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TEDxOhioStateUniversity

Tanya Menon: The secret to great opportunities? The person you haven't met yet

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We often find ourselves stuck in narrow social circles with similar people. What habits confine us, and how can we break them? Organizational psychologist Tanya Menon considers how we can be more intentional about expanding our social universes -- and how it can lead to new ideas and opportunities.

- Organizational psychologist
Tanya Menon speaks, writes and consults on collaboration. Her research focuses on how people think about their relationships and the habits that allow them to build positive connections with other people. Full bio

I started teaching MBA students
00:12
17 years ago.
00:15
Sometimes I run into
my students years later.
00:17
And when I run into them,
a funny thing happens.
00:20
I don't remember just their faces;
00:23
I also remember where exactly
in the classroom they were sitting.
00:25
And I remember who
they were sitting with as well.
00:30
This is not because I have
any special superpowers of memory.
00:33
The reason I can remember them
00:38
is because they are creatures of habit.
00:40
They are sitting with their
favorite people in their favorite seats.
00:43
They find their twins,
they stay with them for the whole year.
00:47
Now, the danger of this
for my students is they're at risk
00:51
of leaving the university
with just a few people
00:56
who are exactly like them.
01:00
They're going to squander their chance
for an international, diverse network.
01:01
How could this happen to them?
01:06
My students are open-minded.
01:07
They come to business school precisely
so that they can get great networks.
01:09
Now, all of us socially narrow
in our lives, in our school, in work,
01:14
and so I want you to think about this one.
01:20
How many of you here
brought a friend along for this talk?
01:22
I want you to look
at your friend a little bit.
01:27
Are they of the same nationality as you?
01:31
Are they of the same gender as you?
01:34
Are they of the same race?
01:37
Really look at them closely.
01:38
Don't they kind of look like you as well?
01:41
(Laughter)
01:43
The muscle people are together,
01:44
and the people with the same hairstyles
01:45
and the checked shirts.
01:47
We all do this in life.
01:50
We all do it in life, and in fact,
there's nothing wrong with this.
01:51
It makes us comfortable to be
around people who are similar.
01:55
The problem is when
we're on a precipice, right?
01:59
When we're in trouble,
when we need new ideas,
02:02
when we need new jobs,
when we need new resources --
02:04
this is when we really pay a price
for living in a clique.
02:08
Mark Granovetter, the sociologist,
had a famous paper
02:13
"The Strength of Weak Ties,"
02:18
and what he did in this paper
is he asked people
02:20
how they got their jobs.
02:22
And what he learned was that
most people don't get their jobs
02:24
through their strong ties -- their father,
their mother, their significant other.
02:27
They instead get jobs through weak ties,
people who they just met.
02:31
So if you think about what
the problem is with your strong ties,
02:36
think about your
significant other, for example.
02:39
The network is redundant.
02:42
Everybody that they know, you know.
02:43
Or I hope you know them. Right?
02:46
Your weak ties --
people you just met today --
02:49
they are your ticket
to a whole new social world.
02:51
The thing is that we have this amazing
ticket to travel our social worlds,
02:55
but we don't use it very well.
03:00
Sometimes we stay awfully close to home.
03:01
And today, what I want to talk about is:
03:04
What are those habits that keep
human beings so close to home,
03:06
and how can we be
a little bit more intentional
03:10
about traveling our social universe?
03:13
So let's look at the first strategy.
03:15
The first strategy is to use
a more imperfect social search engine.
03:18
What I mean by a social search engine
03:24
is how you are finding
and filtering your friends.
03:26
And so people always tell me,
03:31
"I want to get lucky through the network.
03:33
I want to get a new job.
I want to get a great opportunity."
03:35
And I say, "Well, that's really hard,
03:38
because your networks
are so fundamentally predictable."
03:40
Map out your habitual daily footpath,
03:43
and what you'll probably discover
is that you start at home,
03:46
you go to your school or your workplace,
03:50
you maybe go up
the same staircase or elevator,
03:52
you go to the bathroom --
the same bathroom --
03:55
and the same stall in that bathroom,
03:58
you end up in the gym,
04:00
then you come right back home.
04:01
It's like stops on a train schedule.
04:03
It's that predictable.
04:05
It's efficient, but the problem is,
you're seeing exactly the same people.
04:06
Make your network
slightly more inefficient.
04:12
Go to a bathroom on a different floor.
04:15
You encounter a whole new
network of people.
04:18
The other side of it is how
we are actually filtering.
04:21
And we do this automatically.
04:26
The minute we meet someone,
we are looking at them, we meet them,
04:28
we are initially seeing,
04:31
"You're interesting."
04:32
"You're not interesting."
"You're relevant."
04:33
We do this automatically.
We can't even help it.
04:36
And what I want to encourage you
to do instead is to fight your filters.
04:38
I want you to take a look
around this room,
04:42
and I want you to identify
the least interesting person that you see,
04:45
and I want you to connect with them
over the next coffee break.
04:49
And I want you to go
even further than that.
04:52
What I want you to do is find
the most irritating person you see as well
04:54
and connect with them.
04:59
What you are doing with this exercise
is you are forcing yourself
05:01
to see what you don't want to see,
05:08
to connect with who
you don't want to connect with,
05:10
to widen your social world.
05:13
To truly widen, what we have to do is,
05:15
we've got to fight our sense of choice.
05:18
We've got to fight our choices.
05:20
And my students hate this,
but you know what I do?
05:22
I won't let them sit
in their favorite seats.
05:24
I move them around from seat to seat.
05:27
I force them to work with different people
05:29
so there are more accidental
bumps in the network
05:31
where people get a chance
to connect with each other.
05:34
And we studied exactly this kind
of an intervention at Harvard University.
05:36
At Harvard, when you look at
the rooming groups,
05:41
there's freshman rooming groups,
people are not choosing those roommates.
05:44
They're of all different races,
all different ethnicities.
05:48
Maybe people are initially uncomfortable
with those roommates,
05:51
but the amazing thing is,
05:54
at the end of a year with those students,
05:55
they're able to overcome
that initial discomfort.
05:57
They're able to find deep-level
commonalities with people.
06:01
So the takeaway here is not just
"take someone out to coffee."
06:04
It's a little more subtle.
06:10
It's "go to the coffee room."
06:11
When researchers talk about social hubs,
06:14
what makes a social hub so special
is you can't choose;
06:16
you can't predict who
you're going to meet in that place.
06:20
And so with these social hubs,
the paradox is, interestingly enough,
06:24
to get randomness,
06:29
it requires, actually, some planning.
06:31
In one university that I worked at,
06:33
there was a mail room
on every single floor.
06:36
What that meant is that the only people
who would bump into each other
06:38
are those who are actually on that floor
06:42
and who are bumping
into each other anyway.
06:44
At another university I worked at,
there was only one mail room,
06:46
so all the faculty
from all over that building
06:49
would run into each other
in that social hub.
06:52
A simple change in planning,
06:56
a huge difference in the traffic of people
06:59
and the accidental bumps in the network.
07:02
Here's my question for you:
07:04
What are you doing that breaks you
from your social habits?
07:06
Where do you find yourself
07:10
in places where you get injections
of unpredictable diversity?
07:11
And my students give me
some wonderful examples.
07:17
They tell me when they're doing
pickup basketball games,
07:19
or my favorite example
is when they go to a dog park.
07:22
They tell me it's even better
than online dating when they're there.
07:25
So the real thing that
I want you to think about
07:29
is we've got to fight our filters.
07:33
We've got to make ourselves
a little more inefficient,
07:35
and by doing so, we are creating
a more imprecise social search engine.
07:38
And you're creating that randomness,
07:43
that luck that is going to cause you
to widen your travels,
07:46
through your social universe.
07:48
But in fact, there's more to it than that.
07:50
Sometimes we actually buy ourselves
a second-class ticket
07:53
to travel our social universe.
07:58
We are not courageous
when we reach out to people.
08:00
Let me give you an example of that.
08:04
A few years ago, I had
a very eventful year.
08:06
That year, I managed to lose a job,
08:09
I managed to get a dream job
overseas and accept it,
08:12
I had a baby the next month,
08:15
I got very sick,
08:17
I was unable to take the dream job.
08:18
And so in a few weeks,
what ended up happening was,
08:21
I lost my identity as a faculty member,
08:24
and I got a very stressful
new identity as a mother.
08:27
What I also got was tons
of advice from people.
08:30
And the advice I despised
more than any other advice was,
08:33
"You've got to go network with everybody."
08:36
When your psychological world
is breaking down,
08:38
the hardest thing to do
is to try and reach out
08:41
and build up your social world.
08:44
And so we studied exactly this idea
on a much larger scale.
08:46
What we did was we looked at high
and low socioeconomic status people,
08:51
and we looked at them in two situations.
08:57
We looked at them first
in a baseline condition,
08:59
when they were quite comfortable.
09:02
And what we found was that
our lower socioeconomic status people,
09:04
when they were comfortable,
were actually reaching out to more people.
09:07
They thought of more people.
09:11
They were also less constrained
in how they were networking.
09:12
They were thinking of more diverse people
09:15
than the higher-status people.
09:17
Then we asked them
to think about maybe losing a job.
09:19
We threatened them.
09:22
And once they thought about that,
09:23
the networks they generated
completely differed.
09:25
The lower socioeconomic status
people reached inwards.
09:28
They thought of fewer people.
09:32
They thought of less-diverse people.
09:33
The higher socioeconomic status
people thought of more people,
09:36
they thought of a broader network,
09:39
they were positioning themselves
to bounce back from that setback.
09:41
Let's consider what this actually means.
09:46
Imagine that you were being
spontaneously unfriended
09:49
by everyone in your network
09:53
other than your mom,
your dad and your dog.
09:56
(Laughter)
10:00
This is essentially what we are doing
10:01
at these moments when
we need our networks the most.
10:03
Imagine -- this is what we're doing.
We're doing it to ourselves.
10:08
We are mentally compressing our networks
10:11
when we are being harassed,
when we are being bullied,
10:13
when we are threatened about losing a job,
10:15
when we feel down and weak.
10:18
We are closing ourselves off,
isolating ourselves,
10:20
creating a blind spot where we actually
don't see our resources.
10:23
We don't see our allies,
we don't see our opportunities.
10:27
How can we overcome this?
10:30
Two simple strategies.
10:32
One strategy is simply to look
at your list of Facebook friends
10:33
and LinkedIn friends
10:37
just so you remind yourself
of people who are there
10:38
beyond those that
automatically come to mind.
10:41
And in our own research,
one of the things we did was,
10:44
we considered Claude Steele's
research on self-affirmation:
10:47
simply thinking about your own values,
10:50
networking from a place of strength.
10:53
What Leigh Thompson, Hoon-Seok Choi
and I were able to do is,
10:55
we found that people
who had affirmed themselves first
10:58
were able to take advice from people
11:01
who would otherwise
be threatening to them.
11:03
Here's a last exercise.
11:06
I want you to look in your email in-box,
11:09
and I want you to look at the last time
you asked somebody for a favor.
11:12
And I want you to look
at the language that you used.
11:16
Did you say things like,
11:18
"Oh, you're a great resource,"
11:20
or "I owe you one,"
11:22
"I'm obligated to you."
11:23
All of this language
represents a metaphor.
11:25
It's a metaphor of economics,
11:28
of a balance sheet, of accounting,
11:30
of transactions.
11:32
And when we think about human relations
in a transactional way,
11:34
it is fundamentally uncomfortable
to us as human beings.
11:37
We must think about human relations
and reaching out to people
11:41
in more humane ways.
11:45
Here's an idea as to how to do so.
11:47
Look at words like "please," "thank you,"
"you're welcome" in other languages.
11:49
Look at the literal
translation of these words.
11:55
Each of these words is a word
that helps us impose upon other people
11:57
in our social networks.
12:01
And so, the word "thank you,"
12:02
if you look at it in Spanish,
Italian, French,
12:04
"gracias," "grazie," "merci" in French.
12:07
Each of them are "grace" and "mercy."
12:10
They are godly words.
12:12
There's nothing economic
or transactional about those words.
12:14
The word "you're welcome" is interesting.
12:18
The great persuasion theorist
Robert Cialdini says
12:20
we've got to get our favors back.
12:23
So we need to emphasize
the transaction a little bit more.
12:24
He says, "Let's not say 'You're welcome.'
12:27
Instead say, 'I know you'd
do the same for me.'"
12:29
But sometimes it may be helpful
to not think in transactional ways,
12:32
to eliminate the transaction,
to make it a little bit more invisible.
12:36
And in fact, if you look in Chinese,
12:40
the word "bú kè qì" in Chinese,
"You're welcome," means,
12:42
"Don't be formal; we're family. We don't
need to go through those formalities."
12:45
And "kembali" in Indonesian
is "Come back to me."
12:49
When you say "You're welcome" next time,
12:53
think about how you can maybe
eliminate the transaction
12:55
and instead strengthen that social tie.
12:58
Maybe "It's great to collaborate,"
or "That's what friends are for."
13:01
I want you to think about how
you think about this ticket that you have
13:06
to travel your social universe.
13:11
Here's one metaphor.
13:13
It's a common metaphor:
"Life is a journey." Right?
13:15
It's a train ride,
13:17
and you're a passenger on the train,
13:18
and there are certain people with you.
13:21
Certain people get on this train,
13:23
and some stay with you,
some leave at different stops,
13:25
new ones may enter.
13:27
I love this metaphor,
it's a beautiful one.
13:29
But I want you to consider
a different metaphor.
13:31
This one is passive,
being a passenger on that train,
13:34
and it's quite linear.
13:37
You're off to some particular destination.
13:39
Why not instead think of yourself
13:42
as an atom,
13:44
bumping up against other atoms,
13:46
maybe transferring energy with them,
13:48
bonding with them a little
13:50
and maybe creating something new
13:51
on your travels
through the social universe.
13:53
Thank you so much.
13:56
And I hope we bump into each other again.
13:57
(Applause)
13:59

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About the speaker:

Tanya Menon - Organizational psychologist
Tanya Menon speaks, writes and consults on collaboration. Her research focuses on how people think about their relationships and the habits that allow them to build positive connections with other people.

Why you should listen

Tanya Menon is fascinated that in a time when we can instantaneously connect with nearly the whole world, we often instead filter our relationships even more narrowly. As such, we often get stuck in dead ends, missing out on new people, ideas and opportunities. Menon and her collaborators have studied the often mundane feelings and innocuous daily habits that cause people to remain in their social comfort zone and produce this polarization. And they have also explored ways that we can be more intentional about navigating the social world.

Menon is Associate Professor at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Her research has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune and The Financial Times. She is Associate Editor at Management Science journal, an award-winning teacher, and she has done keynotes, consulting and training for organizations all over the world. Her book with Dr. Leigh Thompson, Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits (2016, Harvard Business Review Press) explores various social traps people face in business, and how to overcome them.

Menon earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Harvard University in 1995 and her Ph.D. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her goal as a researcher, educator, consultant and parent is to create new ways for people to connect with each other so that they can live richer and more creative lives. She hopes that her work will help people intentionally create new habits to live a wider life and also share them widely.

More profile about the speaker
Tanya Menon | Speaker | TED.com