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Why ‘Dormant Ties’ are Your Best Problem-Solving Resource

Finding long-lost colleagues is easy now. And recent research says that every executive with a problem to solve should try.
COLLABORATORS Daniel Levin, Jorge Walter
Why 'Dormant Ties' are Your Best Problem-Solving Resource
photo by Dave Hosford

You might be unimpressed by an academic study making the seemingly obvious claim that it pays, networking-wise, to reconnect with colleagues from past lives (from b-school, former jobs, you name it). Well, of course it pays to reconnect. Why do you need a few PhDs to tell you that?

Here’s why: The professors in question – Daniel Z. Levin, Jorge Walter and J. Keith Murnighan – have data that will rock your rolodex. In a study appearing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Levin and his team asked 224 executives in four MBA classes to reconnect with two dormant ties for help on a major project. (Dormant was defined as out of touch for at least three years.) The first tie was someone the exec used to be close with; the second tie was a weak or distant relationship. The execs were then asked to compare the value of these reconnections – measured by solutions, referrals, novelty of ideas, and trust – to the value of connecting with two current colleagues for help on the same project. There were three big conclusions:

1. Dormant ties are great sources of unexpectedly novel insights. “After all,” write the profs, “just because people lose touch does not mean that they go into hibernation. Instead, they continue to encounter new and different experiences, observations and information, which makes them particularly valuable resources.”

2. Reconnecting requires a minimal time investment. “Reconnection conversations are shorter but just as helpful as everyday conversations; that is, they offer more ‘bang for the buck.’ In addition, after reconnecting, these relationships demand only minimal maintenance for the same reason they required no maintenance at all during dormancy.”

3. Reconnecting a dormant relationship is not like starting a relationship from scratch. “When people reconnect, they still have feelings of trust and a shared perspective — which are critical for receiving valuable knowledge from someone — and our research shows that these feelings do not fade much, if at all.”

All well and good, but…isn’t it awkward? Yes, it is. And our savvy professors, anticipating this mild form of social anxiety, came up with few FAQs about what to expect. Here’s a sampling:

• Do older, more experienced managers benefit more from reconnecting dormant ties? Yes. “We surmise that older executives naturally have a larger pool of dormant ties, as they have had more time to accumulate and then lose contacts — and the larger the pool, the more chances there are for obtaining particularly relevant and useful information.”

• What happens to these relationships after reconnections? Do they stay connected? Is there any pressure to keep them maintained? “In a follow-up study, we have found that, although our executives had high hopes for staying connected, communication during the year after a reconnection was typically infrequent. However, that was true for their current relationships, too… The fact that reconnected relationships do not always become fully renewed and maintained is not necessarily a bad thing. If reconnected dormant relationships were maintained on a regular basis, they would become just like current relationships, and their unique benefits would probably dissipate over time.”

So what’s the bottom line, aside from, “don’t be shy?” Refreshingly, there is none. “The next time you have a problem or issue at work,” conclude the professors, “dust off your Rolodex and get on the phone, Facebook or LinkedIn. In a word: Reconnect. Besides finding the experience personally enriching, odds are good that you will also gain efficient access to novel knowledge from a trusted source.”

THE PLUS

In a bit of homemade research on reconnecting with dormant ties, technology entrepreneur Phil O’Brien attempted to perform in his own life what professor Levin and his team demonstrated en masse. On his blog The Personal Network, O’Brien writes: “I’d been ‘funemployed’ after selling my business several years ago – and took my contacts book and reinitiated relationships with a sample of 50 people via LinkedIn.”

For the results of O’Brien’s experiment, you can read his blog.

We’re happy to report that there are other interesting social-networking subjects on O’Brien’s blog, including “Replacing half your friends every seven years, and the tattoo consequences.” As for Levin, an associate professor at Rutgers Business School, this article builds on his earlier research about knowledge transfer and organizational learning. A previous article, for example, is called “Perceived Trustworthiness of Knowledge Sources: The Moderating Impact of Relationship Length.” You can download a PDF of it here.

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