Nature Versus Nurture: Brokerage Antecedents in Organizational Networks

Nature Versus Nurture: Brokerage Antecedents in Organizational Networks

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Article and Author Information

Susan DeBourcy (MSLOC 2014) wrote this article in March 2014 for the Master of Science in Learning and Organizational Change Capstone Research Analysis and Interpretation course. This executive summary is the culmination of a nine-month capstone research project. Susan works at Kellogg Company as a Senior Manager of Talent Management & Organizational Development. She is responsible for maturing and managing the organization’s change capability, including building change competence at all levels of the organization and ensuring that change initiatives align with and drive strategic priorities and adhere to best practice methodologies. She consults with business leaders across the company to design strategies to address diverse organizational change triggers, serves as the technical expert on change management, and develops delivery tools and resources, thought leadership, and client offerings for application across the organization. Susan joined the MSLOC program in 2012 while working at Accenture as a Manager in the Talent and Organization practice.

 

Abstract

Brokers play a critical role within organizational networks, serving as communicators, ambassadors, knowledge sharers, interpreters, and innovators. They translate across functions and sustain their networks’ overall cohesiveness. By spanning “structural holes” that isolate individual employees, work groups, and business units from one another, research has demonstrated that brokerage yields significant benefits to both organizations and individuals. Savvy organizations, therefore, incentivize and support network brokers. To help organizations to understand the behavioral motivations, personality traits, and organizational structures common among successful brokers, this research surveyed employees using Social Network Analysis and organizational culture typing. The findings indicate that specific characteristics, particularly interpersonal sensitivity, inquisitiveness, and skepticism, higher position levels, and specific organizational structures, particularly hierarchical cultures, impact brokerage.

Introduction of the Question and Methodology

Two employees, Jane and John, work in the same division at a mid-size professional services company. They have similar tenure and report to the same supervisor. Based on work output and quality, their competence levels are roughly equivalent. Yet, Jane consistently receives stronger performance ratings and is acknowledged by peers, both within and outside of the division, to be a key contributor. She is often selected to participate as a team member on cross-functional projects and is relied upon for her "inside" knowledge and innovative ideas. John, meanwhile, is largely unknown outside of his department. He is valued as an individual contributor, yet he rarely receives performance ratings or feedback indicating superior performance. What distinguishes Jane from John? Why do her colleagues perceive her to be a superior employee? How did she develop her strong reputation?

The crucial distinction between Jane and John is unrelated to their work output and quality. Rather, as their social networks, depicted in Figure 1, demonstrate, the connections and relationships that each chooses to develop and sustain impact their respective reputations and success within the organization. While John has developed a tight-knit, closed network, preferring to engage primarily with members of his own department, Jane has fostered a diverse network, including those from other departments, of different ranks, and from customer organizations. She has become an information liaison, or broker, connecting disparate groups of people within and outside her organization. Jane’s unofficial role as a broker, in turn, confers social capital, as she is the early recipient of information and is exposed to best practices and ideas that she can parlay into innovations and efficiencies for the company.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 1: Network Diagrams for John (top) and Jane (bottom).

The role of brokers has long been an area of study among researchers interested in understanding the mechanics and implications of social networks within organizations. Their collective findings have established a clear relationship between brokerage and positive outcomes for individuals, teams, and organizations (cf., Brass, 1984, Brass, Galaskiewicz, Greve, & Tsai, 2004, Burt, 2002, Fleming, Mingo, & Chen, 2007, Granovetter, 1983, Kilduff & Brass, 2010). They have shown that the presence of structural holes within organizational networks creates opportunities to bridge gaps and thereby produce new ideas and innovations (Burt, 2004). Individual brokers enjoy exclusive access to non-redundant resources, information, and perspectives. This access affords them opportunities to attain greater influence, power, and credibility within their organizations. In turn, “the social capital of [these individual brokers] aggregates into the social capital of organizations” (Burt, 1992, p. 58). The innovations and improvements that brokers produce directly enhance organizational performance, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Less well-studied or understood, however, have been the antecedent factors that determine which employees seek out and bridge structural holes. Questions remain concerning such topics as: who is predisposed to assume the role of network broker within organizations; which organizational network brokers are most effective at creating social capital and transforming their connections and knowledge into insights and innovations; and what motivates successful brokers to engage in these activities? Scholars increasingly recognize the importance of personality and organizational context to answering these questions, yet few studies have been conducted that directly test the nuances behind brokerage antecedents (cf., Burt et al., 1998, Andersson, 2012, Bowler & Brass, 2006, Flynn, Reagans, Amanatullah, & Ames, 2006, Han, 1996). My research expanded upon the few prior studies into the antecedents of brokerage behavior, by investigating why certain employees, like Jane, choose to act as brokers within their organizational networks and why others, like John, do not. Examining both individual and organizational context variables, I aimed to identify whether specific traits and environments are common amongst network brokers.

By studying personality and contextual factors, my research addresses specific gaps within the existing body of knowledge about organizational networks and offers insights to academics as well as practitioners regarding the core antecedents for brokerage activities. Organizations interested in promoting brokering behavior can be better equipped, based on my findings, to identify and target likely candidates to act as brokers within their own networks. By doing so, they can establish highly effective groups of individuals who are naturally interested in and adept at brokering and, subsequently, reap the benefits that have been previously confirmed to accompany this behavior, including creativity, innovation, productivity gains, and performance improvements. Brokerage has been tested and proven to be a crucial, yet often unrecognized and unsupported, activity within organizations. My research delineates predispositions for such behavior and provides concrete guidance on ways that organizations can most effectively encourage and support it.

Based upon results from prior research, I hypothesized that a combination of personality and organizational context variables would inform brokerage behavior. I expected that specific traits, including adjustment, ambition, sociability, interpersonal sensitivity, and inquisitiveness, and drivers, including the need for power, recognition, commerce, altruism, and affiliation, would correlate with brokerage. These traits suggest desires to engage with and learn from others and to develop social capital in order to advance professionally – all activities commonly associated with brokerage. I further expected that brokers would align more frequently with certain types of organizations than others. Those organizations predominately driven by innovation and agility or by competition and continuous improvement seemed more likely to be cultures within which brokers would thrive. Meanwhile those organizations that valued uniformity and hierarchy or tight-knit community would more likely discourage or reduce opportunities to broker.

I tested the variables within my hypotheses using a survey that included a combination of instruments, including the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI), and Hogan Development Survey (HDS). The assessment scales were comprised of specific characteristics and motivators, against which I compared those who engaged in brokerage behavior to identify correlated traits. In addition, I considered variables related to the organizational environment, to determine whether specific cultural or position factors correlated with brokerage. These environmental variables were measured using the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI), a validated tool that classifies respondent organizations into one of four cultural types: Clan, Adhocracy, Market, or Hierarchy (OCAI Online, 2013). To identify brokers amongst the respondents, I administered a Social Network Analysis Survey that enabled creation of an ego network and calculation of brokerage tendency for each respondent.

Analysis & Results

Each of the instruments used in the survey methodology was pre-validated for statistical relevance. The HPI, MVPI, and HDS, used to measure the temperamental components, are peer-reviewed personality profiling instruments that have been applied over two million times, across more than 400 jobs and job families, and have been validated through more than 700 empirical research studies (Hogan Assessment Systems, 2013). The OCAI, used to measure organizational culture and structure, is a validated tool that categorizes organizations into one of four cultural types: Clan, Adhocracy, Market, or Hierarchy (OCAI Online, 2013). The brokerage components, meanwhile, were captured using a Social Network Analysis Survey with questions previously used and found to be valid and reliable. After collecting survey information from seventeen (17) respondents, the data was aggregated, exported, and interpreted using various social network and statistical analysis tools. Ego networks were created and brokerage scores calculated, using a mean of Degree, Network Size, Betweenness, and Clustering Coefficient. The brokerage, culture, and personality percentile scores were subsequently interpreted using statistical analysis methods. The statistical tests conducted included means, alpha reliability coefficients, and correlations between brokerage scores and the independent variables [i.e., personality traits, position, and organizational culture].

Personality Antecedents

The analyses yielded valuable, indicative insights about the antecedents to brokerage. From the personality characteristic data, both direct and inverse correlations were uncovered. As depicted in Figure 2, the personality trait with the greatest positive correlation to brokerage was Interpersonal Sensitivity. This trait is described by the Hogan Assessment as “concern[ing] being agreeable, considerate, and skilled at maintaining relationships,” demonstrating “tact [and] perceptiveness” (Hogan Assessment Systems, 2014b). Those in possession of higher scores of Interpersonal Sensitivity are more likely to develop and maintain relationships with a wider range of people. They possess skill at getting along with others and mediating the politics and conflict that often arise in organizational cultures. From this natural inclination, such people are more likely to become adept brokers. Additionally, Inquisitiveness proved to be highly correlated to brokerage. The Hogan Assessment describes this trait as “concern[ing] being curious, imaginative, visionary, and easily bored,” with a predisposition for “creative potential” (Hogan Assessment Systems, 2014b). As with those ranking high in Interpersonal Sensitivity, those with high Inquisitiveness scores naturally are predisposed to seek out varied relationships. From these diverse connections, individuals develop far-reaching networks and become brokers within their organizations.

The data also revealed traits that predispose individuals against being effective brokers. These traits included Skepticism and Reserve. The Hogan Assessment describes Skepticism as “concern[ing] being socially insightful, but cynical and overly sensitive to criticism… and expecting betrayal” (Hogan Assessment Systems, 2014a). It describes Reserve as “concern[ing] lacking interest in or awareness of the feelings of others,” being “aloof [and] uncommunicative” (Hogan Assessment Systems, 2014a). Those possessing high degrees of Skepticism and Reserve are less likely to intentionally or naturally seek out new relationships. They demonstrate suspicion of others’ motives, introversion, and iciness. Such behaviors distance them from others and reduce their motivations to develop extensive networks.

Figure 3

Figure 2: Supporting and Inhibiting Personality Antecedents to Brokerage

Positional Antecedents

In addition to personality traits, the results also indicated increasing brokerage tendencies as individuals progressed into the management ranks of their organizations. As shown in Figure 3, those with the highest Brokerage scores were in Upper Management roles. The next highest were those in Middle Management, and those with the third highest were in Frontline Management. These findings reflect the growing importance of relationships to success as individuals transitioned from roles as individual contributors into management. Among the higher ranks, employees are required to interact and get along with an expanding number of people, across various departments, divisions, functions, and business units. No longer can they remain entrenched in a silo mindset.

Figure 4

Figure 3: Position Antecedents to Brokerage

Cultural Antecedents

A final aspect revealed in the results concerned organizational culture and structure. Among the four types of organizations identified in the OCAI, those individuals associated with Hierarchies displayed higher Betweenness Centrality scores than did those in Market, Adhocracy, or Clan cultures (refer to Figure 4). The OCAI describes the Hierarchy culture as:

a formalized and structured work environment. Procedures decide what people do. Leaders are proud of their efficiency-based coordination and organization. Keeping the organization functioning smoothly is most crucial. Formal rules and policy keep the organization together. The long-term goals are stability and results, paired with efficient and smooth execution of tasks. Trustful delivery, smooth planning, and low costs define success. The personnel management has to guarantee work and predictability. (OCAI Online, 2013)

Given the rigid structure and established rules governing the Hierarchy culture, it is more likely than others to create structural holes and provide opportunities for brokerage. Within a hierarchy, workers are more likely to follow well-defined chains of command, reporting to specific supervisors and not engaging more fluidly, as one would in matrixed and less formal organizations. Within the Market, Adhocracy, and Clan cultures, meanwhile, various characteristics predispose employees against brokerage. In Market and Adhocracy cultures, policies and reporting structures are less institutionalized. Results, risk-taking, and innovation are emphasized. In such cultures, employees are more likely to work across structural lines, participate in cross-functional teams, and reach out to colleagues for support. In Clan cultures, the emphasis is on commonality, bonding, and relationships. In each of these three cultures, the majority of workers are encouraged and expected to form varied relationships across the organization. As a result, fewer structural holes and, in turn, fewer opportunities to broker are available.

Figure 5

Figure 4: Cultural Antecedents to Brokerage

Other Factors

Overlaying and complementing these quantitative findings, open-ended questions about the primary supports for and barriers against brokerage yielded similar themes. As indicated in Figure 5, respondents identified knowledge sharing, physical proximity, cross-departmental projects, and individual personality as crucial brokerage enablers. As one respondent explained, brokerage is supported through “on-demand knowledge sharing, i.e., we pick up the phone or send group emails across departmental lines to get the advice and resources necessary to complete a deliverable effectively.” Another cited the role of leadership support, noting that “having management place an emphasis on this is very helpful.” Simple proximity proved to be either a strong help or significant hindrance to brokerage. As one participant explained, in his organization, “physical proximity is helpful in building relationships. Our office is divided over two floors, and one can go weeks or months without seeing someone who works on the other floor.” This participant also noted another theme, cross-departmental projects, as a key support. “Opportunities to collaborate on projects also help building relationships with others. When we have particularly demanding projects or resource constraints, we often share resources across teams, and this interaction creates or enhances relationships.”

Figure 6

Figure 5: What helps your effectiveness at building relationships with people from outside of your immediate work group?

The primary brokerage inhibitors that respondents cited are depicted in Figure 6. The two most frequently noted obstacles were internal siloing and schedules. One participant observed that, “the larger organization (outside of my department) is very siloed so it is often hard to know who to connect with.” Another explained that “workload does not call for a lot of time to socialize during the work day or leave your work area. Everyone is busy so there is not a lot of time for cross-team building.” Without encouragement and incentives in place to prioritize connection, the demands of daily work superseded brokerage as a priority.

Figure 7

Figure 6: What hinders your effectiveness at building relationships with people from outside of your immediate work group?

Limitations

The findings from my research thus suggest that personality, position, and cultural factors act as antecedents to brokerage behavior in organizational networks. Yet, certain limitations impede regarding the results as definitive. The primary restrictions relate to the sampling technique and sample size used for the study. Because the sampling technique relied upon voluntary participation, some inherent bias existed which would not if a random sample had been employed. The results did not include a comprehensive cross-section that represented all possible industry, role, and tenure groups. Additionally, the requirement for participants to have previously completed the Hogan Assessment potentially skewed the data set towards those with particular personalities, those who work within particular organizational settings, those employed within particular organizational roles, and those who are more tenured or senior than the average employee. Meanwhile, with a sample size of just 17 respondents, below the target of 30, the results are less compelling. Given these constraints, the findings from the survey are more indicative than conclusive and suggest the need for further research in this area using a larger sample size.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Despite its limitations, the findings from this study suggest that brokerage activity is impacted by specific personality, position, and organizational context antecedents. Specifically, brokerage is more likely among those individuals with higher predispositions to Interpersonal Sensitivity and Inquisitiveness and less likely among those with higher predispositions to Reserve and Skepticism. Also, those in more senior positions, particularly within hierarchical organizations, are more likely to engage in brokerage. These results advance the knowledge about brokerage antecedents by narrowing in on more precise traits, as opposed to broad domains, such as the Big Five (i.e., openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).

To further build upon these results, it is recommended that similar studies be conducted using larger sample sizes that span a broader spectrum of industries. Further research would address the questions that linger in this study, such as whether the findings are indicative only of the small subset of workers surveyed and whether other traits also are correlated to brokerage. Such studies would help to determine more definitively the antecedents to brokerage in organizational networks.

For learning and organizational change practitioners and the organizations that they serve, however, these findings equip them to more effectively promote innovation and creativity, drive strategic outcomes, and enhance performance and productivity. With this knowledge about brokerage antecedents, they are empowered to act more strategically when planning programs to encourage the activity. Rather than broadly touting networking and brokerage among employees en masse, they should target and incentivize particular individuals who exhibit the personality traits associated with successful brokerage – those high in Interpersonal Sensitivity and Inquisitiveness and low in Skepticism and Reservedness. Likewise, they should assess their specific organizational cultures to determine whether their environments encourage or stifle network brokerage. The findings may lead to more effective, proven methods for organizations and change practitioners to achieve their desired outcomes.

References

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OCAI Online. (2013). Organizational culture assessment instrument online. Retrieved from http://www.ocai-online.com/

Appendix

Appendix A: Correlations between Personality and Brokerage

Appendix 1

Appendix B: Descriptive Statistics

Appendix 2

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