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Six degrees of separation? It could be even less


By Graeme Gordon

Many of you will know of the saying that there are only six degrees of separation between you and any other individual on the planet.

This theory was apparently first set out by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, but we are now living on a far more connected planet.

I have come to the conclusion that in today’s digital world, even six degrees are too many – and this has huge implications for the way we interact at work.

This was demonstrated one day last week when, within the space of a few hours, I found otherwise total strangers were in fact only two degrees of separation from me.

Extraordinary meetings

In one case, a couple who sat opposite me at a lunch, it transpired, lived in and owned the apartment directly opposite from where my eldest daughter lived until a few months ago.

The other was when I was waiting for a seminar to start. A lady, who I’d never seen before, approached me and asked if I was Graeme Gordon. Having confirmed I was, she told me she had travelled down to the event from Chester in North West England, and was staying with her sister, whom she discovered was married to the man who drove the taxi I regularly hired to take me home from dinners in the City if they ended late.

No coincidence

Now, I know these may seem like coincidences, but I believe there are very few, if any true coincidences. Furthermore, I have noticed such connections of limited degrees of separation are becoming more and more frequent.

The reason, I believe, is because of our modern way of connecting via social media and the like, together with a significant increase in social mobility. They may even have been there all along but remained hidden as we did not have the means of uncovering them.

What it means for the workplace

In addition to the curiosity factor, our increasing connectivity is likely to have a profound impact on the workplace by potentially fostering a higher level of trust and a better understanding of limitations.

Consider this:

If everyone you meet as a prospective client or member of your company not only has a connection to you of two or three degrees, but also has taken the care to undertake ‘due diligence’ on you, then as soon as you meet them, there will already be a level of trust or distrust. This will be based on your past dealings with the individual or individuals.

What it means for you

To use another well-known phrase, “you only get one chance to make a first impression”. So, if that impression has been made even before you meet, you need to take appropriate action.

If it was a good impression, you need to nurture and build on it, but subtly and carefully. If it was a bad impression, you have two choices: cut the meeting short, or, my preference, grab the nettle as soon as you can by explaining to the other person that you are aware of the connection. Find out why they agreed to the meeting anyway and build on the positives. Then you will know if they are going to be coloured by the first impression throughout your meeting or whether they are willing to let you address it and, hopefully, correct it.

Here’s what I suggest:

When preparing for a meeting with someone for the first time, as part of your research, check for the degree of separation – and don’t forget to address any preconceptions the person may have of you or your firm. Talking about common connections and dealing with any preconceptions in this way should make for the beginning of a great working partnership.