Relationship Capital: 4 (and a half) scientific studies to help you be a better networker

By Tzipora Nissan
The Brief
Building a good network might be an art, but it’s also very much a science. 

As our lives become ruled more and more by data—terabytes of it, aggregated, parsed and analyzed—it can seem like talk of human networks and relationships is rather, well, quaint. You might be surprised, however, at just how much of a science amassing relationship capital is. To help prove it, we’ve collected five recent studies that not only delve into the psychology and organizational science behind networking, but can also be applied to increase your relationship capital. Think of it as the lab portion of this blog.

1. Teamwork isn’t just for the cavalry. Dynamics in the boardroom play out across levels of organizational trust and directly affect company profitability, as a study from Case Western Reserve University found. Surveying over 25 C-suite teams, members were asked to rate both their present degree of interactive compatibility and their “ideal” dynamics. Not surprisingly, those already working closest to their ideal levels of team engagement were managing the more profitable companies.

The takeaway: Avoid choosing a team based only on previous executive-level success. Instead, look for relationship skills and team commitment. If all else fails, recruit a third-party for better group facilitation. Your company’s success could depend on it.

2. The power of negativity. Building relationship capital is all about positive connections; destroying it is all about negative connections. That’s the conclusion of a recent study from two University of Kentucky researchers, who found that negative interactions with co-workers, however rare, produce faster and stronger effects on workplace relationships than positive interactions. Specifically, almost all negative social experiences on the job undermine both the task at hand and morale in general. 

The takeaway: No one gets along with everyone all the time. But don’t let tense relationships fall off your radar. Rather, use them as a springboard for practicing conflict-resolution skills to develop a stronger team. 

3. It’s not who you know, it’s when you know them. An Indiana University study on venture firm partnerships demonstrated the importance of who you pick for your first organizational partnership, and the lasting effects it might have on your network. The study found that networking success was linked almost exclusively to individual or organizational status, which was in turn determined by the reputation of an organization’s initial partners. And that perception is unlikely to change with time.

The takeaway: Regardless of industry, when you’re starting a new business or leaving an old one, pick your initial professional relationships with care.

4. Learn to trust. Trust to learn. Coworkers can often be rich sources of information and professional education, but how do organizations foster strong learning environments? According to a study in The Academy of Management Journal, trustworthiness and accountability in the workplace pay off; an environment of trust allows coworkers to approach one another freely when seeking information, generating a better class of knowledge-sharing and innovation across distances and departments.

The takeaway: Managers should encourage and demonstrate discretion, consistency and clear communication—primary traits associated with trustworthiness—in both professional and social relationships within the company.

Bonus: For all the nonprofits, up your social media game for higher donations. As nonprofits increase their online presence, they’re finding a wider, though no more generous, donor base both on and off social networks, according to a recent study out of Arizona State University. In particular, online donors are less picky about non-profit organization efficiency or size, preferring to give smaller amounts more frequently to causes and projects embraced by others on their social network. Though it might not work for every organization, researchers found that the warmer and fuzzier the charity, (think youth programs), the stronger the social factor motivated mobile giving.

The takeaway: As organizations struggle with offline fundraising, the “social network effect” justifies turning resources towards developing an active and engaging online presence. 


Tzipora Nissan is a freelance writer based in New York City. This is her first post for the RelSci blog.
RelSci helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers.

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