Work cliques can blind you to the future

Alina Dizik | Aug 04, 2017

It is widely known that people discount income and other rewards that will be delayed into the future. This temporal discounting is typically attributed to human frailties or personal weaknesses, such as a person’s impatience or immaturity—but research by Chicago Booth’s Ronald S. Burt suggests it’s a characteristic of the social network around an individual.

Whether you’re meeting the same few colleagues for lunch or constantly socializing with a select group, keeping a close-knit circle of coworkers can create comfort and trust—but also this discounting as a by-product. Discounting occurs when people pay less attention to events that will happen in the future than to events happening in the present or near future. People in close-knit groups have to manage the simultaneous demands of interconnected colleagues, and they can end up focusing disproportionately on what’s going on day to day.

Burt tracked the work-related social networks of 852 managers at three organizations: a computer manufacturer, a financial-services company, and a commercial bank. In each instance, employees answered questions about meetings among colleagues, and were ranked by achievement, which allowed Burt to link employees’ social networks with their performance. Managers in close-knit networks showed lower performance, and their activities were more compressed into daily interactions. Managers in these closed networks were more likely to use the present tense instead of the future tense in their explanations, demonstrating less attention to future events. Finally, in an experiment analyzing a class of executive MBA students, Burt finds that the more closed the colleague network around a person, the more the person discounted future events.

The tendency to discount the future extends outside of the office. People without a close-knit circle of friends may think more about the future than people who are part of a social clique, Burt finds. “A person could have an open network in their profession that encourages thinking about long-term work issues, but a closed network in their personal life that compresses time to the exclusion of the future,” he writes.

But if temporal discounting is situational rather than personal, people could be helped to think about the future by changing the social network from within which they view the future. Burt writes, “This isn’t to say that people move instantly in and out of time compression—there must be habits built up if a person is in the same kind of situations again and again—but people who shift from a closed to open network, or vice versa, should show predictable change in time-compressed activities and language.”