Reconnecting When Network Ties Go Dormant

Reviving a professional relationship isn’t as simple as it looks. New research uncovers three key elements for successfully refreshing an inactive tie — and avoiding disastrous missteps.

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Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR

We’ve known for a while that relationships that have fallen into a state of inactivity — or become dormant tiescan be resurrected. As people venture back into professional social settings after having experienced pandemic-induced disconnection, they are particularly keen to revive these inactive ties. Such connections have the potential to be incredibly valuable: During the period of dormancy, former contacts have been learning new things and developing new networks that could yield advice, referrals, emotional support, and even tangible resources.

We used to assume that reawakening a dormant tie was a simple process — just, you know, reach out and start talking to people. This view presumes that people can simply reengage as if no time has elapsed.

However, new research shows that the process of reviving a dormant tie is more complex than that. Simple mistakes can derail the reconnection process, sometimes so dramatically as to cause a relationship to end. For instance, one of us was with an innovation manager at a convention immediately after a former colleague had made a poorly executed attempt at reconnection. “Unbelievable. Did you hear what he asked me?” this manager said. “I will never talk to that guy again!” Less dramatically, dormant contacts will sometimes seem friendly when responding to an overture (“Well, it was great to see you”) but later admit that they were holding back and felt reluctant to fully engage, collaborate with, or share what they know with the other person.

Why are some reconnection attempts so suboptimal or even downright harmful? And what makes some reconnections more successful than others? We investigated these questions by observing and interviewing managers to understand how to refresh a level of trust in ways that benefit both parties.

The Three Key Elements of Reconnection

Over the course of several years, our research has included observing dozens of real-time reconnections at industry conventions and conducting 71 interviews with executives across the textile industry in Northern Italy. We identified three elements consistently associated with successful reconnections: how well both parties remember each other, how they go about catching up, and whether they perceive the relationship similarly. We developed a model of reconnections that result in activity where one or both parties obtain resources through the tie, such as a productive collaboration or useful advice.


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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
Although written mainly with a business and professional application in mind, this article has relevance in broader social and family situations as well.  
Stuart Roehrl