained by the size of our brain, our capacity to minimize. But what's also powerful and so fascinating about how networks work, if we go back to thinking about creating a movement and why the world are small, it's because everything can be distilled into these. Three basic principles are fundamental parts of networks and how they fit together. So you can see the same structure that create small worlds and human networks. You'll see the same in neural networks.
You can see it, an ant colony. You can see it in electricity networks. In some ways, if we think about the Higgs boson, the God particle, in many ways you can think about the social systems of these same signatures that are not just our own social human social signature, but it's also true in the biological world as well. What does that mean?
It sounds like very fractal or something that turtles all the way down. As you always hear people say, there's just some natural mode of interaction, like when you think about when you're faced with the fact that an ant colony and a neural network and a social network all behave the same way. What do you do with that?
For me, it's like a combination of just all. But then it's like, oh, but we can play with this like there's a reason it's important for these things to fit together. The way they do is because it allows for system optimization. We can think about what we can learn, whether it's from colonies or from neural networks. It has huge implications for how we can think about optimizing human systems.
Just to click on that, because it's so fascinating, one level deeper. Maybe those two examples seems like you might know a bit about Cartesian neural networks. What is shared in common, like is it the way information is spread through these things? Is it some sort of ratio's? There's a golden mean in here somewhere. Like what is it about the way these things are structured that is shared in common?
In many ways you can all this they have essentially parts that look like convening structure are so dense of where things can transmit really fast. But they also have Rockbridge links between these clicks that link them together. But then the expansionist part that they of these long tails of connection, and that's where the spontaneity comes from. And so if you take the broker and be Interpeace, what's important there is there's kind of a fundamental underlying structure that allows for things to move quickly, but also catch on and small hobs.
But then it's like that's the structure. But the expansionists create this randomness or chaos that kind of makes the whole thing work.
Wow. I mean, it sounds like evolution to sounds like the principles of Akima, where this experiment amplify whatever it is that Darwin talked about. It all sounds like the same thing, like trying to learn. Pretty remarkable. Well, this has been just an incredible conversation. I think your work in your book is so thought provoking and totally left my brain buzzing when I read it. I suggest everyone check it out. I asked the same closing question every week of everybody, and so I'll ask you as well.
My question is, what is the kindest thing that anyone's ever done for you?
Give me a hug. A perfect, perfect capper and something that we all look forward to. Well, Marissa, thank you so much for your time. This is so much fun.
I really appreciate it. If you enjoyed this episode.
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