Research Findings

The networks of people who think of quitting their job

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June 6, 2019

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 organization. Should the explanation behind the relationship between networks and turnover need 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.

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 favors 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 behavior ‘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 organization. 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 organization 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 organization, it makes sense to hold on to existing friendship relations and not to jeopardize 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 organization 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 not contradict previous findings that larger networks seem to tie people to their organizations. Yet, our results show that people who think of quitting their organization 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 organization may bring about the desired network churn at least in the advice network.

Read more

Christian Troester, Andrew Parker, Daan van Knippenberg and Ben Sahlmueller. “The coevolution of social networks and thoughts of quitting,” Academy of Management Journal 2018.

Image: Max Pixel (CC0 1.0)

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