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Weak ties vs strong ties: Why they both matter

October 17, 2022 - 13 min read

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What are the types of ties?

Should you focus on developing strong or weak ties?

The strength of weak ties

Turn your weak connections into strong ones

All ties matter

If you’re a LinkedIn user, you probably have somewhere between 300 and 999 connections. Some of these might be cold-connects, some will be folks you met in passing, and others might be ex-colleagues you haven’t heard from in ages. 

You might wonder if you need all of these connections. You don’t talk to all of them regularly, and you probably never click on their profiles to see what they’ve been up to — you’re much too busy for that. 

But before you reach for the “Remove Connection” button, know that your extended network carries more value than you think. According to a popular social network theory, your lesser-known contacts are access points to professional circles outside your own.

Through these individuals, you’re always just one person removed from their network of contacts — people from different industries and companies who might help you in your career one day.

To fully grasp the value of these connections, it’s helpful to weigh them against the people you know more intimately. These are the individuals you talk to regularly, engage with frequently, and check on constantly. In other words, they’re the stronger connections in your professional and social networks.

Strong and weak connections serve different but equally essential roles in your life. Your friends, family, and close colleagues might have more emotional value to you. But that doesn’t mean you should discount the usefulness of your weaker ties.

Here’s everything you need to know about weak ties vs. strong ties and why they’re both equally important in your life and career.

 

What are the types of ties?

LinkedIn is a convenient tool for tracking your connections, but your network likely extends beyond the reach of social media. At work, you probably have an internal email list that allows you to connect with people in your organization.

You might be part of a neighborhood group chat where parents coordinate carpooling to kids’ soccer games. Your family tree is also a network of stronger (immediate family) and weaker (extended family) ties.

That’s why any proper “strong ties” and “weak ties” definitions should extend into every area of life. Sociologist Mark Granovetter, M.S., professor in sociology at Stanford University, is a key contributor to the weak ties theory. He defines the concepts like this:

  • Weak ties are people you know but not very well. They’re merely acquaintances. You interact with these people at work and in your personal life only as much as you need to. 
  • Strong ties are folks you know very well. You likely have close ties with the people you walk home with after work or visit on weekends. These are the friends you interact with regularly — whether it’s a workplace bestie or the close friend you’ve known since high school.

If you categorize your interpersonal connections based on these definitions, your list of solid relationships will be much shorter than your weak ones. But, according to Granovetter’s hypotheses about social structures and information flow, that doesn’t make your weak connections any less valuable — they just serve a different function in your life.

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Should you focus on developing strong or weak ties?

It’s important to cultivate all types of relationships. 

Strong ties refer to intimate connections you have with family, friends, spouses, and coworkers. Nurturing these social relationships is a lot of work, but they’re some of the most fruitful you will have in your life. 

That’s because these strong-tie relationships have three important components to them. They’re defined by:

  • The frequency of your social interactions. The more frequent interactions you have with a person, the more important they’ll be in your life. They become an essential part of your routine. You’d notice if they weren’t there.
  • The emotional intensity of your relationship. Your strong connections give you a sense of belonging, companionship, and comfort. They’re more intimate in nature and act as a support system in your life. These are the people you confide in. 
  • The diversity of roles in your life. A strong connection, like a best friend or partner, supports you in more than one way. They're not just someone to spend Saturdays with but offer their perspective on life's big questions — and you likely value that perspective.

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Strong connections are essential to your mental health and well-being. They give you a safe space to decompress and be yourself, offer outside perspectives on your struggles in life, and they’ll be there for you whether you’re employed or not.

Weak ties aren’t better or worse than strong ties — they’re just different. They’re characterized by:

  • Infrequent interactions. Your weak connections are usually casual acquaintances. They’re nice to have around but don’t play as central of a role in your everyday life. 
  • A singular purpose. A weak connection only plays a single role. In your professional life, this role is usually business-related. For example, a corporate client or your coworker in the next cubicle each serves one function.

Your weak connections can fill the gaps left by your strong connections. Your best friend may not enjoy going to concerts, so you go with an acquaintance instead — a relationship that starts and ends with this one shared interest. 

There are many types of work relationships you may develop, and many count as weak ties. 

Similarly, your strong connections may not understand the ins and outs of your professional life. This limits their ability to help you make sound decisions. A mentor is usually a “weak connection” because they serve a single function: they help you navigate your industry to reach your career goals.

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The strength of weak ties

You probably have an emotional connection to your strong ties, meaning they carry more weight in your life. It’s hard to imagine cutting them out or losing them if they’ve been integral to your personal and professional growth. 

Weak ties are just as important, but their strength shows up differently. Here’s how:

1. They boost your social capital

Social capital is a term used in social sciences to describe the benefit your connections can provide you.

When it comes to self-marketing, ties you know loosely make you look good. If you’re a freelancer always looking for new clients, having many connections on LinkedIn shows that people care to know you. You must be a pro if that many people clicked “yes” when you added them.

Plus, their very presence in your network can help you land prospective clients. Someone you previously worked for (who is now a weak tie) could be in the same social circle as this new person you’re courting. They can provide a referral or share your promotional post, making your new client more likely to trust you.

2. They offer a different point of view

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At work, you won’t be friends with everyone you meet — and that’s a good thing. If you only deal with strong connections, you risk trapping yourself in an echo chamber. And if your ideas go unchallenged, you risk missing important considerations when making decisions.

If you can regularly interact with weak connections, they can break you out of your bubble and expose you to new ideas and ways of working.

The same concept applies to your online newsfeeds. Your weak connections will share news and articles you would never have sought on your own. This can expose you to new points of view about the world, your industry, and how you can be better at your job.

3. They provide access to the traditionally inaccessible

If the entirety of your network is a bubble, your weak-tie relationships help connect you to other bubbles. This means that, through your weak connections, you can access different groups of people.

Here's an example to help demonstrate this bubble effect. You can announce your availability on LinkedIn if you’re looking for a new job. Everyone you know — strong and weak connections alike — will see that you’re looking for work.

If five weak connections share your announcement to their feed, and they each have 100 connections of their own, your post will theoretically reach the eyes of 500 additional people. This rapid dissemination of your post would dramatically increase your likelihood of finding a job.

That’s the power of weak ties!

Turn your weak connections into strong ones

Your weak ties don’t have to stay that way forever. Under the right conditions, the strength of a tie can improve over time. Before you know it, your work colleague will grow to be the best man or bridesmaid at your wedding. 

Here’s how you can strengthen your relationships with the weak ties in your life:

  • Take advantage of chance opportunities. You might have a friend you only see at your kids’ soccer games and community events. Use your conversation skills to get to know them better. You might develop a deeper friendship over time.
  • Do more activities together. If you only ever see a colleague in the office, hang out with them in a more informal environment. For example, if you know that you both enjoy tennis, you can play a match together after work.

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  • Communicate more. Sharing is caring. If you’re at a networking event with a weak connection, ask them for help or update them on your career progress. This will help them know you better and can lead to interesting collaboration opportunities.

Because all of these relationships benefit you, you can never have too many. Expanding your network and strengthening any of these ties will show you new ways of thinking, living, and working. You might benefit from setting social goals to guarantee you’re constantly exposed to new people and bubbles. 

All ties matter

As you weigh the benefits of weak ties vs. strong ties, remember that they both play an important role in your life. Your strong connections may feel precious because you see them daily, but this doesn’t make your weak ties any less valuable.

Weak connections are the glue that holds your extended network together. They fill in where your strong ties fall short and link you with an endless amount of other relationships. Your weak ties help break you out of your bubble, exposing you to new ideas and opportunities you wouldn’t normally be privy to. 

So next time you open LinkedIn, take a moment to be thankful for all the people you’ve met along the way — weak connections and all.

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Published October 17, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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