There are reams of academic studies on the highs and lows of workplace relationships: the value of a mentor, the damaging effects of a toxic colleague. But the literature is largely silent on the coworkers who make up the vast majority of our office interactions—the ones we barely know, and rarely work with directly. Like that lady who sits by the copier, with the plant on her desk. Or that guy in sales. No, the other one. Tim? Tim. Or Tom.
The academic term is “indifferent relationships.”
Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University, studies these relationships, which most of other researchers overlook. She has found that this large, bland body of colleagues we probably can’t name (and who can’t name us) in fact plays a crucial role in innovation and productivity.
“Asking acquaintances for input is likely to elicit a broader and more diverse set of perspectives” than talking to friends alone, Methot says. This makes sense: the people you’ve chosen as your friends are more likely to think the way you do, and less likely to spot what you’ve overlooked. We also may be more inclined to experiment with new ideas around people we don’t know that well.
Research has found that teams of people with weak social ties are more innovative than those composed of people with close relationships. Entrepreneurs who rely on diverse networks of friends, acquaintances, and networking contacts for professional input are more innovative than those who just consult their friends.
“The people you know the least generally have the most power to introduce you to something new or change your mind,” the executive coach Katia Verresen told First Round Review. Verresen recommends accessing these people in what she calls “giving circles”: groups of five to seven people working on unrelated projects who meet regularly to offer ideas and point out overlooked options.
It’s also a lot easier to get stuff done around people with whom you don’t have much to say. Pick up the phone to ask a close friend a quick question, and the conversation is likely to veer into other topics. Pop into the office of a colleague you don’t know personally, and you’re likely to stick to the issue at hand.
“There’s a lot of intimacy and reciprocity and time involved in close relationships,” Methot said. “With acquaintances, we can go ask them a question and be done with it. It’s a much more efficient way of getting information.”
If the transactional element implied here feels a little uncomfortable, remember: it goes both ways. You too are somebody’s nobody.