Seeing structure and being successful

How knowing your environment gives you power over your destiny

Seeing structure and being successful

Maybe not too surprising, I'm back writing about networks. I came across work from Joshua E Marineau on power and network accuracy. The group is doing interesting research on organizations. Lately, there is a focus on positive connections and negative connections. Let's face it, we are not friends with all of our colleagues. The researchers at the LINKS center are addressing this: How does the web of positive and negative work relationships impact performance?

While reading the article on how power impacts network accuracy I was thinking about social inequalities. But this is a side story I’m addressing at the end. Right now, let’s focus on the impact of network accuracy an work. Here, network accuracy refers to being able to correctly describe one’s social environment.

Why this picture? Network accuracy is measured by asking the same question to several people. Every person has a different view of the environment (the social structure). The combination of these perspectives is the reality. The reality is thus a repetition of individual perception of what the structure is. The picture above combines repetition and architectural structural features, the key components on reality.

Key points

  • Powerful people have a better idea of their social environment.
  • Knowing your social environment helps you achieve goals and take action.

What is a cognitive social structure?

A cognitive social structure describees how you think the world works around you. Specifically, it is your personal perception about who is interacting with whom and what the social role of individuals are. For example, if you focus on your family, part of your cognitive social structure is the communication between your siblings, the interaction between your parents, and between parents and their children. Do they call each other? Or do they meet only once per year or even less often, only on special occasions? What is the role of your mother? Is she the strict one you fear to bring bad news? Is your brother the clown of the family, and your sister the know-it-all? Which aunt is the one who knows all the gossip? This is all part of your cognitive social structure.

Cognitive social structures are personal. Just because two people are part of the same family, community, friendship circle, or work team does not mean they have the same cognitive social structure. As a consequence of this, your cognitive social structure does not have to be an accurate representation of reality. It helps if it is. For example, if you know that aunt Margaret loves talking and telling people everything that she hears, you'll be careful what you say around her. But you'll go to her if you want to find out something about your estranged sister.

The accuracy of your cognitive social structure influences your success. If your cognitive social structure is an accurate picture of reality, you know what your social capital is. That means you have a better idea of which resources are available to you, and who can help you achieve your goals.

If your cognitive social structure is not accurate, you'll have more problems navigating the world. It's as if you did not know how much money you make. You can buy things, invest money or take out a loan, but because you do not have an accurate idea of what your income is, these decisions can be foolish.

3 benefits of an accurate cognitive social structure

As mentioned above having an accurate cognitive social structure has advantages.

  1. People think that you are good at getting things done. This is because you know who has access to what information, who is connected to whom, who is an expert in a specific field. This helps you to identify what the best decisions are.
  2. Another advantage relates to associations humans make. If you know that Anna is a trouble maker and likes to bend rules, you will associate those who interact with Anna as trouble makers. The same applies if you have a positive picture of someone: If Sandra is a high performer, then the people with whom she interacts must also be a high performer. Hence, if your cognitive social structure includes an accurate perception of the roles or attributes other people have in your community (leader, follower, creative, rebel, conscientious, etc), then you can use this information to decide with whom to interact. If you want to be promoted to leading a highly innovative team at work, you should interact with people who are thought to be innovative, have leadership skills, or dare to work on unconventional ideas.
  3. Finally, cognitive social structure can also help you decide what action to take. This requires knowing with whom in your network you are structurally equivalent. This is a person who has similar connections than you, similar skills, and social roles. In other words, it's your Doppelgänger, your social network twin. As you and your twin are similar in terms of your interaction and social roles, you can predict your future by looking at what your twin does. If your twin quits, chances are you will follow and also quit. If your twin applies to a social media analytic position at company A, you will also apply to a social media analytic position. Just not in company A, as then you will be competing for the same job (this assumes your twin is your friend).

The powerful and their cognitive social structures

I've just elaborated on what a cognitive social structure is, and why it is important. The remaining question is How to make sure your perception about your environment, your cognitive social structure, is accurate? This is where power comes to play.

According to Joshua Marineau, powerful people have a more accurate perception of the whole social network than less powerful individuals. Thus, managers, parents, shop owners, teachers have a better idea of who is interacting with whom and what their social role is. However, this accuracy is limited to a specific type of power (formal power) and specific tie content (negative affective ties).

A little bit about the research method: The study has been done in an organization. The authors looked at formal power (your title) and informal power (the influence you have). Informal power is the degree to which you can make people do things, without having the authority.

The authors collected information about two types of relationships: Like and dislike. In a work context, two people who like each other, enjoy working with each other. They can be friends, but do not have to be. Important here is that they have a positive work relationship and feel connected to each other. Negative affective ties, or a dislike relationship, exist between two people who rather do not want to be on the same team or spent any extended time in the same room. This could be two colleagues who are enemies or in some other way can't stand to work with each other.

Back to the results. The author and his colleagues show that those who are in a leadership position thanks to their job roles have a better idea who does not like to work with each other. This helps them design workflows and staff teams in such a way that work gets done. If you are a leader and your team members keep on arguing over every aspect of the project, your team can't perform. This reflects negatively on you. Knowing who dislikes who helps in deciding who has to work with whom, or sit next to whom if your team members have to work onsite.

The authors also report that those with formal power and informal power have a more accurate perception of their incoming connection (positive affective ties and negative affective ties). An incoming connection is a request for a meeting or other form of interaction. If someone stops you in the hallway or sends you a message this person is creating an incoming connection with you. The connection comes to you. This request can be genuine or fake, to get your attention. Those in power have a better idea of the people who want to talk with them, and if they are liked or disliked.

Lingering thoughts

I first wanted to open with this paragraph, but it kept going in a direction that I'm not certain with. It's an unproven claim, an invitation to counter or build further upon it.

I think we all know the idea of the old boy's club. The old men in charge of companies meeting in private clubs or other places and making important decisions. Not everyone is allowed in those meetings. It might be because of their gender, ethnic background, social class, or other reasons. These meetings can be purposefully scheduled in places that are off-limits for some but do not have to. For example, an expensive restaurant, a fancy golf club, a sleaze pub, a hamburger place, or a smokey cafe. The point is that those in power meet in certain places which, those not in power, can not frequent. This is the idea of the old boys club.

The idea of the old boys club has most often been associated with powerful white men. To be part of the old boys club you need to be born in a specific social class. This means that the social class you are born in gives you a certain amount of power. This power gives you the chance to have a certain social capital, which in turn opens or closes more doors to you, further increasing or decreasing your power. Power is important for having an accurate perception of your cognitive social structure. An accurate perception, in turn, is an advantage has it helps you make better decisions. This further increases your power. You are on an upward spiral to success and stardom.

Using the same line of reasoning, those who are born in a social class that caries less power, will have a less accurate cognitive social structure. This, in turn, will make it harder to navigate the social environment and make the best decisions, limiting opportunities, and success (however you define it). A way out of it would be to increase the accuracy of your social structure. But for that, you need power, formal or informal. Or those in power to make their cognitive social structure available to others. Social media is a tiny step towards it, as you can see followers.


Brands, R. A. (2013). Cognitive social structures in social network research: A review: COGNITIVE SOCIAL STRUCTURES. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34(S1), S82–S103.

Marineau, J. E., Labianca, G. (Joe), Brass, D. J., Borgatti, S. P., & Vecchi, P. (2018). Individuals’ power and their social network accuracy: A situated cognition perspective. Social Networks, 54, 145–161.

Photo by Karl Smith on Unsplash

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