Do you want to be more successful, earn more, and possibly make the world a better place at the same time? You may be able to do all of that by exploiting the power of weak ties--not the people you know well, but people who may be in your extended network, because you work in the same industry or organization, have friends in common, or are part of the same industry group, for example.

That advice comes from Wharton psychologist and TED speaker Adam Grant, and like most of his advice, it's backed by research. In an office environment, a lot of creative ideas and useful breakthroughs come about because of what he calls collisions--people running into one another in the hall or chatting before or after an in-person meeting. The pandemic and the move to remote work upended all that, he explained in a recent webinar sponsored by online writing assistant Grammarly.

"One of the things I found intriguing during the pandemic was that a lot of people were staying in touch with their strongest ties," he said. "Most of us were really good at maintaining our connection with our immediate team members, our direct reports, our closest clients--but we lost touch with everybody else." 

That's a shame because it put an end to all those lucky collisions. But, he said, it doesn't have to be that way. "Great ideas come from people who have different knowledge and connections having informal interaction time. And if you're not going to bump into those people, you can structure the unstructured time," he said. "So one of the ways that you make people feel less alone and more creative is you engineer interactions between weaker ties. You allow people to connect who don't know each other well."

A 24 percent increase in sales

It can be a surprisingly powerful approach. In one recent experiment, Grant said, an organization tried randomly matching two salespeople for a weekly lunch. The lunches had no particular agenda. "They did it for a month," he said. "Four months later, the average salesperson in the experiment has 24 percent higher revenue." Why? "When you have no agenda with a peer, you learn from each other. You share tacit knowledge. They also ended up feeling much more connected to each other because now I have a lunch buddy I didn't know before. And it turned out we have some shared goals and some common interests and were able to help each other out."

The benefits don't end there. A few years ago, Grant helped found an app that encourages people to ask for help from one another, and provide that help if they can. "The thought is to go outside your inner circle and reach out to weaker ties who meet different people and know different things," he said. And even though some of the requests are pretty challenging--to see a Bengal tiger in the wild, for example--about 80 percent of the requests get meaningful help in response, he said.

And it doesn't stop there. Because the odds are low that someone who gets help can immediately reciprocate to whoever helped them, people are eager to give back by responding when others ask for help. It creates a virtuous cycle.

A pay-it-forward norm

"You come away from this experience realizing, if I can get more people to ask for help across a team or a community or a network, and engage some of those weak ties, they can get the support they need and they can also be blown away by the generosity of near strangers," Grant said. "That creates a pay-it-forward norm."

He added, "I do think in some ways, it's one of the untold stories of this past year. Generosity has spiked across the world. We've seen rates of volunteering go up. We've seen charitable donations rise. Even just informal helping between neighbors in neighborhoods has gone up. And I think that's the default human response to disaster and tragedy." But he said, we don't do enough to keep it going.

Weak ties are a powerful tool that can benefit both you and your company. So look for ways to reach out across your own extended network, and encourage the people who work with you to do the same. "One of the greatest antidotes to loneliness and isolation is to both give and receive," he said. "And I can't think of a better way to do that than to invite people to ask anything they need or want of anybody in their network."

There's a growing audience of readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. Sometimes they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? Here's more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders and they tell me how helpful it is to reach out to their extended networks, or weak ties, whenever they need help, ideas, or a better perspective. Should you be making more use of your own?