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Organizational Psychology – A Social Network Perspective

Answers the Question

What opportunities and constraints on behaviour are embedded within a network of interrelationships among actors?

How it Began

Although “social networking” now refers to digital social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter within organizational psychology social networks have a much wider meaning regarding relating to others, using the now outdated physical or real, as opposed to virtual or electronic, contact.

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Social exchange theory – proposes that individuals engage in behaviours they find rewarding and avoid behaviours that have too high a cost. Originating from Emerson’s sociology studies (1976) exploring exchange between individuals or small groups using  SET explains how human beings communicate with each other, how they form relationships and bonds, and how communities are formed through communication exchanges using a cost-benefit framework and comparison of alternatives.  The theory explains that all social behaviour is based on each actor’s subjective assessment of the cost-benefit of contributing to a social exchange.

Social penetration theory – explains how human exchange forms relationships by focusing on the individual and dyadic levels making predictions about relationship development based on levels of self disclosure.  Based on a sort of cost-reward model, this theory argues that for a relationship to develop, both parties must self disclose.   Altman and Taylor (1973) compared people to a multilayered onion.  They believe each opinion, belief, prejudice, and obsession is layered around and within the individual.  As people get to know each other, the layers “shed away” to reveal the core of the person. 

Social network theory – views the community of individuals as connected actors, and uses mathematical models to study its structure, development, and evolution Social networks can form at many levels, from individual people, to families, communities, and nations. Those ties could be communication frequency, friendship, kinship, financial exchange, sexual relationships, or common
interests or beliefs. Traditional social network analysis views individuals or organizations as
nodes in the network, and the communication between them as edges.

As with all human behaviour, social networking (virtual or not) is influenced by major individual differences, which means that people differ quite systematically in the quantity and quality of their relationships. Three of the main personality traits that are responsible for this variability are;

  1. Extraversion – the tendency to be socially dominant, exert leadership and influence on others, be active and positive;
  2. Emotional Intelligence – the ability to identify and manage emotional states in yourself and other people;
  3. Machiavellianism – duplicitous interpersonal style associated with cynical beliefs and pragmatic morality

Whereas Extraversion and Emotional Intelligence have been found to correlate positively, Machiavellianism and Emotional Intelligence are meant to be negatively correlated – and yet both should positively predict social networking.  Machiavellianism and Emotional Intelligence predict different types of social networks, namely “weak” and “strong” ties, respectively. Thus Machiavellianism results in efforts which develop meaningless relationships, perhaps people who may be useful from a career or self-interest perspective, whilst emotionally intelligent people would be more focused on nurturing ‘strong’ meaningful ties.

However, personality traits (the “good” and the “bad”) may subsequently affect the extent to which the individual is interested in other people, and why that is the case. Perhaps that explains the fundamental difference between an extrinsic and an intrinsic friendship, with the former being driven by self-interest and the latter being driven by warmth and love.

Social Capital Theory – describes the forces that shape the quality and quantity of social interactions and social institutions. Putnam (1996) characterised social capital as the glue that holds societies together.  The ecological nature of social capital, with properties of groups rather than individuals, distinguishes it from social networks and social support.

Dynamic network theory (Westaby, 2012) examines how social networks influence human goal pursuit. This theory examines how a finite set of only eight social network roles (goal strivers, system supporters, interactants, observers, goal preventers, supportive resistors, system negators, and system reactors) are responsible for goal achievement and performance in numerous domains.  Dynamic network theory examines how goal strivers are implementing their roles in the context of other entities activating important roles in the broader social network and explaining a range of human behaviour and social complexities.

Key Terminology

Social Networks – a set of nodes and the set of ties representing some relationship or absence of relationship between the nodes.

Structural Holes – the absence of a link between two contacts who are both linked to an individual or organisational actor,

Social Capital – the coordination and cooperation of social connections and social relations in achieving goals.

In Brief

In recent years there has been an increasing use of the concept of social capital within organizational studies.  Division of skills, expertise and information between employees has increased the need for collaboration, knowledge management and efficient social relations to increase levels of performance of individuals employees and teams.

Research into the importance of network relations for efficient and effective performance of organizations, teams and individuals have developed around the concept of social networks and a more common term of social capital to capture the broad range of social mechanisms that contribute to individual and group outcomes.

Most social structures are characterized by strong connections which are clustered around a specific individual or organization. In the context of networks, social capital exists where people have an advantage because of their location in a network. Social contacts in our immediate network provide information, opportunities and perspectives that can be beneficial to the individual or organisation in the centre of the network. Information within network clusters can be homogeneous and redundant. Access to non-redundant information can be obtained through contacts in different network clusters. When two separate clusters possess non-redundant information, there is said to be a structural hole between them.

Social Capital approaches include;

Tie Approach – intentional ties aimed at getting information, capturing the extent that an actor has direct access to specific information or support.

Alter Approach – connectedness to ‘resourceful’ others where there is a specific advice or resources required for improving performance

Structural Approach – Intentionally creating open or closed structures to improve social capital.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

In many organizations, members tend to focus their activities inside their own groups or network, which stifles creativity and restricts opportunities. Mapping the social capital within a team or organisation can highlight where attention is required to building network bridges across structural holes which in turn provides an advantage in detecting and developing rewarding opportunities.

Mobilizing social capital by can provide access to new ideas, opinions and opportunities. An individual and/or an organization with a network rich in structural holes can add value through new ideas and opportunities and support an individual’s career development and advancement.

The degree to which individuals are able to interact in a purposeful and collective fashion is likely to be determined, at least in part, by the policies and interventions of the organization and the impact of power relations, group integration and opportunities available.

Further more Social Capital of individuals and organizations through social media and online communities has introduced co-creation of value with customers. This behaviour where individuals share their information, knowledge, and experience through online communities offers online social support as a source of the strategic development of  social capital for organisations.