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The effects of personality on social structure


Themes: Organisational behaviour

The effects of personality on social structureNext time you are at a social gathering, instead of chatting just to friends and colleagues, why not strike up a conversation with a complete stranger? For the effects of making contacts outside your usual circle may, according to new research by Cambridge Judge Business School’s Professor Martin Kilduff, Diageo Professor of Management Studies, be much further-reaching than you think. A diverse range of social contacts can affect not just your enjoyment of a particular social occasion but also your work performance and promotion prospects.

Professor Kilduff, the Diageo Professor of Management Studies at Judge Business School, has been studying ‘network brokers’ – those people who connect individuals and clusters of people who are themselves not directly connected. Brokers are currently the subject of intense scrutiny in the management community. “We are aware that brokers play a crucial role in innovation,” says Professor Kilduff. “They create new ideas, they span structural holes in networks and bring different people together. And by doing so, they give their own fortunes a boost.”

What makes brokers even more interesting, however, is that they are not only valuable but unusual. “They are different to the rest of us.” Professor Kilduff says. “Most of us just seek out and attach ourselves to other people who are similar to us. But brokers are the people who connect across separate clusters. What we want to know is, how is it that people come to be brokers? We don’t think it is something that just happens accidentally.”

To help answer this question, Professor Kilduff has just carried out the first study of how personality relates to brokerage inside a community of entrepreneurs. The particular community he chose consists of 162 expatriate Korean small-business owners, typically running enterprises like grocery stores and laundries, in a city in French-speaking Canada. This research examines the differences between two quite different personality types apparent among the entrepreneurs – those of high and low ‘self-monitors’ – and looks at the contacts that the entrepreneurs have made, both within their own community and, by spanning cultural boundaries, with people outside it.

As Professor Kilduff explains: “High self-monitors are the ‘chameleons’ of the social world, able to change their attitudes and behaviours to meet the demands of different social situations; low self-monitors look within themselves for guidance concerning their attitudes and behaviours. The pragmatic high self-monitoring social chameleons resemble successful actors and national politicians in that they have an ability to adjust their social interactions to appeal to quite different groups of people. The ‘true-to-themselves’ low self-monitors resemble principled individuals, who tend to speak their minds even when it may be socially inappropriate.

“The high self-monitoring entrepreneurs, relative to their low self-monitoring colleagues, create social structures around themselves such that their acquaintances among their fellow business owners tend not to be acquainted with each other. Even more surprising, the acquaintances of the acquaintances of the high self-monitors also tend not to be acquainted with each other. These results control for other factors such as the closeness of homes and businesses, the size of individuals’ networks, and the language ability of the entrepreneurs. Looking at relatively recent arrivals of Korean entrepreneurs to the community, the high self-monitors also tend to have a wider range of important contacts outside of the Korean community compared to the low self-monitors. Thus, the research finds that the individual’s personality – whether the individual is a social chameleon or not – affects the whole social fabric of the individual entrepreneur’s interactions within the entrepreneurial community and beyond it.”

This research concerning who is likely to become a broker – someone who connects across people who themselves are not connected – is important for understanding ways in which social capital is created and sustained. Both societies and economies benefit from brokers. In divided societies, as the paper says, “Brokers knit isolated groups of people together, helping to create social cohesion, and facilitating cross-community action.” However, not everyone is likely to enjoy brokering across social divides. Indeed, ‘structural holes’ in friendship networks can induce psychological strain, such as thoughts of suicide among teenage girls whose friends are not friends with each other.

In business settings, where new information is often at a premium, brokers do tend to benefit, especially in situations in which markets are not perfect. For both individual people and for individual firms, brokering between others who themselves are not connected can result in faster promotion or enhanced profits. Professor Kilduff’s paper cites a previous study of small apparel firms run by entrepreneurs in New York. The researchers looked at how the entrepreneurs’ networks of contacts – both direct (i.e., people they traded with personally) and indirect (i.e., people they traded with at arm’s length) – differentially affected the firms’ chances of survival.

“When we were all hunter-gatherers, it made sense to cleave solely to your own social group,” says Professor Kilduff. “But in today’s world of fast-moving information, being a broker who spans gaps in networks and who has a diverse range of contacts through whom he or she can pick up news and information before other people are aware of it, can be advantageous.” To the extent that high self-monitoring individuals tend to be brokers, this provides an additional advantage to them in business settings in which, prior research has shown, self-monitoring skills of listening, empathy, and leadership tend to help high self-monitors achieve faster promotions and higher performance ratings.

As the paper concludes, “Self-monitoring research can help us understand the extent to which individual differences play a role in shaping not just individual behaviour but also social patterns of interaction. As individuals strive to pursue their careers, they create social structures that serve as channels for resources, mechanisms for acculturation, and linkages to new opportunities. If self-monitoring theory … has an overall message it is that individual differences are important not just for individuals, but also for understanding the structure of the social environments in which their interactions take place.”

And what does that mean for those of us who are low in self-monitoring, and therefore may be missing out on the advantages of brokerage? “While you can’t alter your personality, you can learn to alter your behaviour, and you can also learn that the structure of the social world around you is a result of your own personality,” says Professor Kilduff. “And once you become more self-aware, you can become more strategic. So even though you know you are not a high self-monitor, you can still practice your brokerage skills. Make the effort at social evenings and networking events to introduce yourself to strangers and strike up conversations with them – even if it means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to do so.”

Further Reading

Oh, H. and Kilduff, M. (2008) “The ripple effect of personality on social structure: self-monitoring origins of network brokerage.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(5): 1155-1164