The strength of weak ties in your job search

September 28, 2022


Social network theory has a concept called the Rule of Threes, which states that you’re likely to feel a network effect at up to three degrees of separation. All kinds of things spread according to the Rule of Threes: obesity, happiness, and jobs.

It’s a well-known fact that most people get jobs from someone they know, for example, through their networks. It’s a less well-known fact that most of these jobs come from someone who is only weakly connected to you—for example, not someone who you currently see or work with on a regular basis.

It stands to reason, then, that if you want to increase your opportunities, you need to grow your second and third-ring networks. Becoming a part of a learning or professional community is how you do it.

Strong & Weak Ties

You can think about strong and weak ties in the following way:

A strong tie is someone who you know well. You’ve probably got their number on your phone. You interact with them on social networking sites. There is a good 2-way conversation, and even if you don’t know everything about them, you know them pretty well and information flows freely. Former classmates, coworkers, friends, and people from the same club/associations - these are some good examples of strong ties.

A weak tie is a more tenuous relationship. Once a year, you may send them a birthday message promising to be in touch more often. If you look up their number, they are surprised to hear from you. You have different interests and don’t interact much. You can think of classmates or co-workers with whom you did not interact much, or people who have different interests as yours.

The Strength of Weak Ties

In 1973, Johns Hopkins sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote a now-famous paper called “The Strength of Weak Ties.” In researching how ideas and influence grow, Granovetter learned that people are more likely to adopt new ideas from acquaintances than from close friends. The same holds for a job search.

"Mark Granovetter surveyed people in professional, technical and managerial professions who recently changed jobs. Nearly 17% heard about the job from a strong tie…. But surprisingly, people were significantly more likely to benefit from weak ties. Almost 28% heard about the job from a weak tie. Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties served as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information."

Your good friends may be more reluctant to get involved with your job search than a former colleague. But there are other advantages to weak ties as well.

First, you’re more likely to articulate what you need to a weak tie. When you communicate with friends, you tend to use implicit communication. They know you are unhappy in your job or out of work or having financial issues. There is no need to provide background information. When you communicate with acquaintances, i.e. weak ties, you are forced to state exactly what you want and why.

Second, weak ties can also exponentially expand your network. Strong ties provide bonds, but weak ties served as bridges: they provide more efficient access to new information. Think about it, everyone you’ve ever known has dozens of connections to people you might otherwise never meet. By this calculation, your network is huge! The only problem is: it’s tough to ask weak ties for help.

Reaching out to Weak Ties

If you don’t branch out, you may not have the same opportunities as someone who does. For instance, most jobs are filled thanks to referrals. These don’t have to be your closest or most-trusted confidantes. Referrals can be acquaintances you meet online or at a networking event. Many people frequent networking events to connect with people in their industry.

Say there’s an opening and there are two candidates—one who made an effort to connect with the hiring manager prior to applying and one who didn’t. Who do you think is more likely to get called in for an interview?

The power of weak ties lies in the fact that you make an effort to step out of your comfort zone. It would be ideal if we all got the best jobs without having to contact anyone. But until you express an interest, reach out to the right people and take initiative, you may not get what you want.

How weak ties work for job hunters

Research has even shown that the majority of job help is from weak ties. This is primarily due to the simple fact that we have many more weak ties than we do strong ties. While individual weak ties may be weaker than individual strong ties, in the aggregate sense, our weak ties have been proven to be much more useful.

How do you put your weak ties to use when looking for work? Build two lists of people you have studied/worked with:

1. People who studied/worked in the same department as you (Engineering, Design, Programming, Sales, etc.)

2. People who worked in a different department

Then, find your weak ties using LinkedIn's Advanced search.

People who studied/worked in the same department as you: Who are they working for? Did they change the domain? If so, reach out and ask them how they did it.

People who worked in a different department: Where do they work now? Have they changed industries? If they did, ask them how they did it.

Weak ties might bring you crucial information about a new job opportunity, a new start-up business, or new connections to you. Your relationship with your weak ties should be maintained and cultivated, knitting your networks together to encourage information-free flow between the different parts of your networks.

This information flow could be information you need to get ahead in your own work, or it might be recommendations and information about your skills and abilities to get you the job/contract/opportunity you’ve been looking for.