The importance of relationality in individual transformation

Here at interstitio, we do business with a variety of amazing clients. We recently worked with a wild-and-groovy for-profit organization interested in anchoring some of their work on individual transformation to rigorous concepts from the social sciences. This team didn’t just want to talk about their work, they wanted to talk about their work with confidence and humility, connecting it to the cutting edge of what’s known about behavior change.

Somewhat obviously, one overarching observation we noted is that the implied, or implicit, view(s) on individual transformation focus wholly on the individual. While a focus on transformation at the individual level is surely fruitful, it neglects a fundamental component of the human condition: relations. Human beings are inherently social creatures who are embedded in social relations--friends, family, coworkers, communities. There is a great deal of research documenting the overwhelming force that one’s social ties have on individual outcomes. Research has documented the importance of social relationships to mental health, health and risk behaviors, and material and promotional gain. Even more specifically, we also know that when it comes to organizational innovation (at the firm, or individual level), certain types of relational structures are more likely to generate innovative behaviors, ideas, and practices.

Given that 1) human beings are inherently social, and 2) the structure of these social relations produce very real consequences, it stands to reason that when thinking about changing oneself, it may be best to begin by thinking about one’s social relations. From this perspective, there is a significant opportunity to leverage what is known as social network analysis to more fully unpack, predict, and evaluate the transformative behaviors you wish to engender. Social network analysis is a field of study which mathematically defines and predicts desired outcomes based on the structure of relationships within a person’s life, or within an organization itself. Social network analysis began, arguably, with the observation of what a man named Georg Simmel described as the “Forbidden Triad.” He noted that if A is friends with B, and C is friends with A, it is almost always the case that C and A become friends. As time passed, social network analysis became a formal statistical and mathematical area of study, culminating in vast amounts of social network data available (Google, FB, Instagram, wearable devices, etc). Recently, social network analysis has increasingly incorporated the ideas of social psychology. Social psychology was created by Erich Fromm, who, after surviving Nazi Germany, became obsessed with understanding how seemingly normal people could do awful things. He also wrote a super interesting book wherein he treats American society as a psychiatric patient, and diagnoses it accordingly (hint: we are a siiiiiiick puppy). It turns out that individual psychology interacts with group dynamics in some less than awesome ways.

Moving back to the idea of changing oneself by changing the nature of one’s social relations, it turns out that social network analysis can be an incredibly useful tool as we think about enabling ‘personal transformation’. For example: those pursuing a personal or mental transformation would be well served to have what is known as a Coleman Network--one marked by a small and dense cluster of relationships which provide support and feedback as the transformation is pursued. These types of networks are the central focus of much of the work of Robert Putnam. Alternatively, those who are seeking a professional or material transformation should have what is known as Burt Centrality Network--a network typified by a low density of interconnected people wherein the person in questions bridges/brokers multiple groups who are different in their mission or makeup. In this way, the individual acts as as an information broker who is constantly exposed to novel information and ideas. For those looking to experience a physical transformation, we know that healthy behaviors are what we call “contagious”--people adopt the beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes of those they associate with. From this perspective, the first thing an individual seeking to be more healthy should do is evaluate whom they associate with, and modify their social network to include individuals practicing similar healthy behaviors.

Overall, the social network perspective provides several key points of prediction and goal assessment. From the prediction standpoint, individuals can complete what is known as an “ego network assessment.” This would mathematically articulate their social network, which can then be assessed with regards to the type of transformation they are pursuing. From a goal evaluation perspective, a second ego network assessment is completed after a program. Client and employee social networks should inherently look different pre- and post-program if the process of transformation was successful.

Here at interstitio, we use advanced mathematical and statistical modeling to assess client social and organizational networks. And by incorporating theories and knowledge derived from social psychology research, we can fully unpack the dynamics of an individual or organizational entity--the brain of the person or organization, and relationships to other brains that person or organization has.

PS - As an editors note, while the image is of two male-looking scientists in white coats, as one of us was the co-founder of Connect With STEM, we want to highlight the fact that everyone needs to see themselves as scientists. So while this image is somewhat humerous, it's a bit lacking from that perspective.