Numerous studies have shown that people with large networks who have many friends and work relationships are less likely to quit their job than people who only have small work-related networks. But do people who think of quitting their job change their networks at work? Do they change the people they go to for advice or seek out for help? Do they change their friends?

Knowing this is important because after all it may be that people who expect they will be leaving a company give up their network during the months prior to quitting. If this is the case it means that many previous studies that have found a connection between network size at time of exit and turnover incorrectly concluded that smaller networks make people leave the organisation. We suggest that the explanation behind the relationship between networks and turnover needs to be re-written. Indeed, we found in our study that people who were thinking of quitting their job had very different networks from those who were not thinking of quitting. But the results were different from what we expected.

While it first looked like the networks of people who were thinking of quitting did not shrink or grow, we found that there was more going on in terms of whom one was connected to. First, we found that people who were not thinking of quitting and thus expecting to continue working with the same people would continue to seek advice and help from the same people. There was little change in their advice network. This is exactly as theory would predict because asking for advice and help creates a give-and-take relationship with others because one becomes indebted to those who go the extra mile to help. These social costs should make it less likely that one would seek help from many people at a time because the costs would become too high and one may at some point run into trouble repaying one’s debts.

Churn vs stasis

However, things looked very differently for those who expected to leave their job. They were much more likely to change the people from whom they sought advice and help. They dropped their existing advice ties and sought out advice from new people. It seems that people who are considering quitting their jobs don’t feel the need to help or do favours for those who have given them advice in the past. This is probably because these people felt less obligated towards their old colleagues and also saw the benefits of creating new ties. This makes sense since one won’t need to repay one’s debts if one is no longer working with the same people. We call this networking behaviour ‘network churn’.

While there was increased network churn in the advice network it was network stasis that we observed in the friendship networks. People who thought of quitting their job became less likely to seek new friends or drop ties to existing friends. We argued that these people were particularly concerned that they would fail to make friendship ties once they left the organisation.

People are known to have a strong need to belong and having close friendship ties helps people satisfy this need. The prospects of leaving the organisation seem to thwart this need. One way of dealing with this is to try to secure one’s friendship ties for the time after one has left the company. Thus, from the perspective of someone leaving an organisation it makes sense to hold on to existing friendship relations and not to jeopardise them. On the other hand, it makes little sense to start a new friendship because building a friendship relation costs time and effort. Because one expects to leave the organisation it may seem futile to build a new friendship and better to save one’s energy.

To sum up our research

We did not find that people who thought of quitting gave up their networks. Instead, we observed considerable network churn in the advice network and network stasis in the friendship network. Thus, we do no contradict previous findings that larger networks seem to tie people to their organisations. Yet, our results show that people who think of quitting their organisation take actions to prepare for their exist by securing old friendship ties and becoming more opportunistic in whom they seek out for help and advice. Management researchers have long lamented the fact that people easily get stuck in their networks and that too little network churn impairs the exchange of information and the creation of new ideas. Ironically, it seems that intentions to quit an organisation may bring about the desired network churn at least in the advice network.

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Notes:


Christian Tröster (Christian.troester@the-klu.org) is an associate professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at the Kühne Logistics University, Hamburg, Germany. His research focuses on leadership, social comparisons, and social networks in organisations.

 

 

Daan van Knippenberg is Joseph F. Rocereto Chair of Leadership at LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, where he is also the Academic Director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership. Daan’s areas of expertise include leadership, team performance, diversity, creativity and innovation, and social identity.

 

Andrew Parker is a Professor of Management at the University of Exeter Business School, United Kingdom. Andrew’s research focuses on the role of social networks in problem solving processes, innovation, knowledge transfer, turnover and performance within organisations.

 

 

Ben Sahlmüller (sahlmueller@respectresearchgroup.org) is a PhD student at the Rotterdam School of Management and the Kühne Logistics University. He studied mathematics at the University of Münster. His research interests include leadership, social networks, and loop quantum gravity.