Homophily and business

Homophily and Business

Loosely translated, homophily is your desire and ability to gravitate towards like-minded individuals. A lot of people would think this is a very good/strong element of business and work and organizations and workplaces, because — like-minded people tend to be potential choices for work friends, and having friends at work can be a pretty powerful thing. Plus, we’ve been talking a lot about employee engagement, employee advocacy and overall organizational culture for a number of years. Put aside the potential idea that it’s a consultant-driven scam. If you believe in it, isn’t a stronger culture — one with a lot of like-minded, goal-focused, supporting-each-other individuals — the exact thing you want?

Well, probably not. 

I’ve written a little about this before:

From a cliche alert standpoint, this all goes back to “variety is the spice of life.”

We can phrase this in a more academic way, though. What happens when a bunch of Northwestern (Kellogg) researchers dive into this topic and try to figure out whether a strong, like-minded culture is good or bad? Here’s what happens:

But Kets and Sandroni found that homophily may not benefit all types of interactions. In situations marked by high stakes and constant upheaval, says Kets, “excessive conformism hampers the ability of an organization to adapt.”

The IBM of the early nineties, for instance, was not prepared for change. “That’s the story that people tell. Having people work together well and communicate effectively—it creates an entrenched culture. You’re not open to outside ideas,” says Kets. “There may be a better option, but I won’t [pursue] it because that isn’t how things are done around here.”

Ah, yes. The old “That’s how it’s always been done!” That’s essentially why we still don’t have four-day work weeks, even though they make a lot of sense. BTW: the personal equivalent of the professional “That’s how it’s always been done!” is “You just don’t understand!” I get that all the time from people.

Here’s the whole essence of this discussion/argument. You can really have two types of cultures, or some continuum along these two types:

  • Entrenched
  • Adaptive

Here’s the problem: you go too far from “entrenched,” you run the risk of horrible managers alienating everyone. This happens a lot. You go too far towards “adaptive,” and you run the risk of process falling by the wayside. A place without process terrifies most people.

You have to hit a sweet spot between “Here’s a bunch of people that get along and can chase/meet deliverables together” (closer to entrenched) and “Here’s a bunch of people that also understand business context changes, needs change, and sometimes we need to be flexible in how we do things” (closer to adaptive).

Most people can’t hit that sweet spot, because of a mix of process, tenured employees, bad managers, unclear leadership, lack of purpose, poor communications, etc. The normal “Horsemen of the Work Apo…”

I don’t have a huge amount of tangible suggestions here — every workplace and every human in those workplaces is different — but I always think a helpful place to start is by thinking of work as a neighborhood, as opposed to “a family.” That’s going to change your headspace and how you relate to the different individuals, deliverables, and pieces that you need to deal with to work effectively.

This is all a little bit related to something I wrote last week on the intersection point of “business innovation” and “tenure” — i.e. can you innovate with people with more tenure all over the place? It is harder.


Ted Bauer