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Research Friday: The Importance of Strong and Weak Ties In Leadership Development

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing series, we invite a nonprofit scholar, student, or professional to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

These days,"social network" is a term that often refers to a social media community, such as Facebook, and thus is not a term that many managers would take seriously unless they were discussing a social media campaign. In fact, we all live in social networks, every day, and the implications are important for organizations, professional networking and leadership development. The ways in which social networks are designed for interaction among the members of an organization can create a network of support to improve teamwork, as well as create the highest level of information flow to stimulate ideas.

A social network is defined as "an organized set of people that consists of two kinds of elements: human beings and the connections between them," (Christakis, pg. 13). The connection between two people within a social network is referred to as a tie. According to Mark Granovetter, "the strength of a tie is a combination of the amount of time, emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding) and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie" (Granovetter, p. 1361). A tie is defined as strong or weak based on these factors. Each type of tie has advantages and disadvantages, particularly when considering them in a professional context.

First, although weak ties are often perceived as a negative or non-essential element of social networks, they are in fact as essential as strong ties. The term “bridge” refers to a connection that is the only path between two separate networks, and therefore the only way the networks can be linked or new information brought from one network to the other. While there is less commitment or solidity to weak tie relationships, all bridges are weak ties. Therefore, weak ties are essential to social networks and the members within them, because the majority of new information is passed through weak ties. Strong ties, on the other hand, are less easily broken and pass a higher volume of information than weak ties. While weak ties are important to a social network, strong ties are thought to be twice as effective at passing information between two people. Those effective passages of information are vital to teams working together as well as leadership development within an organization.

The ideal social network structure, as well as organizational structure, would contain a mixture of both types of ties between individuals in the network. Friedkin affirms this, stating that “in general, production of the highest probabilities of information flow is associated with a combination of both weak and strong ties” (Friedkin, p. 273). Weak ties are needed in an organization to ensure the passage of new information, which keeps an organization filled with new ideas. Strong ties are needed to facilitate the highest flow of information between the different parts of the organization, keeping the employees in alignment with one another and the cause.

As for support, both strong and weak ties create a strong network of relational support for an organization. Strong ties developed within an organization create support between employees that foster a positive work environment and a sense of team cohesion, which are beneficial when fighting for a cause together. It also means that leadership development functions strongly, as there are high levels of trust between the managers of the organization and the employees. Weak ties, on the other hand, create support outside of the organization that better enable the organization to work toward its mission. They also maintain the connections between different parts of the company to maintain unity and understanding between employees. The two types of ties, therefore, are optimal together for an organization to function and have the ability to fight for their mission.

How does a manager develop both kinds of ties within his/her organization? First of all, a structure must be put into place for mentorship. Many organizations do not have a clear structure for mentorship in place, but mentorship promotes leadership development, company cohesion, and the development of social capital. Many religious organizations have such mentorship structures in place, and those organizations are also credited with frequently having stronger social capital than secular organizations. When companies encourage a ladder of mentorship between employees, employees tend to feel supported and cared for. Mentors are able to point out areas of growth needed, thereby creating stronger employees for the organization. Strong ties are also developed in teams, which can be achieved by team retreats or simply weekly team-building time, on site.

Weak ties need a different type of curation. For weak ties to be developed, members of the organization must interact with those not in their immediate circle. This means that large companies must provide opportunities for different departments to mingle and connect and share ideas. It also means that it is important for managers to pay attention to entry-level employees and other employees with whom there may be distanced from within the organization. Managers cultivating those relationships would encourage the flow of new information, as well as create a culture of maintaining weak ties within the organization.

Lastly, it is be beneficial to help employees learn to network in order to bring new information to the organization through outside weak ties.

Directors of nonprofits would be well advised to consider how to best nurture and cultivate both strong and weak ties within their organization. Do you believe your organization has strong ties? Weak ties? How are those positively impacting your organization? How are they being cultivated and developed?

Annalise Parady recently graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. She is currently serving as Director of Development for Vive Peru, and seeking her next steps in a career in the nonprofit sector.


1. Christakis, N. A., & Fowler, J. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.
2. Granovetter, Mark S. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology, 78.6 (1973): 1360.
3. Friedkin, Noah E. "Information Flow through Strong and Weak Ties in Intraorganizational Social Networks." Social Networks, 3.4 (1982): 273-85.



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